THERE’S something about the smell of a wildfire on the crisp, dry wind of October in Southern California that instantly transports me back to my days as a kid reporter in the “Inland Empire.” It was the early 1990s and I was working for the Riverside Press-Enterprise in the far-flung bureau of Banning (near the Morongo Casino and those life-sized dinosaurs). My beat stretched for miles and included the wide pass area and the adjacent stretches of San Bernardino mountains on one side, the San Jacinto mountains on the other. I soon discovered that this near-desert territory had four distinct seasons – winter, spring, summer and fire. Whenever the Santa Ana winds would come roaring through the pass in late summer and autumn, anything remotely hot could spark a fire. A cigarette tossed out of a speeding car on Interstate 10, the sparks from an arcing transformer, or the lightning from frequent, freaky flash-rain storms. One time, a devastating fire was inadvertently set by someone’s lawn mower. But the gigantafires that we experienced this week and four years ago in Southern California are part of a new and not so happy phenomenon, one likely to become common in the 21st century. In particularly fortuitous moment, “60 Minutes” aired a segment last Sunday night about megafires in the American Southwest even as one was forming in Southern California. I rarely watch the show, but had just spent two hours glued to live news coverage of the fires and didn’t have the energy to change the channel when the program began. Good thing, because it helped put in context the conflagrations exploding all around me. At the time of the firestorms of 2003, in which 22 people died and more than 3,000 buildings were destroyed, this type of monster blaze seemed an aberration brought on by a rare confluence of just the right factors. Apparently, I was wrong. Tom Boatner, chief of fire operations for the federal government, told the newsmagazine that fires are getting bigger and worse. In reference to a blaze this summer in Idaho, he said: “A fire of this size and this intensity in this country would have been extremely rare 15, 20 years ago. They’re commonplace these days.” Environmentalists and fire officials are noting that the megafires are a result of the perfect storm of a climate change, overenthusiastic land management, massive development and super-dry conditions that make the wet season shorter and the fire season longer. “Fires are burning hotter and bigger, becoming more damaging and dangerous to people and to property,” U.S. Forest Service Chief Gail Kimbell told the San Francisco Chronicle last week. “Each year the fire season comes earlier and lasts longer.” What does this all mean? Clearly, it means Southern California, and in fact all of the Southwest, should get used to regular firestorms, just as the people of the Banning pass used to be used to the regular, and now comparatively mild brush fires of yore. Mariel Garza is a columnist and editorial writer for the Los Angeles Daily News. She blogs at www.insidesocal.com/friendlyfire. Write to her by e-mail at [email protected] local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREGame Center: Chargers at Kansas City Chiefs, Sunday, 10 a.m.As the cops reporter, part of my responsibility was covering the region’s fires. During fire season, I often came home reeking of smoke after chasing California Department of Forestry crews down bumpy fire roads in the middle of the night, trying to get a handle on what was burning. Even for years after I stopped covering fires, that smell, like 1,000 crackling campfires, still had the power to wake me up in the middle of the night, ready to throw on some old jeans, jump into my car and follow the smoke. This musing does actually have a point, one that seems awfully relevant as much of Southern California was so recently reduced to a smoldering cinder. And this is it: Although I spent most of my life in Southern California – my younger years in the badly burned San Diego, and many of my adult ones chasing brush fires around Riverside and San Bernardino counties – I have never experienced anything like the firestorms of 2004 or 2007. Never. Not that I didn’t want to. The unfortunate truth about journalists is that – shamefully, secretly – part of us wants every bad situation to get worse. It just makes for a better story. But, thankfully, that never happened. The few “devastating” fires I’ve covered ate up a few isolated mountain communities and relatively little acreage, which bounced back within a couple of years. And sure, California has had some bad fires, like the Old Topanga Fire in which more than 200 homes burned in Malibu, and the Oakland Hills fire. Those fires were notable, however, not because they were huge, but because they occurred in such heavily populated areas.