On July 17, motorists on California’s Interstate 15 were treated to a strange sight. A raging wildfire seemed to be getting closer and closer to the road. It wasn’t long before one vehicle went up in flames. Then another.

“The fire…quickly grew to 3,500 acres, and shut down the highway in both directions. By evening, it had destroyed 20 vehicles and at least four homes,” the Los Angeles Times reported.

“I've never seen anything like this before,” California Highway Patrol Officer Steve Carapia said.

This is by now a depressingly familiar story. California -- much of the American west in general -- has become so dry thanks to years of drought that natural disasters such as this seem not only unavoidable but inevitable.

Water, of course, has always been a contentious issue in California, particularly in Los Angeles.

To some, the original sin took place back in 1913, when LA’s water aqueduct opened. To many it was an engineering marvel, bringing water from hundreds of miles away so that Los Angeles could blossom into a thriving world capital.

But others viewed this as a dirty, unnecessary plunder of surrounding regions, enriching the area’s elites, all the while robbing others of a much-needed natural resource.

At the center of all this was an Irish immigrant named William Mulholland, the man largely credited with envisioning and designing the aqueduct -- and for some, the original sinner in the west’s lengthy water wars.

Throughout the 1920s, Mulholland’s opponents railed against him, with some resorting to violence. Explosives were once detonated at a critical section of the aqueduct, masked men kidnapped guards and a ragtag militia consisting of 70 men seized control of the aqueduct and cut off the water flow.

It’s no surprise, then, that by the time the Hollywood classic Chinatown was made, in 1974, a key character based on Mulholland was seen as the fall guy for the dirty dealings depicted in the film.

A new book, however, is looking to correct history’s view of Mulholland who -- whether you see him as a good guy or bad guy -- is certainly a fascinating figure, and the walking embodiment of the American Dream. The world famous Mulholland Drive in LA, home to the rich and famous, was named after William.

“The truth is that without William Mulholland there might never have become a place named Hollywood, or a film industry within that place, or a carpet of San Fernando Valley lights to stare out over from a road along the mountaintops at night, and that is just a small part of what he made possible,” writes Les Standiford in his new book Water to the Angels: William Mulholland, His Monumental Aqueduct, and the Rise of Los Angeles.

The book seeks to take a more balanced, even-handed look at Mulholland, who was born in Belfast before returning to the city of his parents’ birth, Dublin. Mulholland left Ireland at 15 and spent a few years at sea with the British Navy before moving to New York City. He then crossed the continent, working in a dry goods store in Pittsburgh, as a lumberjack in Michigan and as a miner in Arizona.

The self-educated Mulholland arrived in LA in 1877 before landing a job as -- of all things -- a ditch cleaner for a private water company. He slowly worked his way up, eventually becoming head of the Department of Water and Power.

It was in this position that he planned and conceived the aqueduct that would transport water from the Owens River -- 200 miles from LA -- over the objections of locals who had their own plans for the water.

Though history has been hard on this Irishman -- especially after the deadly collapse of the St. Francis Dam in 1928, which Mulholland had personally inspected, and which left some 600 people dead -- Standiford as well as Mulholland’s surviving family believe he merits a more nuanced look.

“More than a century ago, William Mulholland tried to persuade a burgeoning LA populace to come to its water senses,” Standiford wrote recently in the Los Angeles Times.

“Mulholland…is often portrayed as an imperious water thief, but the record shows him to be the city's original conservation advocate and a champion of sustainability, whose deeds and practices merit a closer look in these troubled times.”

* Contact Sidewalks at tdeignan.blogspot.com.

William Mulholland.