Saturday, September 19, 2015

365 True Things: 174/Fire

This afternoon driving home from the sheriff's substation after a day up north at a meeting, I noticed two plumes of smoke to the east. Over the past couple of hours, they've grown and now give the sky that eerie fire warmth that is at once gorgeous and ominous.

News story shot
A recent news story informs me that the larger one is out Tassajara Road, past Jamesburg (jumping-off point for the Tassajara Zen Center, many, many miles down the road, so not in danger—though within the past decade, the center came very close to being destroyed by fire, and the fire season ain't over yet). The smaller one—caused by a car dragging chains on the main thoroughfare between Monterey and Salinas—is at Laureles Grade/Corral de Tierra, and they've been evacuating homes (one is currently burning). Both fires are still small, 300 and 100 acres, respectively, and our overtaxed firefighters are on the scene.

This morning at the meeting, we were discussing the so-called Valley Fire, currently besetting Lake County, which has destroyed 600 homes and hundreds of other structures and cost three people their lives. So far. It has burnt almost 120 square miles—half of that in a mere 12-hour span—and is currently 48 percent contained.

Living in an urban area, I don't worry about fire too much. But living in California, I'm aware that our topography, not to mention current severe drought conditions, exacerbates the danger that wildfire can bring. I've seen huge plumes of fire, found drifts of ash on my car. I've known people who have lost everything they had.

I've had my own brush with fire as well.

The 1961 fire
When I was almost seven, we had to evacuate because of the Bel-Air Fire, in one of the more affluent areas of Los Angeles. We then lived at the very end of five-mile-long Mandeville Canyon. I remember coming out of school that day and looking at the sky, wondering what was wrong with it. It was beautiful, but so eerie. Glowing and dark and pressing down. And then I saw my mother—which was completely unexpected. My normal routine was to get on the school bus and take the long boring ride along winding Sunset Boulevard and then up our narrow, twisting canyon road.

Seeing my mother under that sky made me feel afraid.

We ended up staying with my parents' best friends in Pacific Palisades that night and the next. My father didn't arrive until later that first evening: he'd hitchhiked up the canyon with some firefighters to retrieve (as my remembered myth goes) his cameras and the dogs. (No, no photo albums.)

The fire was extinguished within a couple of days, but in the meantime such celebrities as actors Burt Lancaster, Joan Fontaine, and Zsa Zsa Gabor, comedian Joe E. Brown, chemist Willard Libby, and composer Lukas Foss lost their homes—along with 478 other families.

Our house was fine: the fire only burnt halfway up our five-mile canyon, and then never encroached beyond backyard fences. 

The next week or fortnight—or whenever we were allowed into the area—my parents and I went on a driving tour of the hilly neighborhood we had moved from the year before. I have strong memories of brick-chimney sentinels standing among charred and melted remains. Our old house was just fine. I blew it a kiss as we drove past.

And the next year: we'd moved to the house in Santa Monica that I now co-own with my brother ☚. The house I really grew up in. My mother sold the Mandeville Canyon house while my father was away on a business trip. She did not want to live at the end of a five-mile canyon. Period. (Yeah, my dad knew she would do it. It wasn't a surprise. I think he ended up pretty happy in his Santa Monica abode.)

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