I write a lot about sexuality, but the recent fires in California have brought something else back to my mind…
The Grand Prix wildfire of 2003, which passed through my front yard. Fourteen years ago today.
There was actually a triangle of firestorms surrounding the Los Angeles basin: the Cedar to the south, the Simi to the west, and the Grand Prix northeast toward San Bernardino. That was closest to me, but it was miles away and headed in the opposite direction when I decided it would be OK to spend the weekend with extended family out of town.
At 8 am, the fire was about 15 miles away.
Caught up in socializing, I forgot to check the news. I could hardly believe it when my neighbors called at 8:30 Saturday evening to say that howling Santa Ana winds had turned the fire our way, forcing evacuation. I coaxed my dog into the car, threw my purse and jumbled belongings in after her, and started out on the country roads that would turn into freeways that would become suburban streets in the foothills where I lived. Among other things, my four cats were still in the house.
About an hour into the drive, I was on the phone with one friend who was trying to Google a pet-friendly hotel when another friend called. She lived even closer to where the fire had first turned west.
“We got our animals and some stuff out,” she said. “Then we went back to get yours, but they wouldn’t let us in.” I heard the catch in her voice. “You wouldn’t have believed it, Lynda. I think our houses are gone!” she cried. I started crying, too. It was unimaginable. Especially since my other pets were still there. Probably not alive.
I started thinking about what else in my home might be lost. Pets were most important. I had favorite pieces of art, clothing, gifts, and of course, ‘important papers’. But in the end, belongings were just things, and documents could be replaced. What could not be replaced were pictures and letters collected since childhood. I had bins of them in the garage.
As I drove, the strong winds buffeted my car and sent branches and trash cans flying across the freeway. The Santa Anas are a particular Southern California phenomenon. Usually in the fall, when high temperatures, drought conditions and miles of dry brush are at their peak, the winds roar down-slope from the desert through mountain passes, bringing even hotter air and extreme wildfire risk. “Devil winds,” some people call them.
When the fire crested the hill next to my house at 10 pm, I was still over an hour away.
Soon I could see that terrifying jagged line of orange along the mountains. When I turned off my exit at 11:45, the road uphill to my neighborhood was blocked with police cars. I pulled up to an officer.
“This area is evacuated, ma’am. You can turn around over there,” he pointed.
“But I live up here,” I said. “My pets are still in the house.”
“I’m sorry, but we have orders not to let anyone in.”
“Has the fire passed by yet?”
“Yeah, about 15 minutes ago. But things are still burning. Go ahead now.” He motioned me on.
I was starting to cry again as I moved toward the U-turn area. I felt helpless. Another officer stood there, and I figured I had nothing to lose. I stopped next to him.
“Is there any way I can get in? My pets are there.” I didn’t have to try to produce tears.
He leaned closer to my window. “There is a back way,” he said quietly. “Just go down a block and then keep turning right. But don’t tell anyone. And get your pets and go, please. It’s not safe.”
“Thank you so much, officer!”
The air was thick with smoke. The power was out, so even our sparse streetlights were of no use. Wind whipped tree branches and sent hot embers swirling. As I made the turns I wondered if I were about to enter into something over my head, maybe even life-threatening. I focused on how I could be as quick and efficient as possible.
At 11:30 pm, the main storm had moved on, but much was still on fire.
How could the sky be lit red-orange, with flaming torches of trees and telephone poles, and yet none of it offered any real visibility between the gray smoke and black of night? All I could see was the dark hulk of the house. In the driveway, I opened the car door only to have it yanked out of my hand by the wind. It pushed me to the front door where I fumbled the key into the lock. I turned left down the hall to my bedroom and into the closet where I felt for a drawer of scarves. I took out a bandana, wet it in the bathroom sink and tied it over my nose and mouth. Then I began calling for my cats. My dog still waited in the car, and I knew she had to be worried; we’d had camping adventures, but nothing like this had ever happened to us before.
My cats were all rescue animals with their own personalities as well as anxieties. I was able to get two of them, but the more feral two had gone up in the garage rafters where even a ladder couldn’t reach. They answered my calls but would not come down. I decided to get the others to safety in the hotel my friend had found and try to come back. At least the house was still standing and the pets were still alive!
An hour later I followed the same routine. The bandana reduced the heat and ash going into my nose and lungs. But the cats would not come down. I turned my attention to several bins in the garage that contained my old letters and photos and loaded as many as I could into my car.
A tree in the front yard still burned, and there were live embers scattering like confetti. I was battling the gale force, trying to use a garden hose to wet down the roof, when I heard a voice, and my next door neighbor appeared. He yelled that he had sent his family out but stayed behind to try to save our homes. He tried to help me with the hose, but the winds just splashed most of the water back on us. Finally, I told him that I had to go to the hotel and get some rest. I didn’t like leaving him and felt sick at the thought of my remaining cats alone, frightened and crying in the garage. I knew there were enough shrubs and trees burning, plus hot cinders being buffeted about, that the house might still be in peril. I wouldn’t know for sure whether they were safe until the next day.
It was 3:30 a.m. by the time the pets in the hotel were soothed, fed and watered. I chugged some water too, then looked in the bathroom mirror. My face was streaked black and my white blouse completely gray with soot. I was exhausted. I thought about the friends and strangers alike who had come to my aid. In spite of that, I had never felt so completely alone.
I slept fitfully for only a couple of hours. Each time I woke, I couldn’t stop thinking about my helpless cats. At first light, I got up, put my dirty clothes back on, and headed out.
My house was next to a dry wash that served as flood control and groundwater collection, with foothills just above and mountains behind them. The conflagration had burned north up the hills and deep into the forest, as well as west through the wash. Along the way it only toyed with my front yard, and all I lost was the one tree. Across the street, a garage was partially burned. One block down, someone had lost several palm trees (which had effectively turned into giant sparklers). Two blocks away, an attic had burned because embers had gotten sucked into the roof fans. What burned vs. what didn’t was largely dictated by the capricious dance of the wind. Some homes just a little higher up were completely lost, and a few people had died. It was sobering to realize that the dead were ones who stayed instead of honoring the evacuation order.
Considering how close the fire passed, there was a surprising lack of smoke in the house. I decided it was livable, turned on an ionic air cleaner, and made one more trip to bring my pets home. The other cats came down and everybody had food and water and reassuring hugs and kisses. My sister took the day off work and came to see if I needed any help, but there really wasn’t much to do but commiserate – and be thankful.
It turned out that my friend’s house was intact as well. A water company employee delivering water to fight the fire had sent a wall of it flying over the most exposed side of her house.
The sky remained a perennial sunset and the air smoke-flavored for weeks. A few hot spots in the wash next door still released plumes of smoke a month later.
My neighbors and I never saw even one firefighter. We grumbled about our suspicion that they were dispatched first to the multi-million-dollar homes higher up. But who knows? This triangle of wildfires that lasted three weeks was called a “fire siege,” the largest that Southern California had ever seen. Resources were tapped beyond their limits.
In the end, my home, my pets and I were all OK. So were the mementos from the garage that I had loaded into my car. It would likely be years before the right combination of factors – drought, dry brush, high temps, Santa Ana winds, and a careless camper or an arsonist – could bring the fire right to my front door again.
But would I be ready?
Fourteen years later, I have a fire safe where I keep important papers, a few books of poetry that included my first publications, and some CDs and flash drives of some favorite old photos and letters. I replaced my composition roof with fire-resistant metal. My pets all lived out their lives, but now I have a new rescue kitty who is skittish and might be difficult to scoop into a travel bag; she is not allowed in the garage.
I know it’s hard to anticipate what the circumstances might be, but after seeing what happened in Santa Rosa, I would really think twice about defying the evacuation order. Some people are not lucky enough to get it in time.
Are you ready for natural (or unnatural, e.g., arson) disaster? And if not, what can you do to get ready?
After the flames died down – and Los Angeles skies remained orange/red for days.
Photographs by Wayne Stines