Sex Is Hot, but Fire Is Hotter

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

65 thoughts on “Sex Is Hot, but Fire Is Hotter

    • Yeah, it was pretty crazy! Luckily I and mine survived, and I’m better prepared now (and would never again travel with the fire that near). Thanks for reading!


    • I am the type of guy who waits until it starts to rain before realizing my windshield wipers need to be replaced, so I would be caught by surprise if a natural disaster were to hit. I am a firm believer in hoping for the best, but expecting the worst, and yet major or natural disasters seem to be less of a threat to me as opposed to getting in an auto accident or attacked by someone.


      • Well, the truth is that an auto accident is more likely than a natural disaster, but better to be prepared for both! By the way, I’m the same about my windshield wipers, but my wildfire taught me a big lesson!


  1. Thanks for sharing your experience. Sometimes we don’t realize how real and life threatening these situations are because we don’t live near by or know someone in those areas.


    • Anyone can be in a life-threatening situation in a heartbeat, whether fire, earthquake, hurricane, accident, crime, etc. It does pay to think ahead to how we want to react!


  2. I’m so sorry to hear about your experience, but I do think that it is a good idea for everyone to invest in a safe to keep important documents or heartfelt items that you don’t want to lose. I don’t think many people prepare themselves for disasters but we should. Thanks for sharing your story.


  3. Amazing writing! I got emotional reading it. It felt like I was in that situation. I’m glad to hear that you, your pets, and belongings are okay. Thank you for sharing, I’m sure that wasn’t easy.


    • Thank you! I guess that’s the kind of writer I hoped I could be – one who makes you feel as if you are there!


  4. This writing had me speechless, it felt as if I was living each and every second of the experience with you. I’m sorry you had to go through something like that, but I know you are more prepared if something as such ever happens again. Those moments are always a scare, but the second you are out of them, you feel thankful and grateful for all that you have…


    • I do feel grateful for what I have. AND I have taken some precautions to hopefully not be quite so vulnerable next time.


  5. I feel deeply sorry for your lost in the past. The writing is so realistic and I got emotional when I was reading it. You have shown some real courage when this incident happened. Glad to know that you were able to protect your precious ones. Great writing!


  6. Your writing always inspires me. A natural diaster can happen to anyone, reading something like this make me thankful what I’ve got. Unfortunately, we can’t stop natural diasters. The only thing we could do is to plan ahead for diasters.


  7. You are an inspiration. Life has showed you many colors and you share that with us. Thank you. Glad things turned out good for you. You are a brave woman who teaches us that anything can happen at any given time. We must be prepared.


    • Preparation for so many things is important! From dangers like fire or a break-in, to having enough money for retirement, to how we can heal when our hearts are broken.


  8. I cannot fathom the thoughts and feelings you must of had during this horrible time. I am glad to hear that you, your pets, and home were okay in the end. I cannot even begin to imagine how it must feel to be in that situation. However, I think it is important to always be prepared for the WORST. Thanks for sharing your story!


    • It was quite harrowing! I’m just lucky that I didn’t lose anything of value – or my life! I did, however, find some letters from my first love, and then got in touch with him. That was fun!


  9. This is insane and extremely frightening. It sounded like it was right out of a book. I’m so glad that the fire didn’t harm any of your pets and that you were able to salvage a lot of your keepsakes. And most importantly that you were able to escape on time! What’s more amazing is that you got back on your feet despite your losses and even made fireproof adjustments to your house to fight any future fires. I know here in California we’re beginning to have more earthquakes, and it doesn’t really bother me but after reading this I think I should be more willing to start preparing for the worst cases. Because usually I would just continue to lay in my bed while the house sways.


    • Very important to think about any natural disasters or emergencies we might encounter. I’ll give you another example of some preparation I did. I used to walk in Griffith Park with a friend, and sometimes on lonely paths we encountered a sketchy-looking man. So we devised a plan in case anyone ever became threatening to us. We never needed to use the plan, but it was there.


  10. These type of situations are insane to think about and very life threatening. It was an amazing read and the visuals I was getting in my head really made me feel like I was able to experience a little bit of it for myself. Im sorry for that you had to go through that, but now you are more prepared and stronger for a natural disaster.


  11. You are so brave for going back to your home and trying to get your kitties and belongings! Having a fire safe is a very smart thing to do. Great story professor!


  12. Hey Professor I feel that I can relate to this story because of my experience of the Thomas fire in the past years. I had never experienced anything so terrifying until the fire hit. My house was a less than a block away from getting burned and the only thing I could see was a thick cloud of black smoke and a very bright orange glow.


  13. A wonderful read, thankfully I have never experienced the California Fires like this, however this is a great reminder that I should be more prepared in the case of an emergency like this.


    • So true, and there are other kinds of emergencies to be prepared for – depending where you live, earthquake, flood, tsunami, and anywhere one can experience a break-in, accident, etc.


    • Theoretically I guess I knew it could happen. But I was really unprepared. To me the fire still seemed far away when I left town. But I was unaware of how fast it can move in the Santa Ana winds.


  14. You were so strong to head into your house for your pets. I would’ve done the same. Fires are really terrible to endure. We live in SoCal where fires often occur, but I can’t imagine how the fires are in Australia right now. I’m very glad that you, your pets, and all documents and pictures made it safely through the fire. I’m still in awe.


  15. Wow, that is very terrifying but also really amazing and brave of you to come back home to save your pets. I wouldn’t know what I would’ve done if I was in your situation. Speaking of fires, the recent wildfires in California, Amazon and Australia are really heartbreaking as well. So many homes were destroyed and animals killed… They’re definitely a constant reminder of how our actions have been continuously harming the environment..


  16. This post definitely hit the spot. My family was evacuated 2 years ago during the Wolsey fire. I watched from our room in Pomona and my anxiety was at an all time high. First my cousins called saying they got evacuated from their apartment and are now at my parents house then my aunt called saying the same thing. I was getting worried but at the same time I felt a bit ok since my cousins and aunt lived across the freeway from my parents and were a good 5-15 minutes away driving wise. I said there’s no way a fire can jump the freeway! Boy was I wrong. As I anxiously watched the TV I saw that evacuation sites were closer to my parents. I drove from Pomona to Westlake speeding all the way and during my drive what I saw was unbelievable. All the fire surrounding me from the valley to Calabasas was something like out of the movies. People probably thought I was crazy being the one of the few cars driving towards the fire and not away. Police did not give a damn I was speeding then. This was at 3 something in the morning. I got to my parents house and we starting packing my car. Dogs and rabbits, important documents and such. I grabbed all that I could think of that were irreplaceable such as pictures and letters, a guitar and a wedding dress lol. We got kicked out by police and we all drove to my house. 1 hour and about 3-4 cars later, our house was full of family and animals. Sadly my family was visiting from Canada and their trip was not exactly going as planned. My grandma had just turned 100 and we had a huge party planned for her just a few days after the fire started, there that went. We spent the next few days glued to the TV waiting for updates and hoping that our houses were still ok! Which thank god they were. Air quality was still awful after the fires subsided but the houses were ok! Now my parents have luggage’s ready since there have been fire threats here and there since. I, on the other hand, am not as ready as I should be. Now I really should be fire ready and earthquake ready just in case because nowadays you never now. You’d think I would’ve learned from the first time but I didn’t.


    • Wow, what a story! Don’t beat yourself up for not being ready – but use that as motivation to start getting ready, even if it takes awhile.


  17. I thought that this was going to be a grim story from beginning to end. But your were able to make a happy and reflective ending for the reader.


  18. Wildfires in Southern California are scary to say the least, facing the fear that all your belongings and beloved memories could go up in flames in a second. Scared to be left with nothing. Reading this blog took me back to when the hell fires erupted in my own southern california community. Rushing to grab the things we hold dearest to us, my family and I were forced from our home and sent to live with my aunt for the month in San Diego. When my school petitioned to hold off the beginning of the school year, senior year of high school felt like a warped reality. Personally I can’t say that I would be ready in the event of a wildfire, but after reading your blog I want to become fire-ready, so that in the event of a fire, my girlfriend, rescue kitten, and I could remain safe.


    • Yours is a scary story, too! I hope you do become as fire-ready as possible, so that the things you hold dear survive.


  19. Reading your post was really scary and your close encounter was really terrifying but I really applaud you for going back and saving your pets from a fiery death. Its very good that your house wasn’t touched at all from the fire though, I would literally call it a miracle. Your story reminds me of the time when it was raging on and my father decided he wanted to see a close encounter with it so when he had picked up my older sister from the library, he went straight for the fire, and all my sister was able to tell me was that she say trees burning and the sky gray from smoke and they had to turn back once they saw a police block up ahead. They got back off safely, but my mom did yell at my dad for taking my sister to such a dangerous spot.


    • Yes, that was risky of your dad. I did stop at one point on the way to take my pets to the motel, an overpass over the wash that was burning. I wanted to take a picture, but before I found my camera the police came and chased us away. It would have been an awesome photo. But safety was more important.


  20. Wow, i had anxiety reading this entry!
    It’s terrifying how unpredictable these fires can be. I have 4 dogs in my home and worry about how we would do in a natural disaster. Im planning on getting a first aid kit, and other necessities in case a disaster happens. It’s always sad losing pictures or anything we own/ worked for, but we must always be grateful for having our health and loved ones!


    • Definitely get your stuff together (not just first aid, but what some call a “go bag” – essentials you would need if you had to run, like medications, etc.) And work on a plan for you and your dogs. Having a plan beforehand means things will go more smoothly if it ever happens.


  21. Professor Hoggan,

    You are a brave woman. I don’t think I would have gone back for the cats. I would have tried to get out of burning fires as soon as possible. Thank God nothing happened to you.


  22. Wow, this read felt like I was on a roller coaster. The way you wrote this had me sitting at the edge of my chair the entire time, filled with suspense, reading tirelessly as if the words were to disappear before I can digest what the story entailed. I have been grateful throughout my 19 years of life to not have to endure this anxiety (at least yet anyways) but I am so relieved that there was a happy ending after all. I can only imagine the feeling of knowing your footprint to be wiped as if your life has no worth. I am also rooting for the one officer that helped direct you the back way to access your home, he is the real MVP. So glad to hear you, along with your pets and memories, are okay. Great pointing out your new fire safe as well! Something I have never thought of, but am grateful to have learned about moving forward.


    • I love your reaction to my story! That’s what any writer wants, to create interest and excitement in the reader. And you’re right about that officer – maybe it wasn’t the safest response, but it was the empathic response.


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