Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Fires

I woke up very early on that Sunday morning and turned on the television to watch the news prior to leaving for work. 6:30am: there was a report of a "small fire" that had started near Pepperdine University sometime in the early hours. Firefighters had it under control. Welcome to Southern California, I thought, shrugged, and left for the day.

Sometime mid-afternoon, a friend in San Diego sent me a text message. There was a fire near her community and smoke was in the air, but nothing to worry about. She was waiting in a bookstore cafe for her youngest daughter as she spent a couple of hours with her aunt. Haha, we said to each other, wasn't that a coincidence. My friend had just recently told me about experiencing the last big fire and even drove me past the scene. Less than an hour later, she messaged again saying that they were closing the bookstore. Smoke was rapidly filling the building and everyone had to leave. Another hour and her oldest daughter was evacuated with her husband and kids from their home farther north near Escondido. The fire lines had cut them off from each other and my friend worried. My poor daughter, she said. I wish she could be with me. The next morning another message came from her: I have to start packing...

That next day, Monday, seven counties in Southern California were on fire, spread over a massive area with astounding rapidity. The news coverage was constant here, and on some channels you could watch - via the television news helicopters - the fire spreading faster than a man could run. (One reporter watched his home of 25 years burn while on the air.) One report played often on the news, local and national, about a fire truck that was engulfed with flames. Four firefighters were injured. Another call from my friend revealed that one of them, a volunteer, was a very close friend of her daughter. She had been hurt badly, the doctors inducing coma until they could treat some of the burns. Everyone was sick about it.

Where I'm staying, Hancock Park, there was only a slight smell of smoke. As I left for the day it reminded me of autumn fires back home, leaves and fireplaces. Driving north toward Burbank I began to see the smoke in the distance. The sky northwest of the Valley was covered in a gray-brown haze. To the West, an enormous column of smoke snaked out of the hills near the ocean, filling the sky over the water and making the setting sun an incredible red disc inside of a brown smear of soot for many days after.

All around us there were fires. San Bernardino, Malibu, Ventura, Rice Canyon, Santiago...In San Diego, the fires came within 2 miles of my friend's home, stopped only by highway 15. The line on the map was striking. It gave me chills to see it so close to her neighborhood, which was also the neighborhood of the first college I attended. Throughout the week, the smoke settled heavily on the Valley. At the Burbank Airport, near the theater where I was working, the planes were still taking off. I'd watch them eerily break through the brown clouds like something out of a sci-fi movie, all sepia-toned cinematography. It was a week of headaches and lethargy and low visibilty. And smoke EVERYWHERE. Early during the week the authorities announced that an historic number of people - 250,000 - had been evacuated. By the end of the week it was close to a million.

My friend didn't have to evacuate. Her home was spared, her daughter's home was spared, her sister's brand new business, a half-million dollar investment not even completely opened and only one mile from my friend's house, was spared, though thieves broke in and stole several pieces of new equipment while the businesses were closed. One of the best pieces of news was that the injured firefighter was much better than reported. Though she was indeed burned, it wasn't as bad as the media made it. She's recovering well. You all know the rest, I'm sure. The firefighters worked themselves to the bone while FEMA held fake news conferences. Governor Schwarzenegger petted dogs and said he wanted to "pump up" those who lost their homes. President Bush swooped in for one of his worthless photo ops. Fingers were pointed on all sides. Too many lost everything.

It's hard to relate what all this looked like. I only experienced the fallout and saw the smoke from a distance. I wasn't near the fires, so I didn't have first hand experience with the center of this overwhelming event. But it was my first experience as a new resident of L.A. with the vitriol this town gets. Too many people on the outside of this disaster shrugged it as another problem of the overpriveleged. So what that Malibu burned. So what if all that high-priced real estate was leveled. And, of course, there are those who believe Southern California deserves such things for being a haven of sin. Say what you will about over-development of southwestern desert areas, or of depletion of the water-table, or poor forestry practices, or natural burn cycles conflicting with human populations. I understand all that and more. Enough of my midwestern, outsider smugness comes out time and time again. But I'm certain there weren't 950,000 celebrities evacuated from their homes. And I'm certain no one deserved any of the fear and devastation.

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