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Mon

01

Dec

2008

Dante, Virgil and me
Monday, 01 December 2008 09:58
by Ed Naha

I’m afraid of fire. Not in the Frankenstein monster sense - I don’t growl and toss furniture if someone lights a cigar near me or if a dwarf prods me with a torch. (Hmmm. Well, maybe I’d toss the dwarf.) But, if I see flames more than five feet high that are not attached to a fireplace or a drunkard’s barbecue, then my ponytail assumes Afro position.

I live in Santa Barbara, California.

Last week, it caught fire.

I was afraid.

In the span of twenty-four hours, I evacuated my wife and dogs from our home, spent a night in a Red Cross center sitting in a twenty-year-old station wagon while watching the flames spread, mutated into an inadvertent Google sensation and almost became a Fox News darling. It was more frightening than listening to Sarah Palin.

In the end, my family and my home emerged unscathed. 210 other families were not as lucky.

I’ve seen my share of fires out here, but this one was truly intense. On Thursday, the thirteenth, I took my nightly stroll at dusk and smelled smoke. I cut the walk short and came back home, turning on the local TV news. Nothing.

I went back into my office and started working. About 5:45, a hammer of wind smashed into the backyard with enough force to slam all the house screen inserts shut. We get Sundowner winds here, sort of like Santa Ana’s on crack. They come out of the desert, hit the mountains like a tsunami and howl through the valleys - banshees heading for the ocean, raising temperatures ten or twenty degrees after sunset in a matter of minutes.


I just had a feeling something was up, something bad. I still had boxes all around the house from a big fire last July and began filling them with photos, insurance documents, banking stuff and memorabilia of our dogs of yesteryear. I turned on the local news. Nothing.

Finally, about 6:10, the local station cut to an emerging fire. It looked like Pompeii. It started in the hills above neighboring Montecito and was heading in several directions at once, none of them promising. Wind gusts of 70 mph were sending flames and embers spiraling hundreds of feet into the air.

I called my wife, who was having dinner with a friend. She knows I’m paranoid about fire so, when I informed her of the Hellish goings-on, I’m pretty sure she thought it was me just being me. She came home a half-hour later, having seen the fire en route. She packed some clothes. I started bringing our stuff out to the cars, an old Subaru wagon and a ten-year-old Volvo. Dog food. Water. Bowls. Flashlights. Battery-powered radio.

The live footage of the fire was not encouraging. The thing was traveling like a freight train. One of the reporters announced that there was a spot fire, caused by drifting embers, two blocks away from our house. I got my wife and dogs out of there, said I’d finish packing and meet them in the next town in the parking lot of a Vons’ supermarket. I managed to drag a metal dog crate into the stuffed wagon, which now looked like it was ready for Ellie Mae and Granny Clampett to climb onboard, and locked up the house.

It was a strange feeling. Inside, was every book I had ever purchased since the age of 11 (a “Twilight Zone” paperback) as well as every album, CD and 45 rpm I ever listened to. A lifetime of stuff, spanning three states and a dozen domiciles, just sat there waiting to take a hit. The house itself was the first and only one my wife and I owned together. The site of seventeen of our twenty years as a dynamic duo was now in harm’s way.

I took one look behind me.

A massive mushroom cloud of smoke arose, blotting out the moon, a crimson fist of flame blazing within it. Growing up in an oil refinery town, I knew that something had just gone up Big Time.

I drove to the next town and pulled into the Vons’ parking lot. I then realized I had told my wife the wrong supermarket location and didn’t have change for the public phone to contact her. (I don’t own a cell. She does.) A helpful clerk inside the store let me use the store phone and told me that, inadvertently, I had chosen a parking lot across from what would be the Red Cross Evacuation Center – a high school gym. My wife and the dogs met me and we sat until almost midnight in the parking lot, listening to the radio. Since the fire started after dark, nobody knew anything about anything. Plus, radio station after radio station went dark as the fire consumed their transmitting towers.

We finally drove to the evacuation center, which had no facilities for dogs. Our little beagle, Bonnie Jean, had just been spayed the week before and looked like a stitched football. There was no way we were going to take her to an animal shelter or separate her from our Westie, Nuala.

So, we slept in the wagon. Or tried to. I wound up sitting in the front seat, watching the fire miles away. All night. I have the spine of a painful Slinky so I couldn’t sit too long. I began wandering around the parking lot. I got stopped by a guard who wondered what an aging hippie, cigarette in hand, was doing prowling around evacuee’s cars. We wound up having a nice chat. I couldn’t sleep. I was trying to calculate where our house was in the flames below.

I wandered around the outside of the gym. A fellow asked if he could talk to me. I thought he was from the Red Cross. It was 3 AM. It turned out he was from the Associated Press. Now, it’s hard for me to become emotional without clinging to humor. I told him I didn’t think we’d have a house left, describing the scene and adding, “I was waiting for Dante and Virgil to show up.”

I returned to the car and watched the flames flare up and die down, only to flare up and spread again. Chopper pilots were doing water drops using night vision goggles – truly heroic combat maneuvers.

By dawn, there was nothing to see but smoke and small tongues of flame. My wife took the “good” car to see if she could find out any information. There was a map at the Red Cross center that showed our home just outside the mandatory evacuation area. I was left with two freaked-out panting dogs in the gym parking lot for two hours. For some reason, the high school held classes that day, so I was an official point of interest for young stoners who thought Jerry Garcia had come back from the dead, so to speak.

I also found out that dogs are still a chick-magnet for anyone who doesn’t totally look like Quasimodo. When you are worried about your wife being gone, your dogs keeling over from the heat and your status as a potential gypsy, this discovery is not exactly a big plus.

My wife finally returned and said our house was fine. We returned home. The electricity was on. We left everything in the car, trudged through a layer of ash and settled in, monitoring the fire via both the TV and Internet. (Hooray for the tubes!)

We didn’t know it, at the time, but our fire was just the beginning. The next day, a fire in the Sylmar section of Los Angeles would start, taking out 630 homes. That would be followed by the “Triangle Complex Fire,” which stretched over two counties and hit places like Corona, Chino Hills, Yorba Linda and Anaheim Hills, taking out 200 homes. By Sunday, four counties in California had fires. The winds that had fanned our flames had traveled south, furiously.

After a few hours at the computer, while waiting for a 4 PM news conference, I opened my e-mail. There were a lot of messages from friends. One said: “Google: ed naha dante virgil.” I did. There were 11,000 hits. My A.P. quote found its way to news sites from here to Hong Kong (I’m not kidding.). There was some dark humor to that. As an aging writer, I always try to get my name out there for prospective employers. I never thought being scared shitless would be a big publicity move.

That evening, the fire seemed to be holding in place. The winds had died down and hadn’t picked up as forecast. I hadn’t had any real sleep in thirty-six hours. I was still wired. My wife came into the office and said “Fox News is on the phone.” I thought she was kidding.

A producer for “Fox AM” had seen my quote and wanted to know if they could do a phone interview “live” the next morning. Most people don’t react like that in calamities, he said. Wotta funny quote! I thought long and hard about the offer. Fox? Me? My mind went into overdrive. This could be a whole new career! I could be the Dennis Miller of disasters! The pain pundit! The calamity commentator! I asked what time the interview would be. “8:15 AM, East Coast time,” he said. That would be 5:15 AM my time. “That’s not an interview,” I said. “That’s an exorcism.” He loved that quote, too.

The next morning, after three hours sleep, I dragged myself out of bed to make coffee at 4:30 AM. I was in the office before 5. I turned on Fox. They were doing a segment on how a woman’s libido could be jump-started if the she took male erection au-go-go stuff.

I knew I’d fit in.

Then, I saw flames. Fox cut to a breaking story. Sylmar was on fire.

The phone rang. It was a lovely lady from Fox. After ascertaining that I was, indeed, the whacky pal of Dante and Virgil, she asked me how things were going.

“I sat outside last night,” I told her. “The winds shifted. There was no smoke. It was one of the most beautiful skies I’ve ever seen. The moon was brilliant white, not brown or red. It was perfect.”

Silence.

“Can I put you on hold?” she asked.

She came back a minute later. “I’m afraid we can’t use you this morning.”

What? My mind reeled. Then, it polkaed. My fifteen minutes of fame were over before they had begun? “What do I have to do?” I exclaimed. “Move to Sylmar?!!!”

She hung up.

The rest of the day, nearly two dozen choppers and fixed-wing aircraft made passes over our house en route to the fire, dropping water and flame retardant. By Thursday, thanks to the near superhuman efforts of firefighters on the ground and in the air, the fire would be out. 210 homes were lost, 180 of them in Santa Barbara. Two dozen people were injured, two critically burned. An elderly man died of a heart attack after being evacuated.

The cause of the fire would be discovered. Ten college students built a bonfire for an all-night party at the ruins of a 1920s private garden, “The Tea Garden,” and didn’t quite put it out. They built a bonfire in Red Flag fire alert weather, with high winds forecasted and nearly no humidity. Their names have not been released. Nobody is sure if they’ll be charged with anything more than a misdemeanor.

I personally would like to review their SAT scores.

The homes that went up were big and small. Homes that have seen generations come and go, some built by the families themselves, were reported as being “estates” and “mansions.” The Montecito angle was played up because of celebrity residents like Oprah and Rob Lowe. By the end of the fire, the national news had somehow come to the conclusion that it affected only the rich and the famous. Christopher Lloyd lost his house. So did over 200 of his fans. For every Rob Lowe, there are a hundred John and Jane Does living in our hills and valleys.

Our stuff stayed in our cars for four days until, finally, my wife unloaded it when I wasn’t home. I still haven’t put most of the stuff back on the shelves. Maybe tomorrow. I’m still looking over my shoulder, mentally.

Whenever there’s a major fire in California, there arises from the hinterlands a smug “that’s what you get for living there” reaction which I’ve never fully understood. Yes, California is the brunt of many a joke because of its lifestyles, movie stars and whackjobs. I’ve been out here 25 years and I still make fun of some of our more bizarre occurrences. But snickering when a person loses everything?

I actually heard one guy say: “Well, people should know better than to live in the hills or the valleys.” Dude, there’s nothing out here BUT hills and valleys. And deserts. In fact, it’s a geographical condition found with alarming frequency in this country. Collectively, it’s known as the Southwest.

Probably the oddest reaction I saw to this last conflagration was by some dipstick at “The Huffington Post,” who wrote a screed entitled “Can We Stop Pretending California Is ‘Green,’ Now?” In the article, he opined: “It amazes me that, despite seeing these same fires every few months, so many Americans continue to cling to the fantasy that California is a ‘green’ state.” WTF?

In turns out, his article really boiled down to “Greenis envy.” “Admittedly, my irritation with California stems in part from the number of West Coasters, these days, giving advice to Detroit about greening the auto-industry,” he sniffed.

Uh, I hate tofu burgers, so let me discuss racism. Nice train of thought, Skippy.

Anyhow, the guy’s from the Great Lakes area (a perfectly non-polluted spot – remember when The Cuyahoga River caught fire?) and now lives in New York City (my spiritual home town - a slightly overbuilt island which could not endure a 6.0 earthquake if God Hisself buttressed it).

He then got into a truly addled riff on groundwater depletion which, really goes back to President Ulysses S. Grant studying ways to irrigate California back in 1873 when God was on our side, manifest destiny was the best destiny, nature could easily be outwitted and anything industrial was a big plus.

To all those who, for some reason, seek to editorialize straight news events and disasters, here’s something to chew on. The East Coast gets hit by hurricanes and blizzards. New Orleans is built below sea level. Several states sit in what’s known as “Tornado Alley.” San Francisco is perched on a fault line. Las Vegas is in the middle of a desert.

Rivers flood. Forests burn. Winds howl. The earth shakes. Mountains crumble. The sky punishes. Zip codes don’t enter into the picture.

We’re all guests on this planet, pundits. It’s a gift. It’s a responsibility. It’s our mother. It’s our child. It’s not affiliated with any ideology or political belief system.

Out here, the fires are gone.

We’re supposed to get rain this week.

Forecasters are already warning of mudslides and flash flooding.

Dante? Virgil? Meet Aquaman.

And pay no attention to the Creature from the Black Lagoon.
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