May 2 broke with the boom of the Santa Ana’s, too big and too early and too hot. Then came the news of a fire, a small blaze off the Camarillo Grade. I took inventory. A neighbor used to keep her horse at a stable down there, but a couple of years ago she moved it up to the relative safety of Thousand Oaks. I know no one where the fire is burning. I live two streets from the hills, backed up against 10,000 acres of open space but in the opposite direction of where the fire is burning. Safe.
I go to the store at lunch. The wind comes in deep, thick booms, the air as dry as a brick oven. Driving home, I pick up the news—the fire has picked up speed and has now burned almost 2,000 acres. “That’s parkland up there,” I think. Still, a couple of thousand acres, they’ll get it. I look out the car window and see only a small hint of smoke.
The day goes on like this, a few more acres, the wind booming, the news coverage more frequent and hysterical. Made worse by surprise. We are not ready for this. Our minds are on summer vacation, the mountains and the beach. Wildfires are for autumn. By evening they are talking 6,000 acres. “If we don’t catch it,” says a firefighter looking into the TV camera with the calm look they have, sweat streaking down his face, “it’s headed for the ocean.” Where else? Why do we always sound surprised?
“That’s parkland up there,” I say again to myself, but with anxiety now, some of the roughest country in the Santa Monica Mountains. La Jolla Canyon, famous for its wildflower array and Sycamore Canyon, its bottom spread with rare sycamore savannah. I pick up photos on the internet and my defenses begin to crack. My sister emails her concern from North Carolina, another part of the ritual. Friends call from town. “Let me know if there’s anything I can do.” I want to shout, “Turn off the wind.”
A battalion chief for Ventura County Fire comes on, a woman. “This is August weather,” she says, “This fire is a wake-up call.” To what, I think? What would you have us do? Almost 2,000 firefighters are on the lines now. As scripted, we are beneficiaries of California’s system of mutual response. Another fire ritual: Newbury Park residents are feeding the guys who saved their homes, handing out water. My heart is supposed to be warmed by this.
Friday the Santa Ana’s break. “It’s over,” I think. But by midday the wind has shifted, and we have slipped into the second act. Pushed by the onshore breeze, the smoke begins to come my way. The radio says 28,000 acres now and only 20 percent contained. I revise my evaluation: this is a big one. It’s earned a place in the Wildfire Hall of Fame. “Where’s the DC-10?” I shout at the radio, and the dogs look at me alarmed. The big jet saved Malibu six years ago. A spokesman from Cal Fire comes on and says they’re thinking about calling for it. Why wait?
Act Three, Saturday: low clouds, evacuations lifted. On Sunday battalions of red and lime green engines form lines along the freeways headed home. This is how it happens. This is life here in Southern California, how we elect to deploy our resources—in fighting wildfires that in some way or another (downed power line, madman with a match) we humans are often responsible for. And when the fire is over, when the house lights have dimmed, these memories will be long gone and we won’t consider tradeoffs or the potential remedies.
It rained today, Monday, and I have already shelved my resolution, made when the fire was only at 6,000 acres, to assemble my belongings, throw my important papers into a fireproof box, store my jewelry where I can grab it, put water and dog food in the car. I forget the 10,000 acres behind me, brown and looking like August. I know the script, but I am in the audience with the rest of them. And just as ready to be fooled.