Fire Country

(This is a picture that my father took of the 2003 Paradise Mountain fire coming towards their house – the puff of black smoke is probably from a burning structure, maybe a vehicle. The rest of the pictures on that roll of film were of the house interior – to document for the insurance company.)

Reading the news about the fires burning near Colorado Springs revive memories of what it was like, when I was growing up in the hill country – the hill country of Southern California. Then it would be hot and dry all summer long, the green grass of spring would turn gold, the chaparral – the native brush – would dry out . . . and then . . .

The winds would blow, the hot dry devil winds from off the high desert, which some called the Santa Ana, or some the Santanna. And then the hills would burn. A spark from a string of broken Christmas lights, the sun shining relentlessly through a piece of bottle grass, a bulldozer blade striking a buried flint rock . . . or even some fool throwing a lit cigarette out of a car window, or messing around with fireworks. Within seconds the sparks turn into flames, and the hills would burn, with the hot desert wind fanning it to a greedy blow-torch roar.

A well-lit brush fire does make that horrible, deep roaring noise as it burns, a noise to make everyone hearing it feel cold and afraid down to the toes of their boots. Once fire is well along in dry brush and timber with a stiff wind pushing, there is very little to be done – only see that it is deflected from structures. At a distance, the clouds of smoke pile up in the sky like thunderheads. There’s no mistaking the smell of a distant fire, the pale beige smoke of it hanging in the sky, the way the sky then turns pale orange, and the daylight dims . . . or to mistake the fall of fine ash, drifting in eddies along the ground for miles distant and days afterwards.

It is an unforgettable sight, seeing a runaway brush or forest fire, especially at night. In the fall of 1975, from the hilltop above my parents’ home, I watched such a fire, advancing over the mountaintop crests of the Angeles National Forest, a line of fire across the horizon as far as one could see. In some places, it looked like a tornado of flame, sweeping down a steep canyon, sucking material into it. We escaped that particular conflagration, thanks to being across a well-built up valley from the closest point that fire came to us, but nearly three decades later, my parents were not so lucky. They had retired to Valley Center in northern San Diego County – and in the Paradise Mountain fire, theirs was one of the houses lost. They had twenty minutes to pack their vehicles and go, losing nothing but things – things which can be replaced, although some of them – pictures, books, old letters, certain items of china and relics – have since been sorely missed.

A couple of summers ago, my daughter went outside to water the plants, she came back, exclaiming excitedly that she smelled smoke. There was something burning, something to the north and east of us, borne on the wind. We know that smell, that hazy look in the sky. My daughter called the local non-emergency number, stressing over and over again, that there was something on fire close to us. Given the summertime drought and the strong winds blowing, plus our own experiences … that was enough to make both of us jumpy. Eventually, the operator told her that yes, there was a fire in a house over on Judson, which we agreed was probably what we had smelled. My daughter was so shaken that she went out and watered down all our yard within reach, aiming the spray up into the trees and over the fence into the green belt – now the brown belt. A few weeks later, we spotted the smoke of another fire away up north, towards Bulverde. She went and watered everything again, just to be sure.

Hearing the sound of sirens at this time of year, my mother used to tell us to run up to the top of the hill, and see what on fire, and on our report – a house down in town someplace: “Oh, only a house, then. Not the hills.” But that’s what you always think, in fire country.

(cross-posted at my book blog. And if you scroll down, I’ve posted a sample chaper from my next book – The Quivera Trail. )

10 thoughts on “Fire Country”

  1. This is beautifully if sadly written. One of my colleagues, like your parents, lost the retirement home they’d just built in the trees of Bastrop less than a year ago. (They were still commuting so had an apartment here.) Looks like this will be another bad year. Another writer on fire – and the heroism of fire fighters – is Norman Maclean.

  2. Sgt.

    Given that we only had 8.5 inches of rain this year and the mountains around the San Fernando Valley are already brown, we may have another vicious fire season. August and September could be very tough.

    I’ll assume you weren’t around for the “Station Fire” of 2009. By far it was the worst of my lifetime, burning 250 square miles that basically eviscerated the Angeles Forest. It’s gotten so bad in recent years one can’t help but wonder how much fuel is left to burn? Then I think about my friends who live up in the canyons in Tarzana, which I can’t remember ever burning. Plus the new houses and infrastructure in Porter Ranch/Chatsworth and you realize this is So Cal’s equivalent to snow storms. They’ve become annual occurrences which add to the cost of government and occasionally take a few lives.

  3. Hi, Jason – no, I had settled in Texas by the time the Station Fire hit – but I was still at home when the 1975 fire swept through the Angeles National Forest. That’s the worst one that I saw. My father used to tell us – and I remember various bio and ecology classes saying the same – that the California chapparal was designed to burn over about every twenty-five years or so, in quick and not very hot fires. Some of the native plants don’t even germinate until they’ve been heated so many degrees. But when the fires are suppressed – and this goes for many of the western forests as well – the load of deadwood and dead grasses, and duff on the ground builds up, and up and up – and when it eventually burns, it is catastrophic. It burns so hot that even the mature trees (which usually are just a little bit scorched) are killed, and the ground is essentially baked into brick.
    Ginny, the Bastrop fire last year was horrible; it was such beautiful forrested country. With luck and a good couple of years it will recover. I remember seeing the pitures in Nat-Geo, ten years after the Yellowstone fires. Everyone was thinking the fire was such a disaster – and it was, but ten years later, it was well on the way to recovering.

  4. Those of us in California, particularly Southern CA, are very aware of these fires. An internet friend of mine – a retired Air Force test pilot, lives in Santa Barbara and had literally minutes – 5 – 10? to evacuate his house a couple of years ago. All of his Air Force awards over years of flying – gone.

    A few years ago we took a tour of the Cal Fire headquarters at McClellan Field. They have a mini “Air Force” that – once the season really ramps up – they send aircraft to fields around the state – just in case.

    During my flying days I remember years ago coming over the hills outside San Jose – and there was a big fire going. I was at 5,000 feet and all the action – from the Cal Fire planes – was far below. Just like combat they had a spotter plane directing the traffic for the big planes dropping the fire retardant.

    I forget the fire in few years ago in the LA area – but there was a garage with a Ferrari and Porsche that burned – it was that quick.

    If that Santa Ana wind comes in…..

    A few years ago those of us further north had a good one in the Lake Tahoe area – at the height of it the smoke was even in Sacramento – 100 miles “down the hill”.

    A lot of that was exacerbated by local laws strictly governing the cutting down of old trees – and even, I think, dead ones. Then you have radical environmentalists affecting the USFS policy and that’s why so many of these fires today are monster sized. Don’t know if this is the reason for the current Colorado fire.

    I took an exploratory drive up into the foothills for my car club – next drive is this Sun – and I saw a beautiful – fairly new – expensive house – sitting up on a hilltop – surrounded by trees and brush.

    Looks nice until….

  5. In 1961, my in-laws lost their home in the Bel Air fire. More here.

    I was a first year medical student but had been called up to active duty in the Air Force in October after the Berlin Wall was put up. Fortunately, my unit stayed in LA at the Van Nuys Airport, of all places. My wife was still a student at USC. Her mother was in Australia and she was driving her mother’s car, fortunately. Her father had gotten home from a trip the day before. When we heard about the fire and saw the smoke, we drove out to Bel Air and met her father as we walked up the road from the gate. No cars were allowed inside. After we encountered the road block, we walked up the fairway of Bel Air Country Club. To our left we could see one large house burning fiercely with no one around it. The firemen were miles away setting fire breaks to stop its progress west. They had abandoned Bel Air except for the traffic control

    We finally got to the hill just below the road to the house. There we were stopped and waited with other residents. Finally, several hours later, a motorcycle policeman offered to ride up through the fire zone, which was cooling off, and check on houses. We all gave our addresses and he rode off. He was back in half an hour and we got the bad news. Finally, we were allowed to go in to the fire zone and saw the mess. The house was gone except the front steps and the chimney. Everything was one foot high. We were living in a small apartment and stored all our wedding presents an my wife’s wedding dress in the house, and that was all gone. Her father had his car and the dry cleaning he had dropped off that morning.

    Ours was not the real adventure that some others had. A number of residents had had their fire insurance cancelled a couple of weeks before. One resident hid in his house when the police came through to evacuate everyone. When they left, he came out and ripped down trellises and other fire hazards. The fire would break windows as it came up the canyon from below. These were all hilltop houses with the road running along the crest. The guy who stayed behind saved his house and several others by breaking in and ripping down curtains which would billow out the broken windows and bring the flames inside. He saved a half dozen house but not ours. He apologized and said he just didn’t have time. I thought he was a hero although fool hardy. If his insurance hadn’t been cancelled, he probably would have let it all go.

    A friend who lived across the canyon didn’t get out and submerged himself in his pool during the fire. His house burned and his car exploded as the gas tank went but he was OK. Burt Lancaster’s house was on that street and was lost. Red Skelton showed the fastest reflexes. When he heard about the fire, he called a gasoline water pump seller and ordered a pump delivered to his house, just down the hill from ours. He then drove home from his studio on Sunset Blvd, just near the Bel Air gate, with some guys from the studio. They pumped out his pool and saved his large house. He knew the water pressure would go, which it did early in the fire, and was prepared. People all over west LA were trying to water their roofs and nobody had any water pressure, including the fire department.

    476 homes were destroyed. My in-laws rebuilt on the same lot and about 8 years later, nearly lost their house to a landslide during heavy rains. That required a massive repair as the garage, which had been rebuilt on the same slab, started to slide away from the house, which was cantilevered. The house next door, which had survived the fire, was lost to the slide and the owners, two elderly sisters, never rebuilt. The lot was condemned.

    Life in LA was interesting in those days. Now, I wouldn’t live there.

  6. MK – if that is the same Bel Air fire I read in James Garner’s autobiography – that he was up on his roof saving his house and that of his neighbor.

  7. ” if that is the same Bel Air fire I read in James Garner’s autobiography”

    I’m sure it was. There have been other big fires but that was the champ for LA. Some years later, I was working as a resident on the Burn Ward of LA County when the Los Angeles Loop Fire occurred. A group of fire fighters was trapped when the fire jumped the lines and at one time we had 23 major burns at the same time. It was just after silver nitrate solution was introduced for the treatment of burns. It saved all their lives except for a couple who had respiratory injuries, like those in the Cocoanut Grove Fire disaster in 1942. The fire fighting team of the El Cariso Hot Shots were nearly wiped out. There is a memorial to them at the El Cariso fire station on Ortega Highway which runs from San Juan Capistrano to Palm Springs.

    My son is a state forestry service firefighter.

    Several of the fire fighters who were saved by silver nitrate had permanent hand injuries, which was then not well understood. Before that time, those victims had all died. The surviving fire fighters sued the county, fortunately not me. I felt sorry for them but they were suing because treatment still to be invented wasn’t used. Oh well. Some of the story is here.

  8. MK – I recall the Bel Air fire, too; it was the humongous one that hit when I was six years old, and Mom and Dad had moved into a house in Sun Valley at the bottom end of La Tuna Canyon. The air smelt of smoke for days and the winds blew like a blast furnace. The thing that I remember the most – was my parents packing up the car one afternoon, in case we had to evacuate. Dad was a graduate student at that time, and I think the most valuable things we must have had at the time were books. They folded the back seat of the station wagon, layered the bed with books and our clothes and bedding on top. I don’t think Mom and Dad slept that night – I remember waking up all during that night, and hearing the sound of the radio on, and Mom and Dad talking softly in the living room.

  9. “my parents packing up the car one afternoon, in case we had to evacuate”

    One of the ironic and sad events of the fire in 1961 was a neighbor bringing a bunch of treasures, including some original paintings, to another neighbor’s house for safe keeping when she was evacuated. The neighbor where the paintings were left, burned down and all were destroyed. The evacuated neighbor, who had left the paintings for safe keeping, did not lose her house. The fire skipped around among houses and left some untouched. My in-laws’ house was destroyed and their neighbors’ houses on each side survived undamaged. I think both had composition roofs instead of wood shakes.

  10. Sgt.Mom,this is so beautifully written. You really bring this to life without literary affectations. Sometimes when I looked at the NYTimes I got a good laugh at reporters who were practicing writing the Great American Novel.

Comments are closed.