“Let’s start packing now. Last year we weren’t ready, but this year we will be,” my husband said.
We were packing our car with clothing, jewelry, computers and memories. We were packing our car because we live in Southern California, and it was October, and the Santa Ana winds were blowing. In past years, we didn’t think too much about it. In fact, one of the years we lived here some people were saying the drought was over.
THE WEATHER OF CATASTROPHE, of APOCALYPSE: Joan Didion
The drought is not over. This is global warming. And though there might be snow in our mountains and come January the rainy season might cause the arroyo behind our house to fill with water, so that you can hear it rushing as it seeks Malibu Creek and the Pacific Ocean, it’s not enough. And it sets up a vicious cycle, causing the wild mustard and lupine that spreads through the hills around us—to grow six feet high. It’s gorgeous, but when it dries, and it always does, it’s fuel for a spark that starts and then spreads as the Santa Anas blow and blow.
Joan Didion wrote in Slouching Toward Bethlehem: “Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse, and, just as the reliably long and bitter winters of New England determine the way life is lived there, so the violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The wind shows us how close to the edge we are.”
CELL PHONES STEP UP
What’s amazing is modern technology. No, it can’t stop the fires, but under the weather icon on our phones, it listed the hours that winds would be blowing—from 4:00pm on Tuesday through noon on Thursday. Blend that with weather predictions of 50 mph winds with gusts up to 70mph and you start to worry. You remember the dried-up lupine and mustard in the hills nearby just waiting to combust. Add the wind prediction and you pack your car.
Tuesday night it blew and blew. Wednesday morning it had settled somewhat, but then around nine we turned on the TV and a fire was raging near the Reagan Library in Simi Valley. The crow has to fly to make a connection to our little community, but what if that crow flew on a 70mph gust. We were packed. We waited. One good thing—we couldn’t smell smoke. The winds were blowing in another direction. I called my nearest neighbors, California natives. One was going to yoga. The other was packing a few things. The winds kept blowing.
IF YOU REMEMBER A SNOW STORM, EARTHQUAKE, TORNADO, YOU REMEMBER FIRE
Because last year when driving back from a lunch near the LA airport we could see billows of smoke to the north and to the east. I couldn’t forget the words of many neighbors that very evening that fires never came our way. What? Do you believe in some kind of magic? Yes, in Sleeping Beauty the rose bushes grew tall and gnarled and kept everyone away from the castle. But fire can cut through anything. And that night the smell of smoke was strong and the wind was strong and soon phones were ringing and everyone had to GET OUT.
Last year we were not prepared, hurriedly packed, forgot things. Last year we were damn lucky and able within 18 hours to return home. No home in our little community burned, but just a few Chicago blocks away, houses burned and the park and duck pond about a mile away was scorched.
Last year we drove home to see firefighters smashing grasses and hosing down the hills near us. Last year five firetrucks were parked in the grocery parking lot near our home when we ventured out to buy food. Last year, there were banners across the 101 Freeway proclaiming our gratitude and love of our public servants—our firefighters and police, our paramedics and ambulance drivers. Last year people made signs and secured them to fences and house-fronts. THANKS THANKS THANKS.
AND SOMEONE WHO KNOWS NOTHING ALWAYS HAS A SAY… the political fallout. Someone drops in for a few hours and proclaims that we need to RAKE OUR FORESTS. That person didn’t offer any help.
CALIFORNIA’S ETERNAL SPIRIT
California is not dead yet. Neither is the rest of our country, though others deal with hurricanes, tornadoes, also drought and don’t forget earthquakes. Oklahoma now has many earthquakes because of fracking. California has earthquakes because it’s California, it grew up on major fault lines. Global warming is affecting everyone. Don’t kid yourself.
And after the fires were controlled, in the LA TIMES, Steve Lopez took up the criticism of nationwide publications calling doom and gloom on this amazing state. He listed what keeps 40 million people here. “The beaches, the mountains, the deserts, the sunsets, the rural, the urban, the red, the blue, the people, the wildlife, the languages, the history, the diversity, the endless curiosities, the energy, the universities, the music, the art, the food, the culture, the climate, the risks that work, the experiments that failed, the long tradition of break-away politics and the collective agreement that you can say or think of us what you will–we don’t really care one way or another-just shelter in place (unless you’re a firefighter) and please don’t move.”
When Joan Didion wrote about the Santa Anas…”To live with the Santa Anas is to accept, consciously or unconsciously, a deep mechanistic view of human behavior,” she might have been the foreteller of California truths. As Lynell George writes in the TIMES today: “We come to Didion for dusty palms, pepper trees, eucalyptus, the soft ‘westerlies off the Pacific,’ but also the concrete overpasses, cyclone fencing and deadly oleander. It’s home.”
Californians as a people love to dream. One of those dreams is that the fires don’t come your way.
Photo: Pepper Trees are Pretty Much My Favorite from PINTEREST