The only monster that devours significant stretches of Southern California, and regularly comes back for more, was around again last weekend. My heart goes out to those whose homes were lost, be they proud multi-million dollar castles, or humble manufactured housing.
The orange monster ate heartily right there on our TV screens, all day and all night. Those eerie, night time videos of serpents of flame slithering along black mountain tops and ridges, sucking up and devouring all in its path, played all weekend like some sort of holiday marathon, preempting infomercials at 3am and regular programming all day.
That truly immortal description of the Santa Ana winds’ effect on Los Angeles and its environs echoes in my head whenever those devil winds blow:
"There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Ana’s that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge. "
-"Red Wind" by Raymond Chandler
The monster firestorms of this past weekend, and so many others – run a Google search on Southern California fires and you can relive many over the last decade – change everything on a moment’s notice.
A lifetime of stuff can go up in seconds, embers blowing for miles, lighting like some glowing insect, on a whole new area, exploding, and dry Chaparral, produces seeds of its own destruction – in fact, requires that very same destruction in order to propagate and make baby Chaparral -whole neighborhoods and mobile home parks bursting into flames like a box of dry wooden matches left too close to the hot stove.
The dryness is maddening – humidity in the single digits that makes everything feel like a drumhead, stretched so achingly tight. Need we repeat the old litany about how they built where nobody rational should have built, about how many times we can put out the fires and rebuild like those sorry people who regularly get flooded out along the Mississippi and regularly come back for more, rebuilding the same neighborhoods in those same flood-prone areas. What difference does it all really make now?
And you watch those exhausted faces, dirty and smoke-smudged, of people so brave, so incredibly selfless and giving, that they would actually rush into fire-devastated areas to rescue people too dumb or stubborn to leave, ignoring all reason and fear, to make stands like armies in the night to save neighborhoods and other people’s stuff.
These heroes do it again and again, saving lives and property right there on my 3am TV screen, giving terse interviews to third-string, surgical-mask-wearing reporters gasping for breath and sounding torn between running away and making a stand with those incredibly brave firefighters. But the Monster is hungry, so very hungry, and the wind is its lifeblood. The pre-dawn tally as I write this is nearly 1000 homes, each one chock full of people’s stuff – gone to ashes. The sun comes up blood red on mornings like these.
I live at 1250 feet in the Santa Monica Mountains in a Westside neighborhood that has miraculously dodged the bullet for the 21 years that my family and I have lived up here. My neighborhood. Mandeville Canyon and its environs, has been lucky, and we got to raise our whole family up here on the Westridge in peace, although hot cinders blew in on the wind from the Palisades Highlands fire in the early 90’s and I walked around videotaping all of my stuff, ‘and I bought this stereo in 1987 and paid . . .’ hoping that my droning, scared commentary would not be used as an exhibit to an insurance claim for the stuff of my life.
So far our luck has not run out. Others, many, many others this past weekend, were not nearly so lucky. I really feel their pain when that devil wind starts to blow this time of year when the Monster comes back, hungry for more.