For Californians, it's not the Big One but the Burning One

MIKE LITTWIN

November 01, 1993|By MIKE LITTWIN

The thing that really scares Californians -- more even than the words "sorry, pal, we're out of decaf cappuccino" -- is fire.

You'd figure earthquakes, right? Earthquakes scare the willies out of non-Californians. But to the natives, meaning anyone who has lived there at least six months, earthquakes are nothing more than a 15-second trip through time, a surreal amusement-park ride.

The earth moves, some china gets chipped, and conversation turns to something other than movie deals and Rodney King.

In fact, Californians love to contemplate living life under the shadow of the Big One, but most people don't believe in it any more than they do the story about Lana Turner and Schwab's Pharmacy. When they're reminded of the dangers, say after the deadly '89 San Francisco quake, they offer mad discursives on fatalism and the price one pays for paradise.

The typical urban California experience is defined by traffic, sun, smog, beaches and natural disasters. Most cities in other states don't have to deal much with nature. Yes, there's snow. Some places face floods. Others, hurricanes or tornadoes.

In California, you get a constant assault from nature, for good and ill.

You get oceans and mountains, and you get drought and torrential rains. Mudslides are a big source of amusement in L.A. Rich people's houses slide off cliffs, which were never meant to support them. Nobody gets hurt. The rich people rebuild. And the TV cameras get great pictures.

Fire is different. Like the Scarecrow, Californians can't deal with it.

You've seen the recent, horrifying pictures of thousands of acres and hundreds of houses aflame. You've heard the stories: everything lost, the house the fire skipped, the gangs who put down their guns to pitch in, the tears from those who lost all they ever had.

But you can't really understand the fire unless you've been there. We were living in the hills north of Burbank when we faced our fire.

It was about 2 a.m. on a November night, about a dozen years ago, when my wife awoke to the smell of smoke. She searched the house, looking for a source, finding nothing. But the smell grew ever stronger. Finally, she looked out a window to see the hill behind us swallowed by a giant orange ball.

She screamed. Suddenly, as lights flashed on around us, you heard other screams from the houses nearby, or was that the Santa Ana winds?

My wife called the fire department.

"Do you know there's a fire in the hills behind us?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"What should we do?"

"Well, the fire's out of control."

Out of control. Those are the words you really don't want to hear at that point. The fire was maybe 500 yards away and out of control and burning up the brush coming toward our street. They said we might consider evacuating.

The thing about the fires is that you can't gauge them. They are subject to the winds, which are subject, it seems, only to whim. You have heard of the Santa Anas. Some call them Santanas, or devil winds. Fed by the desert heat, forced through narrow canyons, they bring overheated winds as high as 70 miles an hour.

In good times, they blow away the smog, and obscured !c mountains reappear as if painted on the horizon. Other times, they pick up the spark from a discarded cigarette or a downed power line or the matches the kids were playing with and turn the brush, which hasn't seen rain in seven months, into a literal firestorm.

As the fire burns and we start to pack, we are drawn to the flame. You have to watch. It is a cool November, and yet the house grows hot to the touch. They say a house, if touched by the fire, virtually explodes. We watch and we pack. The pictures go first, of course. Then my records. The china and silver. We even got the stereo and some clothes.

Then my wife took our daughter to safer ground. I waited, not from any sense of bravery. I'm not the kind to stand on the roof with a hose and fight the fire.

What I did was watch. I watched with awe. We think we've got nature pretty much under control, and then there's this fire to confound everything.

The fire stalled maybe 200 yards from my house, where the fire break had been created by burning away brush. Then the wind changed and carried the fire to an adjacent hill, which blew as if someone had poured gasoline on it.

Our hill burned out. It was someone else's hill, someone else's fire, someone else's nightmare.

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