[Image courtesy: LA County Fire Department]
When I moved to sunny Los Angeles from nearly nineteen years of living on the East coast and the Mid-west of the US, I was looking forward to saying good-bye to longjohns, winter boots, shoveling your car out of the snow, and skidding on icy roads. Sure the state would impose a tax for the beautiful weather and for every other thing it could think of, but it was exciting to imagine living amidst sunshine all the while and maybe, perhaps maybe, run into Leonardo De Caprio at the grocery. As we were looking at houses to rent, we came upon a lovely property, a two-storied house, nested at the foothills of the San Fernando Valley, go out to the backyard, there is a view straight out of a travel brochure, and a very decent commute time to office, and so of course we decided to stay there.
Over the past year, we discovered that the place had had a gas leak a few years ago, and decades ago it had been the scene of a major earthquake, and during the fall and winter we ourselves experienced the famed Santa Ana winds blowing through the valley that have the power to knock down a fully-grown man, but of course this was all fine.
If it was not, why would real-estate prices be going through the roof here, with new houses selling at upwards of a million and half, surely the market could not be wrong.
Or could it?
Thursday night, at 12: 30 am, I am three-quarters asleep when there is a maniacal pounding of fists on the main door. Open it groggily, half-awake, to find a member of the Los Angeles Police Department saying “You have to evacuate now, there is a brush fire coming this way.” Now brush-fires happen in the San Fernando Valley every year, except every year it happens to someone else. I follow the policeman’s gaze and there right there, in among the hills that had once taken my breath away, and I kid you not, has appeared Mount Doom, the abode of Sauron, alight with tongues of flames. Seeing as me looking blankly at him, he says “Are you planning to leave or not?” and I said “Of course officer. Of course.”
My wife is down there with me, and the first thing is to wake up our six year old daughter, convince her we need to go now, since she is at the age of Plato, where she believes “the unexamined life is not worth living” even when there is a flaming conflagration making its way down the hills, and so we must explain what we are doing now and why. We take whatever we can think of, in that half-awake state, passports and a yellow box wherein I keep my important documents, and get into our cars. Nothing else, no clothes, no food, nothing.
By this time, there is pandemonium, our silent gated community has flashing cop cars all around like an episode of Cops, the winds are howling, and I am still not thinking straight.
We should go to Northridge Mall, my wife suggests. Now Northridge Mall is down south, away from where the flames are coming from, and it is a place both of us can drive to without looking at the GPS. So of course I suggest something different—let us drive down to my office. I am thinking at this point of time, that the fires will be doused by the time of dawn, and all we need is a place to be in with electricity, water, a vending machine, and a massage chair till that time. The only place I know that has all these: my office. So, like a moth to a flame, literally, I start driving towards where my office is, and ask my wife to put it in her GPS, and follow. The main streets are now full of cars, swerving, speeding, a scene straight out of your average disaster movie, when my brain finally breaking clear off the stupor of sleep has a moment of clarity: “the hills that I saw burning extend to my office, won’t they also be on fire?”
It was then that I realize another thing. I am the only car driving towards my office and there is an absolute cavalcade of cars in the opposite direction. As anyone who has seen a single zombie movie knows, this is a very bad sign. I pull up to the side, wife pulls up too in the car (my daughter is in her car), and I tell her “We are going to Northridge Mall. There is fire ahead of us.” I wish she had configured the hands-free in her car, which would have allowed us to talk to each other while driving, but it was too late for that.
I drive into the night, smoke on both sides, tendrils of fire curling up in what seems to be in the distance, but I know is pretty close. Gusts of ash flit across the windshield, the stiff Santa Ana wind beats at the side of the car ominously, and I know what it means, the faster the wind, the faster the fire, and I can only imagine what is happening back home.
When I arrive at the Northridge Mall, I realize my wife is not behind me. Had she had an accident? With what we saw of traffic, it was quite possible. Of course I cannot call her, and risk her having an accident picking up the phone. Had she taken another route and gone straight into a flaming road? I had no idea.
That was pretty much the scariest moment of the night for me.
Finally, after what seems to be an eternity, her car pulls up, and I am like a castaway who has seen the boat. We need a place to stay, that is obvious. I start calling all nearby hotels that are away from the fire-line, and all of them, each and every, have all been filled up. And then finally, we get a hotel which says it has rooms available. We reach the place, and about half an hour later, there is a crowd at the front gate, other evacuated families asking for rooms, but it is “no vacancy” there now too.
Catching our breath inside the hotel room, we follow the updates on Twitter and on the live feed of local channels.
A reporter tweets a small mini-video clip of our street, mentioning it by name, and how the line of fire is coming straight towards it. There is another video of the street that is right next to us, with flames on both sides.
The reality of what has possibly happened to our house is seeping in. I am going over all the things I have possibly lost. Furniture don’t care, we should be replacing them anyways. My books from college and school, good riddance to that sentimental crap I otherwise can’t let go. Computer, good thing all my files are in Cloud storage.
My daughter is crying now, for her school certificates for good performance, from souvenirs of her old school in Maryland, the Harry Potter book collection that is her favorite, and I am trying to tell her I will get everything replaced, not to worry, nothing is indispensable, but I am breaking inside, I should have taken some of her artwork, not for her, because she will of course forget this as more memories will pile on top, but not me, and I feel this immense crushing sense of guilt—I should have been better prepared.
It’s the next morning, as we follow live feeds at the hotel of road closures and the fire extending, of footage that is terrifying, of miles of burning shrubs, of communities surrounded by flames. But then there is also footage of planes dropping fire-retardants on burning canyons, of armies of America’s finest firefighters lining up with their backs to houses, putting themselves between advancing fire-line and people’s property, creating barricades on the fly, cutting through shrubs with flames all around. It gives us hope, because firefighters were rushing to our house when we drove out, but then there was also that video of the ball of fire from last night, and the ominous implication of the tweet. Around 5 pm, I come to know that the Los Angeles Police Department is asking people who live in mandatory evacuation zones to congregate at certain meeting points where they will get a police escort to visit their homes to remove important things they could not the first time. We go to one of these locations, wait in a line for more than two hours, and then get escorted to our house, the whole area now cordoned off like a toxic waste spill. The police confirm we are residents of the home we want to go to by checking our license (to prevent looting), and give us five minutes to collect whatever we can.
We aren’t there to just collect stuff, we are there to see if our house survived the night. And it had, what a wondrous miracle. There was still smoke billowing from the hills, but angry red flames were no more leaping towards the sky. If we had taken too little last time, this time we took too much, collecting all of what we had wished we had taken last night, the police were nice enough to give us ten minutes, and this time when we left, we were relieved, and thankful.
Thankful. Yes. That is the word. When the next afternoon we were finally allowed back in, after mandatory evacuation was called off, we saw first hand how the house had been saved. The hills that had been a sparse shade of green the last time we had seen them were all burnt black with ash. Towards the back of our house, from where the fire line was approaching, fire-fighters had hopped the fence using metal chairs from our backyard, and had, most probably, fought the fire from there, and one could not but be amazed at not just by the bravery of those who had risked their lives saving our homes, but also their training, coordination, ingenuity and engineering skill, and while it is tempting to say “Luck saved us” the truth is that men did. But of course there is always that randomness of the universe, while our house that had been closer to the fire had been unaffected, flying embers from that fire, carried along by winds at 50 miles per hour, had vaulted across the street and hit houses on the opposite side, burning roofs and backyard trees.
Wiping off the ash everywhere, and cleaning the backyard that looked like a war zone, we take a walk in the community. There we meet a long-term Californian, moving back after the evacuation, who unlike us, seemed positively unfazed by the carnage all around. Oh of course, he said, we had something like this in 2008, and then there was the earthquake, and there were a few more evacuations like this, but then we don’t have the snow, and that apparently makes it worth it all. When they say Californians are chill, they mean it, that is the only counter to fire.
Which leaves one with the question : can some good come out of an experience as traumatic as this?
I think so.
It’s experiences like this that put the real things in perspective, the stuff that gets forgotten amidst the minutiae of our daily lives, the delicate balance between man and nature, of how the fate of human beings are connected, of the very highest ideals of humanity, of people putting their lives on the line for a home in which a stranger stays, and finally, of holding your family close, and never letting go.
The day of the Saddleridge fire was over.