November 17, 2008
It's 90 degrees in November, the full glory and perennial curse of Southern California on fierce display. Devil winds, hill-hopping infernos, smoked mansions, torched trailers, barren freeways, and brilliant sunsets lingering in low-hanging canopies of burnt dreams.
Are we all crazy? Don't live here, says the wind, the trembling earth, the parched land whose natural inclination is to explode in flame every year about now.
But we do.
Don't build near the kindling, say the voices of common sense.
But we do, for all the wrong reasons and all the known glories. Our winter snowfall is flakes of ash and flame retardant falling on bougainvillea, so it could be worse.
At least the last big quake was a fake -- a Thursday run-through to test our preparedness. Followed immediately, of course, by a genuine, rip-roaring disaster, the kind of astonishing immolation that allows folks across the nation to feel smug despite their black ice and frozen rain.
I could have gone in any direction to find fire victims Sunday. With flames roaring through Montecito, Sylmar, Corona, Anaheim Hills, Yorba Linda, Diamond Bar and elsewhere, thousands of people had fled. Millionaires on the move, trailer park residents out the door in pajamas.
"It has been a harrowing last 2 days," said an e-mail from a Montecito woman named Katherine, sent to loved ones informing them the family had lost six of its seven homes in the Tea fire.
"The fire was so intense that there was no time for anyone to save belongings. My father and stepmother did not even have time to get their wallet -- let alone rescue the pets! It is literally starting over with nothing but the clothes on their backs."
My friend Mark Morocco, an ER doctor, forwarded me a message from one of his colleagues at Olive View Medical Center, which lost all power Saturday night and was partially evacuated.
"I saw . . . nurses rush into the ER with newborns carried in a kangaroo-like pouch for transport out. . . . It took a team of 8 to carry [one] patient on a stretcher down flights of stairs through 4 floors . . . with just our flashlights for visualization. She made it to Huntington hospital safely."
Across Southern California, tens of thousands made it out safely, helicopters buzzed, hundreds of firefighters risked their lives to protect what was left behind, the Red Cross mobilized like the civilian army that it is, gyms full of cots and blankets appearing out of nowhere.
Saturday night I drove to Sylmar, with firestorms at 11 o'clock and 3 o'clock, rolling over the hills like blazing comets. At the Sylmar High evacuation center, I found residents of the Oakridge trailer park, where more than 500 of the 600 homes were lost.
I saw a woman picking through clothes piled on the bleachers of the Sylmar High gymnasium. She was holding them up for size and then folding them neatly into a cardboard box.
Lee Chandler had her work credentials on a string around her neck. She's a Providence Hospital RN and was with her pal and roommate, Ray Bloss, a retired Army medic who now works as a physician's assistant out of West Hills hospital.
Did they live at Oakridge? I asked.
He shook his head. Across the gym was a blackboard with several dozen addresses on it, the only known trailers that survived the fire. The one Bloss and Chandler rented was not on the list. When I asked what they were able to save, Bloss pointed to his shoes.
"That's about it," he said.
They had been high school sweethearts 30 years ago in Pennsylvania. But after a misunderstanding over a date that Bloss didn't show up for, they split, moved to different states, got into medicine unbeknownst to each other, married and had children.
Four years ago, divorced and wondering what ever happened to Chandler, Bloss looked her up on Classmates.com and discovered that she too had been lured west by weather and opportunity. He was living in San Diego by then, having vowed never to shovel snow again in his life. Chandler was living in Los Angeles, where she was in the midst of a divorce.
The timing wasn't perfect for a romance, but a close friendship blossomed. Bloss moved to Los Angeles and they hooked up with other friends and rented a house in Granada Hills. But the neighborhood was a little dicey, so in July, they jumped when a friend moved out of state and offered to rent them her trailer in Sylmar's Oakridge Mobile Home Park.
"It was wonderful," Bloss said. The homes were owned by good, friendly people who were longtime residents. They kept their places up and the streets were lined with mature trees.
"You could hear the coyotes at night, and there were hiking trails you could go into for nice strolls. It felt very safe and very peaceful," said Chandler, whose 12-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son swam in the community pool and made new friends.
Bloss was happier than he'd been in years, and loved being so close to mountain, sea and desert, and to so many cultural attractions.
Chandler and Bloss were thinking of buying the trailer together. The roommate arrangement worked for both of them, they said, and Bloss loved being around Chandler's children, who he said made him feel young again. Sure, there was always the threat of fire, but the owner wanted just $150,000 -- California living on the cheap.
Then came Friday night. Bloss woke to the smell of smoke and looked outside. Seeing an orange glow over the hill, he hurried to Chandler's bedroom to roust her and then her son (the daughter was with friends). Chandler grabbed up some photos and a few items of clothing. Bloss got their computers and they sped away just ahead of the flames.
Saturday afternoon in the Sylmar High gym, when Bloss saw that their address was not on the blackboard, he wept.
"Maybe there's a mistake," Chandler said, telling me she couldn't begin to think about where she might live until she sees for herself that the trailer is gone.
When I checked in with her Sunday night, there was cause for hope. She'd driven out to the site earlier in the day. A policeman wouldn't let her in, but he said a home matching the description of hers was still standing.
When or whether they'll ever get back into the park remains uncertain. For the time being, they're staying with friends. It could have been worse, Bloss said, if they owned the home.
Bloss said something in Korean that he'd picked up during his Army days.
"It basically means, 'That's the way things go.' In the Army, there are many times when things go badly and you just say, 'Stuff happens.' You suck it up and you drive on."
Stuff happens, indeed.
The Earth shakes. The fires rage. The population expands.
And the sunsets are brilliant, especially this time of year.
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