Disaster, in its way, is the ultimate form of visual gossip. : Days of Amber Sunlight

What stays in mind is the odd, flat sunlight, amber tinted through a thin layer of smoke, and the woman who stood alone in the middle of an empty road, crying.

I see her from a perspective oddly softened by the hazy light, like the face of an aging actress misted by a kindly lens.

I stop and ask if everything is all right and she says yes through a voice choked with sobs. I ask if her home has been burned and she shakes her head no.

I stand in that strange light on a day the whole world is burning, wondering what to do for her, when a man approaches through the smoke and I ask him why she cries.

He puts his arms gently around her and as he leads her away he says, "She's just crying for everybody."

Fire is an awesome adversary.

Only up close, where smoke clogs the lungs and heat sears the face, can one perceive of the immensity of the enemy roaring and howling down the mountainside, red-flamed and dark-smoked.

Only up close, head tilted back to gauge height, is it possible to imagine how much courage and discipline it requires to stand firm in the face of such an enemy and to meet it with nothing more terrifying than a hose shooting water.

October is the cruelest month.

Santa Anas blow with wild caprice across the Southern California deserts, draining moisture from the overheated air and transforming the dry mountains into mounds of fuel waiting to be ignited.

On Monday, they were.

Grass and scrub brush and trees burned with the ferocity of magnesium in the lunatic winds that danced and whirled up the hillsides and down the canyons.

Flames leaped highways and ate through homes and threatened to burn the very sea itself.

Decker Canyon, Piuma Canyon, Tapo Canyon, Peach Hill, Box Canyon, Mt. Gleason, Wheeler Canyon, Hummingbird Hill.

I wandered through them at the height of the firestorms because it isn't good enough to view disaster from a distance when you're a reporter, and that's what I'll always be.

"I wouldn't go up there," a highway patrolman said to me at the foot of Encinal Canyon.

"Pass this barricade at your own risk," another said to me at the eastern blockade of the Simi Valley Freeway.

I take minimal risks, but I had to experience the hot winds on my face and cough up the black soot and stand eyes watering on the edge of the red wall of flames, because it was about time I felt what the firefighters felt.

"Isn't this some kind of living?" one of them said to me, hunched away from the flames, trying to clear his lungs. Fire and sweat blackened his face. He was no older than my son.

"Maybe you ought to look for an office job," I said.

"What?" he replied in mock indignation, "and give up the healthy outdoors?"

Firemen are special people.

There were armies of them in hats and heavy yellow jackets through the Santa Monica, Santa Susana and San Gabriel Mountains, working through the bellowing nights and into the angry days, holding a fire line here, losing a battle there.

I watched them stand against overwhelming odds to save homes in Decker Canyon and march into the flame and smoke that cast the amber light at high noon over Hummingbird Hill.

I saw them marshal for the fight in Malibu, a dozen trucks parked down the center of Pacific Coast Highway, where fire had already leaped the road and singed the landside trees of the oceanside homes.

The trucks and the men were the dividing line between calamity and serenity, for, even as the canyons died, sun-worshipers played on the beach, laughing bicyclists pumped down PCH and, incredibly, runners jogged among the smoky ruins.

If I ever doubted that Malibu would endure forever, I don't anymore.

I say that, however, without rancor. Small sanities maintain the balance in great disasters. God gave us sunshine in winter to remind us that spring would come again.

Not everyone jogged and not everyone sun-bathed and not everyone rode their 10-speeds among the fire trucks.

Strangers worked to save the homes of people they didn't know, and then moved on to do what they could to fight a fire that didn't affect them.

A different kind of empathy lured spectators to the overpasses of the Simi Valley Freeway to watch the clusters of China-red flames among the boulders of the Santa Susanas, like a theatrical audience at a Dantesque performance.

Disaster, in its way, is the ultimate form of visual gossip, full of shouts and whispers, at once mysterious in its message and awesome in its portent.

Fire burning through the mountains from the canyons to the sea is front page and prime time, something to measure our lives against, close enough to observe but distant enough to be harmless.

I'm not saying we don't care. We do.

"Most people aren't without feeling," a fireman said to me. "They're just glad it's not their home burning."

And there's the woman in the amber sunlight surrounded by billows of smoke against the flame-clusters, against the immensity of fire, against a whole world a-burning.

She cries for all of us.

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