The first thing you rescue in a fire is your kid.
I was in the car that morning heading toward the Valley when I saw the dark plume roiling in aggressively expanding billows against the Wedgwood blue of the sky above Old Topanga Canyon. I made an extremely precipitous U-turn, down Topanga Canyon Road, speeding toward my son's school, toward my home, toward the fire.
When I reached Topanga Elementary at about 11:40, the smoke loomed like a massive, malevolent ghost behind the hill above the school's brick auditorium. Arlene, one of the school secretaries, handed me a blue form. "You have to fill this out before we can page your child." I filled out one, then another for Caity, the daughter of my friends Lamar and Jim, who live a quarter-mile from where the fire appeared to be located.
Will, my not-quite 8-year-old son, walked quickly down from the upper playground where the children had massed on the blacktop, his eyes huge with unease as they searched me out. Caity was right behind him, balancing a rolling mess of papers, pencils, crayons. "I brought everything from my desk," she said in a practical, little girl's voice, "so it won't burn up."
In the minute it took us to drive home, the smoke cloud had gotten bigger and closer. I set out juice and snacks for Will and Caity while I tried to decide what to pack in the trunk of the Honda for what looked like an imminent evacuation.
The first few items were easy: three years of notes and the finished chapters of the book I am writing, a file of precious letters, research for a future project. Will unhooked the Macintosh so that we could save the information on the hard drive.
After that, what? I have a steel lockbox for important papers. The truth is, I don't have a lot of important papers: our birth certificates, my passport and my son's bankbook, which shows a total of $78.55. I don't have a bankbook because I don't have a savings account. I have read that in a fire you should make sure your insurance papers are safe. No problem there. I don't have any insurance papers. If this 1,000-square-foot, unheated, wood-clapboard rented house were to burn, everything I own would burn with it--with no financial recourse. I don't know where I would get the money to replace the most basic of clothes. Or pots and pans. Or lamps. Or a kitchen table.
Banishing that thought, I contemplated my books. The walls of the tiny room that I use as an office are lined with shelves holding more than a thousand books. I am acquisitive about very few things, but books are my weakness. I have anthropological texts and paperback classics from garage sales. I even have a close-to-priceless, out-of-print account by Sir Alfred Russell Wallace detailing his 1885 sailing trip through the Malay Archipelago that led, in part, to the publication of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution.
I packed none of the books. I was too rattled to know where to begin. Instead, I thought about what to pack for my son. He was outside playing with Caity. A minute or two ago I had asked him what it was he wanted me to pack and he had looked at me astonished. "Everything," he said.
In his room, I stared at Legos, matchbox racers, a Nerf bow and arrows. What would give him the most emotional ballast if we lost it all? I grabbed three photo albums, each made after a summer trip to my parents' cabin in Montana. These albums are less travelogue than chronicles of family activities. Some pictures show my kid and my dad building steps down to the river behind our cabin. Others show the same tall, old guy and the short, blond kid rewiring the loft above the garage. Or me and my mother picking raspberries.
My father is a very active 79, still stomping around in tooled-leather boots and a cowboy hat. But he has had two major heart attacks and pops a nitroglycerin tab under his tongue every time he walks more than 20 paces. Life's dicey. If we hadn't known it already, today had brought us that message again, loud and terribly clear. Memories are worth protecting.
The albums went into the trunk, then baby pictures.
Finally I packed a few changes of clothes for Will and myself: T-shirts, shorts, sweat clothes, socks and undies, plus tennis shoes and a jacket for each of us. I also grabbed my own black cowboy boots. Almost everything else in the closet seemed weirdly foreign and irrelevant to me. I considered my various pairs of good shoes, but I could not bring my hand to reach toward them. In the insistent present tense of oncoming fire, I couldn't imagine those citified shoes ever being part of my life again.
I did, however, pack my jewelry. I have a half-decent stash of sterling silver pieces and some pearls. If the worst happened, and my entire wardrobe was reduced to two pairs of gray Target sweats, I could see no virtue in staring into an uncertain future without a few good bracelets.
I HAD DIALED LAMAR'S NUMBER TWICE BY THEN, BUT NOBODY ANswered the phone. Finally, she called me. "They told me at the school you have Caity," she said, trying to keep the hysteria out of her voice. "We're at home. And we're going to try to stay. Jim is out there with the Husqvarna cutting down anything vertical within a hundred-yard radius. I mean," she said, "every single tree"--a pause--"the fire's coming straight at us."
I put Caity on with Lamar. "My Mom's going to pack my Halloween candy and all my dolls. . . ." Caity said in a hyperventilated recitation after she hung up. "My Mom's going to evacuate everything in my room."
I said, "Of course she will." And I hugged her.
If the fire was coming at Lamar, it could race along their ridge to Summit to Summit, the road that connects the ridges between us. And if it got that far, it would be sucked straight down our side canyon, Greenleaf Canyon. The television was on, and I was channel surfing. By half-past noon, the TV reported the wind had shifted and the fire had turned, spinning south to race as fast as a man can run across Old Canyon to Red Rock, where it would soon hop Saddle Peak to Malibu.
I walked to my neighbor's house. Barbara had just gotten home with her own two children and one more, Jake, who lived, like Caity, nearer the danger.
Barbara and I are close links in the network of mothers who depend on each other in Topanga Canyon. "What are you packing?" I asked her. There was still room in the back of my car and I had become unmoored from my ability to decide what to load next. "Insurance papers, business files, pictures of the kids," she ticked off the essentials on her fingers. "And the silver flatware. I packed the silver flatware."
I have a set of silver flatware. It had been passed down to me from my mother's mother. I didn't use it for years. I think I was waiting for my life to become more gracious or more unorganized or more, I don't know-- something . When I turned 40, I realized this is my life--ungracious and unorganized as it might be. I began using the flatware.
I walked back across the road. The flatware, I was glad to discover, was stored neatly in its box--not in the dish drainer. I shoved it into the back of the trunk, stepped back and took a breath. I suddenly felt solid, adult, as if I had followed some basic rule of behavior approved by Miss Manners: "In case of fire, pack the silver."
CALLS FLEW AROUND THE CANYON LIKE BATS AT TWILIGHT. LAMAR, from her high perch, was a great source of information. She and Jim were safe, but others were not so lucky. "I think Chris' house is gone," Lamar reported. "Strawberry Mountain is completely on fire."
Barbara's husband arrived. ("John tried to vote," she said, exasperated. "The sheriffs actually laughed at me," he muttered grumpily.) Next came Jill, Jake's mother, bumping our direction in a Ford pickup.
Jill was ferrying seven extremely nervous looking canines and her set of prewar Limoges china. Jill's husband was still hosing down their house, but she had evacuated with their dogs and those of a neighbor, a physicist named Walter, who was in St. Louis on business. Walter, it seemed, also had an aquarium full of tropical fish.
"I got hold of Walter and told him not to worry, that I was taking the dogs," Jill said. But she hadn't been sure what to do about the fish.
"F- - - the fish," Walter purportedly had said. "One has to draw the line somewhere."
Minutes later I began stuffing microwaved popcorn into the mouths of the five children who were drifting back and forth in a flock from my house to Barbara's. Popcorn would have a calming effect. It said so in Prevention magazine. A calming effect of any kind, at that moment, seemed like an exceptionally worthy goal.
Post-popcorn, I came to terms with the fact that I not only have silver flatware, I also have a full set of prewar Limoges china--that too courtesy of my grandmother. In truth, the silver and the Limoges are the only things of value that I own--other than my car. But how do you safely pack a hundred or so paper-thin plates, cups and soup bowls into a nearly full back seat? On the other hand, if the house went up in smoke, maybe I could sell the stupid china to raise money to buy some clothes for me and my kid. I stared into the china hutch for several long seconds before deciding:
F- - - the Limoges.
Instead, I packed two ceramic plates my kid made for me. The first he gave to me on Mother's Day, the other on Valentine's Day. One has to draw the line somewhere.
BARBARA, JILL AND I POOLED FOOD FOR A THREE-FAMILY DINNER. AS WE ate, we compared notes from the grapevine--who had evacuated, whose house was saved, whose house was gone. We didn't talk about our own luck, afraid of feeling guilty, afraid that the luck would evaporate.
At 7 p.m., I bundled Caity into the car and headed down the road to walk her past the sheriff's roadblock into Old Canyon, where her father was waiting on the other side. Back in the car, I drove to where I could watch the fire. The smoke was still traveling south and east--away from us. But the whole ridgeline between Topanga and the Pacific was burning.
At home, I whisked Will out with me to see the fire. I figured any reality was better than the fire monster of his imagination. But as we stood on the hill behind the elementary school watching a 200-foot-high wall of conflagration, I was not so sure. Flames shot high as rockets in a bright crown of furious red light.
"That looks scary," Will said in a small, brave voice.
Damn straight. I guess I've been in scarier situations. I've been shot at twice on L.A.'s Eastside; I've walked through minefields in Cambodia during the last days of Pol Pot's regime. But seeing the community where my son and I live menaced by flames the size of skyscrapers packed a strangely primal wallop, different than anything else I can quite remember.
All night I dozed and woke in 20-minute intervals, monitoring the mesmerizing images on the TV screen, wondering if we should have left. But by morning the firefighters had forced the firestorm back upon itself, and everyone was convinced that we were on the downhill slope of the crisis.
Everyone turned out to be wrong.
Will and I sat on the hill above our house all Wednesday morning, watching the firefighting helicopters as they dove to save houses, disappearing completely into the smoke, twirling around whatever house was threatened. Then at midday, for the first time since the fire had started, ash began to drift over our house. Minutes later we heard the sound of voices amplified by bullhorns. The words were not intelligible, but the message was clear.
Barbara came across to my house. Her lips were pulled in a tight line and her face was pale. "I'm leaving," she said. "I'm taking the kids." There was a pause. "They're asking everyone to evacuate up to Chaney." Chaney Drive is a side street north of us--at least two miles farther from the fire than we were.
I felt the threads of my surface bravery start to unravel. Barbara and I had stuck together through this whole thing. Will, standing next me, began to sob. "I don't want to evacuate!" he said, his voice high and teary.
A hand on my son, I turned back to Barbara. "Is John staying?" Barbara nodded. "For a while, anyway." I took a breath. "Then I'm going to stay." Barbara said nothing. "Why?" she asked finally.
"I don't know," I said apologetically. "I'm just staying. That's all."
Suddenly, it was the real thing. If I was going to take my grandmother's quilt off the wall, it would have to be now. If I was going to save the wolf spirit Eskimo sculpture, I should put it in the car now. But I was stuck and couldn't pack anymore. Maybe it was because in my heart I didn't believe the house would burn. Or maybe not packing was my childish talisman against the fire. Or maybe I was secretly harboring some whacked-out Zen-cum-New Age notion that possessions shouldn't matter.
I made myself ask Will one more time what he wanted to take. He blinked. Seeing my new unsettledness, his expression grew solemn and mature. "I'd like to take my bike," he said. "I know it's big. But if I take the wheel off, it'll fit in the back seat."
I told him that I would get the bike in, come hell or high water. Even if I had to take out my computer printer to do it.
Will stared at me. "You'd take out your printer to pack my bike?"
"Sure." I was embarrassed that it was even an issue, that he didn't know automatically that his well-being was the only really important thing for me to protect in this fire. He was silent for a minute. "I think we can get them both in," he said.
IN THE END IT DIDN'T MATTER. WE NEVER HAD TO LEAVE. THE FIREfighters performed a miracle and the blazes close to us were routed by sundown.
The next day, Thursday, Barbara and the kids were back. Signs thanking the firefighters bloomed like sudden wildflowers all over the canyon.
Although I knew it was irrational, I couldn't take anything at all out of the car until Saturday. On Monday the trunk was still half full. Even now, it is hard to say when the accouterments of my son's life and my own will be safely back where they belong.