When our mountain burned

Times Staff Writer

We live in the mountains for solitude, which changes like the beauty of seasons. In autumn, as the dogwoods glow and nights turn cool, it's easy to believe that nature reaches inside our souls and that stars are not only in the sky but also in our eyes, connecting us to the world we live in.

I used to feel solitude in the warmth of coffee and flame from the hearth to begin the day, in the smell of wood smoke drifting in the early morning air. Smoke smells different to me now. Flames turn me cold. Our home is in Crestline. We left it on Oct. 25 after packing two vehicles with photographs, a dog, a cat, a fish, a couple of laundry baskets of clothes, a fishing pole my father gave me and a few other things.

"What does evacuate mean?" my 5-year-old daughter, Rhuby, asked as we were driving away.

"It means we're going to stay with friends for a few days," I told her.

"I like to evacuate," she said.

We left not knowing if our neighborhoods would still be standing after fire ran its course, not knowing if we would ever live there again. What loomed ahead of us then, as a community, was uncertainty and fear.

As we drove down the backside of the mountain, we saw a monstrous plume of smoke, which reminded me of photographs I had seen of the sky above Hiroshima after the atomic bomb. Were it not for that and the realization of what lay beneath it, I might have thought it was beautiful.

Earlier in the day, my wife, Julia Sandidge, and I had taken Rhuby to her ballet class, a rehearsal for "The Nutcracker." It's an event that sells out every year and is a holiday tradition for many residents of the Lake Arrowhead area, part of a spirit and sense of community that we cherish. It's a very good production, but primarily we love it because it is ours. It is our doctor, our doctor's wife, students from our high school, children from our elementary schools.

But on our way home, we saw the smoke. It had mushroomed quickly, a swirling mass of black and gray and brown and white. It seemed alive in the way it moved, smothering the ground, breathing deeply of the sky.

As soon as we got home, we started loading up. My older daughter called from San Diego, where she was with her boyfriend. I told her to not try to make it up the mountain, to take no chances.

I flipped through the channels to find news of the fire. College football games were being played. The Yankees and Marlins were preparing for Game 6. Flames were drawing nearer, the cloud of smoke growing ever larger on the other side of the mountain, but on our side the sky remained blue. I went out on the deck and listened for birds. It seemed quieter than usual. I smelled no smoke.

A television report, however, showed us what was happening just a couple of miles away. The cloud of smoke was boiling ever closer. It was time to go. We said goodbye to our neighbors and we said goodbye to our home. An evacuation order had not yet been issued, but people were leaving the mountain anyway.

The smoke was thick in San Bernardino. The sky was dark. Deep down, I knew this day would come. There were too many dead trees, too many months and years of drought. Then came the Santa Anas, slapping the flames with open palms.

On our way to South Pasadena where friends had offered to put us up, we heard on the radio that the electricity had gone out and, later that night, the evacuation order came. "How could this be happening?" Julia asked throughout the night. A day that had begun so peacefully, so blissfully uneventful had turned to chaos. Solitude had gone up in flames.

I stayed up late watching the news alone. While Julia and Rhuby were asleep, there was a new development. Another fire, being called the "playground fire," was burning Crestline. They were searching for two teenagers who may have started it. In San Bernardino, 200 homes had been lost. Two people were dead.

I kept thinking about the lines I had drawn on our pantry door charting Rhuby's growth from the day we moved in three years ago. I thought about the Christmas decorations we left behind. Every newspaper story I have written during the last 33 years was in the house. Family videos. All of Rhuby's things except for the three toys she took with us: a stuffed unicorn, a boom box and a toy computer.

"It will all be gone by the time she wakes up," I was thinking.

In my mind, over and over again that night, I saw our house burn as if I were standing on our road watching flames shoot out the windows. I thought about Grandfather Tree, a redwood down the road that Rhuby likes to hug on our walks. I thought of the trees behind our house, filled with birds, raccoons that had learned to open our sliding glass doors and squirrels. In my mind, they, along with the bears and coyotes, also were burning.

It was 1:30 a.m. Sunday when I finally went to bed. Even then, I couldn't sleep. I lay awake seeing flames and wondering what would be left of our home, our mountain. At least we were safe, I thought.

By 5 that morning, I was again alone in front of the television. The news wasn't good. A reporter was saying they were moving the command post out of downtown Crestline because the fire was moving quickly toward town.

I took Rhuby to the park at midmorning. Everyone seemed happy there, and Rhuby and I tried our best, but as we left, we were mostly silent. When we passed people, for some reason, I couldn't look them in the eyes.

We spent much of the day watching television coverage, speaking to friends on cellphones. I tried to reach our insurance agent, but his office was in Crestline. There was no answer, so I left a message, then started calling around: customer service, claims, customer service, claims. Around and around.

At dinner that night, we were talking about the things we had brought with us, and Julia asked about two bamboo suitcases I had given her as a wedding gift. They contained the blanket we slept beneath on our wedding night, the Tom Waits cassette tape we listened to that night, the candles we burned. I had forgotten them and Julia started to cry. Rhuby walked to her mom and hugged her. "At least you have the memories," she said.

We continued watching the news, feeling powerless. The fire was racing. How do you stay hopeful? How do you keep from simply collapsing like melted butter? How do you stop the wind?

True friends indeed

Friends are those who will, in a remarkable way, open their home to a family with a 5-year-old with sticky hands, a 22-year-old and her boyfriend, a jittery dog prone to leakage, a cat that sheds and two emotionally wrecked adults. A friend is someone who will find a way to reach you to tell you they are thinking about you, praying for you. Those things become important.

Someone once said, "House guests are like fish. They start to stink after a few days." Whoever it was, he was right. It's such an imposition bringing chaos into the lives of others. My days are spent alternately fearing that our house will burn and our dog will pee on their floor.

On Tuesday, our fourth night away from home, we went to Venice to stay with other friends. The fire seemed to have slowed down in Crestline, but what was good for us was bad for others. The fire wasn't stopping, it was merely moving east. Running Springs and Big Bear were now in danger.

The figures were becoming meaningless, thousands of acres, hundreds of homes, billions of dollars. Julia was becoming upset that reporters were referring to homes in the mountains as cabins, as if they were somehow different from other people's homes. I was on the Santa Monica Freeway on Wednesday afternoon when I heard a radio report that Crestline was on fire again. It just wouldn't stop.

That night, I lay with Rhuby to help her fall asleep. We heard sirens, and she wrapped her arms around me. "I'm scared, Daddy," she said. "Is the fire coming?"

Celebrating rain

We stayed a fourth night in Venice so that Rhuby could trick-or-treat with our friends' daughter, Sofie Rhose. We had left her angel costume at home, so Julia bought her a "groovy girl" outfit. After a pre-trick-or-treat party, we went out into the rain and forgot about the fire. The rain was cold but it was something to celebrate.

That night, after our hosts had gone to bed, Rhuby became sad again. She missed her dollies, so we made one. We took one of my socks, cut out arms and legs. Rhuby painted a face on it and then held it in her arms as she went to sleep.

The next morning, we moved into a hotel suite. When we told the front desk we were evacuated from the fire, we were given a special rate. Even though a conference was coming in and they were filled, we could stay as long as we wanted, we were told.

At breakfast the next day, we met a young couple who had lost everything. Their two sons were outside with their dog and Rhuby. "I didn't think I could cry anymore," the woman said. "We lost everything."

From reports on the Internet and newspapers and television, we believed our house was safe even though we also knew that a neighborhood less than a mile away, where we would go for walks, had burned.

We returned to Crestline on Sunday, more than a week after we had left. The smell of smoke was still thick on Highway 138. Trees were smoldering. Crews were trying to restore power. We fell into a line of vehicles making their way up the mountain. It was an eerie feeling, like driving through a cemetery or battlefield at midnight. I looked at the faces of people driving in the opposite direction to see if there was joy or sadness. Usually, there was neither, just somberness.

And then there was our house. Julia began to cry. Our dog ran in and quickly found his bed. It was cold inside. A net still floated in the fishbowl from when we scooped up the fish. Rhuby found her stuffed dog and held it tightly. There was the stench of rotting food from the refrigerator.

Outside, no one else was on our road. A Halloween scarecrow was slumped over in front of a neighbor's house. A half-built garage was silent, but not for long. The hammering, I'm sure, will start up again soon and there will be more pounding at the top of the mountain, where people will rebuild.

There have always been fires and there will be more fires, but my hunch is that while some neighbors will leave, most will build again. There are many good reasons for staying. Perhaps the biggest one is what awaits us now, a need to help each other through tragedy and loss. There will be, I'm sure, carwashes and bake sales, fund-raisers of all sorts. We will look at one another in a different way, I think, realizing we are all part of the same mountain.

So much has happened in a week. The Yankees, what happened to them? It was summer-like when we evacuated and now it feels like winter. Snow has fallen. The smell of fire lingers, as I'm sure it will for some time. Halloween has come and gone and, soon, it will be Thanksgiving.

But for this moment, we will focus on moving back into our home and our lives and our solitude.

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