Yet again, smoke gets in their lives

Times Staff Writer

As smoke spread from Castaic to the Mexican border, the numbers rolled in -- air tankers, bulldozers and fire crews deployed, acres consumed, residents evacuated, houses destroyed, the precise percentages of containment, the speed of the wind (as opposed to wind gusts), the number of utility customers without electricity, of avocado trees lost, of Red Cross shelters opened and the telephone numbers to reach them.

Sometimes these numbers were presented in the aggregate. Sometimes they were reported for particular fires, names of which also became part of the common litany, the Witch and Harris fires, the Grass Valley, the Santiago, the Slide.

The tone of the public information officers and radio announcers who passed along the numbers, providing updates with the regularity of rush-hour traffic reports, was one of awe and reverence. After a certain point, of course, the numbers blurred together and, as informational reference points, lost their power.

Still, the numbers kept coming, and in time it became clear some greater magic must be at work, something that transcended mere counting. More than anything, it seemed, the point of all these numbers was to convey a semblance of order, and maybe context, to a fiery chaos. It provided a strange comfort.


This statistical drumbeat always has been part of the fabric of Southern California wildfires, as familiar as the obligatory images of plucky homeowners making a stand with garden hoses, hooded horses led on halters to safety, palm trees shedding fiery fronds into the Santa Ana winds.

A similar mainstay in the fire narrative always has been the homeowner who defied a “mandatory” evacuation order, who fought and saved a house and survived to tell about it. There’s at least one, it seems, every time.

In the case of the Grass Valley fire behind Lake Arrowhead, (1,100 acres burned, 113 houses lost, 40% contained) the role was reprised by Scott Garrett, a 48-year-old semi-retired worker bee in the film industry. Along with a neighbor, he had spent all day and night Monday battling flames with buckets of water and shovels of dirt.

It worked, and early Tuesday evening, Garrett sat slumped in the cab of his white Ford pickup, parked out front of his house on Sonoma Drive. He was talking into a cellphone. Though it was possible to pick up only his side of the conversation, the call’s dire purpose quickly became clear.


“I hated to give you the bad news,” Garrett could be heard saying, his voice at once raspy and gentle, “but I just figured you’d rather know than not know.”

And then, “Dude, don’t be mad at them. It was gnarly up there at the top. They were working their asses off. They were spread thin with all those fires everywhere.”

And, “They said the same thing to me, and a couple of times I almost left when it looked like it might do to me what it did to the houses on top.”

And, “Hey, you are out and safe, and it’s a house. And that can be rebuilt.” A pause: “If you come on up, and you are wanting to sift, I’m around. I’ll help you.”


And so the man who saved his house told a neighbor that his place had become one of what the next banner headline would describe as “1,155 homes - and counting.”


More than anything, what distinguished this run of fire from previous mega-infernos was its geographical reach and sense of community. In this way it was strangely reminiscent of the 1984 Olympics. The people who built those games prided themselves on drawing the region together by scattering events across its expanse -- rowing on Lake Casitas, equestrian events in San Diego, shooting in Chino, cycling in Irvine.

The fires followed a similar blueprint, yet any sense of municipal unity they inspired was one forged in misery. Every corner of what we call the Southland received a share of fire and peril, and by week’s end the smoke had drifted together to provide a common blanket. These were the freeway fires, and it was possible to drive for two days up and down Southern California and never lose sight of at least one column of smoke.


Headed down Interstate 15, it was possible at one point to see the plumes rising over Arrowhead in the rearview mirror, a wall of gray from the Witch fire looming ahead and, looking right, the columns of smoke from the Orange County “events,” as they were being called on the radio.

All over the dial, the news readers rotated through their updates, bouncing listeners from Santa Clarita, to Malibu, to Running Springs, to Modjesko Canyon, to Palomar, and all in a single segment.

If there was a center to it all, Rancho Bernardo probably sufficed as much as any. This suburban swath of east San Diego was overrun by the Witch fire (197, 990 acres, 1,061 homes, 20% contained).

For John Van Tassel, his wife and two young children the evacuation summons had come as a knock on the door -- his cable-based telephone service had been knocked out, eliminating any chance of an earlier reverse-911 warning -- and they fled their home of four years in less than five minutes. They flew to Northern California, to stay with his wife’s family.


From there, Van Tassel had seen what was left of their home on television. The house, he said, had become the fire damage “poster child” for a national news crew, who had used the gutted, smoking ruin, with its three young palm trees swaying untouched in the frontyard, as a backdrop for live stand-ups.

A Republican congressman had staged a news conference in front of it, and as Van Tassel scanned the television screen he could see boxes of belongings that apparently had been set on the lawn by firefighters.

On Wednesday morning, two days after the fire burned through, Van Tassel still was being held back, along with a couple of dozen other residents, behind a checkpoint patrolled by National Guard troops. He was agitated.

“No one will let me in,” the 42-year-old said. “The press can get in. Politicians can get in. But no one will let me in. My house has been destroyed. I know that. I saw it on television. But I also know that at least two pictures of my kids survived. They showed them on television.”


It took a little doing, but Van Tassel finally made it to his house. On the front lawn was a small pile of belongings salvaged by fire crews: a flat-screen television, a cradle, some paintings, a red wagon, golf clubs (“I don’t care about them,” Van Tassel said tersely), a few boxes of personal papers and the family pictures he’d seen on television.

He had been eager to see what survived the fire, and this was it -- more than he expected, but still. . . . Now, having seen, he seemed more than ready to leave. There simply was nothing much to linger over. He grabbed a box of tax records and a handful of pictures and allowed himself one last look. And then he turned his back.

“That’s it,” he said. “We’re done.”



In the end, after the numbers have been tabulated and the narratives told, after the politicians and public policy types have sifted the wreckage for the latest harvest of lessons and blame, what tends to stick most in the aftermath of fire are images.

At Lake Arrowhead, across from the country club, a man was working Tuesday in his frontyard, eyes wrapped in goggles, cap on, calmly raking leaves even as plumes of smoke rose from a nearby valley.

The man, a retired Los Angeles police officer, would not give his name. He said he had sent his wife off with a carload of belongings and waited out the fire with his dog, sleeping on a treeless fairway across the street for safety. Now, with the threat diminished, he explained, he was killing time with chores.

“Life,” he said, “goes on.”


A few miles to the east, beside the Rim of the World Highway, at 6,000 feet, a house was under construction. Judging by the frame job it will be a beauty, with a panoramic view of the mountain passes and valleys to the south. On a clear day, in fact, it probably would be possible from this spot to see the fires burning in San Diego.

But this was not a clear day. On either side of the construction site, which had been abandoned, clouds of dark smoke from two fires floated over the peaks.

A wide swath of burned timbers, meanwhile, ran up a cliff to the base of this house-to-be -- a remnant of a previous fire that, from the available evidence, not only had burned through this lot but also destroyed the neighboring houses.

Still, there it stood: Four stories of two-by-fours and heavy beams, a house on a sheer cliff, waiting for a roof before the snows come -- a monument to the optimism that made California and the stubborn recklessness that sustains it.


In downtown San Diego on Wednesday, evacuees who had taken rooms at nearby hotels were milling about Horton Plaza, waiting out the fire with air-filter masks over their faces and shopping bags in their hands. Many of them had their dogs with them, and one stopped to apologize after her small beast stopped to honor nature.

“Sorry,” she said, bending down with a plastic bag. “911.”

At the southern edge of Orange County at mid-day, there was a scene that seemed fit for cinematic apocalypse: To the east, flames ate toward the towers that support transmission lines carrying power from the San Onofre nuclear plant. Camp Pendleton Marines appeared to be attempting to hack a fire line in the brush.

In the background, columns of smoke from the county’s larger fires rose.


To the west, the twin reactors were shrouded in smoke. Beyond them was the ocean, gray, still, with only a seabird or two flapping about. And through the middle of it, traffic boomed along Interstate 5 in both directions, moving at speed.

Later in the evening, in the Malibu canyon where the series of fires began last weekend, workers already were restringing utility lines.

At the site of a mansion that had been for a time the center of the firestorm, and the storm of media attention, a detail of sheriff’s deputies perched on the edge of a waterless fountain, keeping a quiet watch on the ruins.

It was possible from the deck to peer down on the Pacific. The Santa Anas, now subsided, had pushed a curtain of smoke and smog offshore. The thick haze painted the dropping sun a deep reddish brown. At the breakers, small, black figures bobbed in the waters of Malibu Lagoon. These were surfers at sunset, and this was Southern California.