All day Monday, neighbors stood on the sidewalks catching up on this and that, and scanning the whorls of flame on the mountain that looms above their town.
Sierra Madre was like an out-of-scale drive-in movie theater, with the audience watching a life-and-death battle roar across a vast vertiginous screen.
Normally, residents converge for hikes, or concerts in the park, or Fourth of July parades. Last month they celebrated the annual Wistaria Festival in honor of a sprawling 114-year-old vine that is recognized as one of the world’s largest blossoming plants.
Now they came together as they found their beloved vestige of small town America, population 10,500, under siege.
The sky clattered with the surround-sound cacophony of the modern world.
Air tankers roared in, trailing giant red plumes of retardant. The chop of helicopters drummed off the broken granite ridges.
“There’s the spotter plane,” said Janet Petty, 66, watching from the front row -- where her home, unfortunately, is located -- high up in the cedars on Carter Avenue. She watched the plane and an air-tanker behind it crest a ridge and make a deep swoop toward her. “Don’t drop it on me, bud,” she said.
But the steepness of the slopes threw off perspective. The retardant doused a thread of fire a good half a mile away.
About 700 firefighters were on the job by Monday evening, including members of the town’s volunteer department. The fire had consumed more than 530 acres, prompting the evacuation of about 1,000 residents. Many had thought they were in the clear Sunday night but woke up in the morning to see that the fire had made a run toward town.
Shortly before noon, evacuated residents had been allowed to return to an area east of Camillo Street. But winds picked up, and a new group of homeowners between Michillinda Avenue and Oak Crest Drive had to abandon their houses.
By evening, only 21% of the fire was contained. However, only a single outbuilding had burned, according to a U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman.
For much of the day, residents clumped together on sidewalks with binoculars and cellphones. Some brought out lawn chairs, gazing silently at the eerie purple light, the funnels of smoke and the hypnotic ebb and flow of the flames.
When a flare-up burst just above Baldwin Avenue just before noon, the crowd gasped.
Father Richard Krekelberg, wearing his clerical collar, jumped off his motor scooter and ran into the street to get a better view. “Oh my gosh, that’s what I’ve been afraid of this whole time,” he said.
As the priest at St. Rita Catholic Church less than a block away, he’d packed the records of the 100-year-old parish into his car Saturday. But by Sunday night, the fire had moved east, and he figured he was safe to take them out. The next morning he woke to see smoke pouring off the hillside just above town and packed up again.
He gave a brief Mass, praying for everybody’s safety, and then whipped through the streets on his Yamaha scooter to see if anyone needed assistance -- carrying holy oil under his seat in case he had to anoint an injured firefighter or resident.
“I threw it in just in case,” he said.
All in all, the mood was less panic than “a heightened state of awareness,” in the words of Jim Carter, who tried futilely to snap a good picture of the tanker dropping retardant.
“This is just part of the cycle,” said his wife, Mary, who has lived in Sierra Madre all of her 52 years. “This is the fourth big fire I’ve been through.”
Waiting for the next big air drop, she noticed a small bird in a stand of bamboo across the street. “Hey, that’s a phainopepla.”
“Where?” Jim asked. “Oh, right there.”
He explained that it was a flycatcher, somewhat rare. They watched it dart across the street, satisfied at having caught this tiny glimpse of what they love about Sierra Madre.
The town just kind of eases into the wilds. Paved streets turn into dirt roads and then into trails. Homes sit under shady porticoes of camphor, live oak, crepe myrtle, sycamore and deodar cedar. River rocks dragged out of canyons a century ago form the pillars and porches of old bungalows on the hill.
And in the heat of summer, a quick hike can end in a cool glen, where toes can be dipped in a mountain stream.
The proximity to nature has its price, as residents from Malibu to Laguna Beach to rural San Diego County know all too well.
Residents of Sierra Madre seem reconciled to it.
When Doug Townsend first came to Sierra Madre from Riverside 25 years ago, he instantly knew it was home. “You’ve got to be kidding -- this is like Mayberry RFD,” he said.