Love's trial by fire -- and mud

Times Staff Writer

I'm lined up with my neighbors in a ragtag human chain on a chilly Saturday, heaving rocks across a gargantuan pile of mud. There's a numbing comfort to the routine in a year when our routines have been upended.

I married in late October, and abandoned my Orange County home 48 hours later because of a raging wildfire. Since then I've been ordered to evacuate five more times because of the threat of mudslides.

It is a stock feature of Southern California life that took this native New Yorker a few years to grasp. When wildfires, floods or earthquakes strike, thousands of people must leave their homes, often very quickly. Reporters like me vacuum colorful quotes from the wreckage, and life picks up again for all but a few waiting patiently for insurance money or building permits. Or in our case, until the siren atop our community firehouse moans again.

Other people cluck at the news reports and ask, "Why live someplace so dangerous? Just move." Might as well ask, "Why marry that one?" How can I explain rounding the hairpin turn and seeing the peaceful valley in front of me, layer on layer of mountains soaring behind it?

The first time I saw the canyons at Orange County's eastern edge a decade ago, I winged a silent prayer upward. My wish was granted. Every time I near home, it comes true again. And this is no lonely hideaway. Modjeska is a matchless mixture of rednecks and hippies, longhaired men in huts and "downtown" folk in historic hunting lodges and stucco mansions. The occasional rooster or tarantula struts maniacally across the road.

Folks in Modjeska Canyon have always lived on the edge. We are tucked into the Santa Ana Mountains next to free-flowing creeks, protected from the outside world by the long arm of a ridge. There are no street lights, only majestic live oaks and long-limbed sycamores, dense poison oak and restless mountain lions.

We are bound together by a perhaps unreasonable passion, as surely as any married couple. I don't think I could survive sprawling Southern California without my canyon.

But the price of admission is steep -- freak acts of man and nature. Last fall, during high winds, an arsonist set a fire in crackly shrub near Santiago Canyon Road.

I was back east, getting married in my mother's small New England town. The wedding was joyous. To walk up from the stone basement of the lakeside chapel, into a room filled with friends and family turned toward me with faces shining, was mind-blowing. It was so easy to look into Frank's eyes and say yes, loud and clear.

We headed for the airport a day and a half later. Our hectic jobs didn't allow time for a honeymoon yet. Leaving beautiful New England behind, my nose pressed to the blurry glass of the airplane, I gazed down at treetops aflame in red and gold foliage.

Approaching John Wayne, we saw the thick columns of smoke, the flames chewing the hills. They let me off the plane first, the flight attendant's detached voice asking for people's patience while someone whose home might be affected by the wildfires be allowed to exit. I sprang up so fast that I knocked a man's cellphone out of his hand. Apologizing, I ran into the gangway and dialed.

The fire hadn't jumped the road to Modjeska yet, but it was getting close. Finally we pulled up to our little stone house. I was jet-lagging wildly. The day before we left, a neighbor had piled a free load of wood in our driveway, blocking access to the house. No firefighter would try to save this place.

My husband, who'd lost a home to fire in the 1980s in nearby Silverado Canyon, wanted to stay anyway. Inside, every inch of me was screaming, "Get out!" Our house is on a dead end off a one-lane road, and flames were advancing from the wrong end.

"We're married now," I said. "Let's compromise; let's move this wood, then get out of here."

My husband reluctantly agreed. We did it, then tried four motels. All full. All of Southern California was burning, it seemed. It was 3 a.m.

Girl Scout instincts never die, and I had grabbed blankets and pillows before we fled. My husband remembered a crawl space on the second floor of his office in Laguna Hills, where we'd be out of the way when people arrived in the morning. It was barely big enough for two of us to lie down.

Frank was still brooding about having to leave. He said he'd sleep in a chair. I told him to get down there next to me -- I wasn't going to be separated that easily. He lay down. We were homeless. We'd been married 72 hours.

--

Frank has known his boss for 30 years. Terry and his wife, Pam, opened up their spare bedroom, kitchen, anything we needed.

Tuesday, the day after we returned, was the worst. I was back on the job, a horrified front-row witness. I saw 70 feet of flame grab Jim and Diane Carter's dome house, which burned to the ground. I saw huge oaks with their insides burning, and scorched telephone poles dangling like giant pick-up sticks.

We all thought Modjeska was gone. But thanks to our volunteer firefighters and battalions from across the West, we lost just eight of 300 homes.

After eight days, the evacuation was lifted. Neighbors hugged as if they'd been parted for months, laughing and crying. I hiked the mesa behind our home, my secret place for solace. The century-old chaparral, the wild peony my friend Sarah had found, the penstemon, toyon, buckwheat and sugar bush were all vaporized. All that was left was sallow, barren earth. It was shocking, like seeing a beloved one ravaged by cancer. My husband hiked up behind me and held me as I wept.

The week after Thanksgiving, the authorities held an emergency meeting to scare the living daylights out of us. The Santiago fire had burned so hot on the steep slopes directly above Modjeska that there were no trees or even roots left to hold back tons of dirt and boulders ready to bury us if a hard rain provided the nudge. That night it poured. Huge spasms of muddy water pelted off the hillsides. A vacant house filled with 3 feet of mud. We evacuated again, shell-shocked. I drove the rainy canyon until dawn, reporting on the disaster, while my husband tried to sleep in a small motel room with four scared, smelly dogs.

I wasn't alone on the road. There was a weird SUV with yellow flashing lights, driven by a man with giant cameras who claimed to be a photographer for a news outlet I'd never heard of. A stretch limo passed. I identified myself and asked the man in the suit who he was. A producer for the "Today" show. They were all circling, waiting for us to die. Not yet. By midmorning, the all-clear sounded.

We were now fully into our winter of discontent. The whole canyon was irritable and depressed.

A week later, evacuation No. 3. My husband wanted to stay, as many of the men were. Why was the issue such a gender divide? But he relented wearily.

We were human yo-yos, bouncing between home and motel, living out of old duffel bags. I bought half a dozen toothbrushes, sick of trying to figure out where I'd left the last one. I took the nervous doggies for leashed walks. They were used to running free. A scrap of hill next to a gas station was littered with potato chip bags and coffee cups. But it smelled like home, I guess, because the dogs strained to get down into the mashed artemisia bushes.

We went to my new in-laws in suburban Atlanta for Christmas. I slept deeply, unafraid for the first time in two months that I would be awakened by a bullhorn or a mudslide. Days after we returned, No. 4.

Late January, No. 5. No homes lost, no bones broken. The firefighters put off their annual awards dinner until spring, past any chance of washout. People stubbornly stayed in the canyon when it rained, or raced home from work so they wouldn't be kept out, refusing to go even after deputies rapped on doors to warn them.

Frank said quietly that he wouldn't be going. I told him I understood, then couldn't leave. I lay on the bed wide-eyed as the storm winds shrieked. For better or worse, I was married to the man and the place.

I worked, worked, worked and fell deeper in love with my husband. We're not young and foolish, we're middle-aged and romantic, in gentle ways. I love his quiet competence, doing the laundry, putting a plate of food in front of me after I get off the highway at night. No matter how tired we are, we tell each other we love each other.

Slowly, slowly, the canyon unfurled into normalcy. Wild cucumber curled straight up out of scorched earth, vibrant green, a talisman of hope. Suddenly we were a verdant island blooming amid vast, ashy slopes. Lupine grew like I've never seen them, brave blue swords several feet high. Whole swaths of hillsides were abloom with California poppies and peonies. Wild onion and phacelia, bright blue and fuzzy, stole my heart. It was a joy to live here again, still, forever.

We held a "re-creation celebration" of our wedding in late April, at Bill and Paula LaBar's place. Friends raided their rose gardens for centerpieces. The barn tables were weighted with food, our resident belly dancer Sheryl undulated and whirled, and the rest of us joined in as not one but two bands played.

On May 16, the Modjeska firefighters held their long-delayed awards dinner at the Elks Club in Mission Viejo. Bob Scheibel played a slide show of the year's events.

Gripping one another's hands, tears flowing, many saw for the first time photos of their homes burning, the familiar ridges burning, the mushroom cloud of ash and smoke above Modjeska. The last slide was of puffy white clouds in a blue sky.

"We survived," read the caption.

--

Four days later, a freak thunderstorm parked itself overhead and unloaded 2 inches of rain. "It was like someone turned a bucket upside down, and water just poured out for 30 minutes straight," said Brett Peterson, a longtime area resident.

I was in downtown L.A., ready to begin yoga. The teacher asked if I'd heard there'd been a mudslide in Modjeska. Would I like to borrow her cellphone?

"Bill and Paula's house," said Mark Hoyer, manning the fire station phone. Right where we'd had our celebration. Bill had grabbed the dog and fled, but as he left, a wall of mud was bearing down. The road was impassable, and firefighters were hiking in to reach anyone else who might be trapped.

"Hi honey, how's your day going?" joked Bill as I slopped through ankle-deep mud after careening in off the 5 Freeway. He'd returned as soon as the flash flood waters receded. The house was basically fine. The yard was a disaster. Paula and I picked our way over debris, exclaiming. The front fence had been shoved aside by 20 tons of boulders and mud, fanning out across the garden where we'd danced. The lights Frank had strung were still above the muck, and the blue pansies Bill had planted were drowning in viscous brown glop.

"I'm depressed," said Bob Scheibel at the fire station. "I spent all that time making the slide show, and the caption I put on that last one was 'We survived.' I was wrong."

That night I dreamed my home was in rubble. It was built by hand 90 years ago from the same stones piled in the LaBars' yard.

I ran into Ben Melville the next day. "If we each brought a shovel down to Bill and Paula's and took a square yard, we could dig them out," he said. A plan is hatched, e-mails are sent, food prepared. We couldn't do it all, but we could make a dent. And so I find myself on a Saturday morning slinging rocks with my neighbors.

There are banged-up knees and bruised elbows, hoots of laughter when someone admits they had just been getting bored because all the commotion and parties were over, conversations about Ben Franklin and his bucket brigades, and lots of very dirty hands and knees.

And as I fall into the rhythm of passing rocks, flanked by neighbors, I realize we survived just fine.

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janet.wilson@latimes.com

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