Another fiery fall in Southern California


Coming over the Grapevine, we began catching whiffs of what is known in the hills and canyons of L.A. as the perfume of autumn. As we descended into the Valley, the smell became stronger, leaving no doubt of its source: Southern California was on fire again.

The only evidence of this we could actually see was a dark cloud of smoke hovering like a distant shadow over the mountains to the southeast. It seemed to hang motionless in a sky scrubbed to an otherwise flawless blue by the abrasive Santa Anas, winds that have come to characterize the season.

To be sure, not all of the brush fires that have burned homes and dreams have been ignited in the fall. But through what always seems a brief spring and barely perceptible winter, the already dry chaparral grows annually drier, creating conditions ideal for God, accidents and arsonists to set the hills ablaze.


We were in Sacramento visiting a daughter when reports of the fires in Santa Barbara, Los Angeles and Orange counties began to dominate the news.

Disaster had once more reached across the distance to our out-of-town location, forcing us to rush home if we could or to stay up nights wondering if our family and pets were safe and our house intact.

Brush fires have occasionally broken out near our home in the Santa Monica Mountains when we’ve been vacationing abroad, and the feeling of helplessness is overwhelming.

There is little we can do but follow the news when we’re thousands of miles away, and even then, stations in other countries are far less concerned with what’s happening in L.A. than what’s happening in armed confrontations in the Middle East that could set the whole world burning.

In Sacramento, we were close enough to make a mad dash on I-5 and in about five hours reach our canyon home, where, if necessary, we could join in by making a feeble roof-top stand with a garden hose aimed at flames high enough to set the sky on fire.

As we drove through the Valley, the aroma of acrid smoke became stronger and the dark shadow in the distance was spreading along the tops of the mountains, energized by a brief resurgence of the Santa Anas.

The winds had abated by the time we reached Topanga Canyon. But by then, they had almost completed their part in the devastation visited so many times before on rainless Southern California.

The scenes are familiar: Fire racing through grass and trees toward clusters of houses; homeowners grabbing pets and pictures, important papers and artifacts; parents herding children into cars and vans and running before the flames; firefighters standing tall against an outrageous enemy; planes and helicopters dropping tons of water and chemicals in a continuation of attacks not unlike an air brigade supporting an infantry assault.

If you’re actually a part of the calamity on the ground, it feels as though you’re in a parallel universe, a planet of fear so intense that it becomes surreal. The roar of fire and aircraft, of sirens and of amplified warnings to evacuate blend into a cacophony beyond imagination. You’re convinced that this must be what hell is like.

Viewed from afar as a spectator or through televised news reports, brush fires that sweep through neighborhoods can assume the remoteness of a disaster movie that re-creates chaos with special effects, rehearsed screams, offstage sirens and the constant drum-like thrump-thrump-thrumping of helicopters.

We arrived home to find our small corner of L.A. intact. It is always a defining moment to settle in, to be greeted by the small animals that depend on us, to see the photographs, the artwork and the souvenirs of many journeys that fill our rooms. We touched them to reassure ourselves that this is real, that they exist. The sense of relief endured through the night.

We stayed up late watching televised scenes from school gymnasiums where evacuees gathered. Their sadness is palpable, reaching beyond the TV screen, drawing us in. If there’s a feeling of satisfaction that we aren’t among the victims, there is also a feeling of oneness that tells us we are.

In the sense that we are all family, when one hurts, we all hurt; when one loses, we all lose. We stand with them by the charred remains of their homes; we pick through the cold ashes with them in the search for a picture or a locket.

And though temperatures have dropped, the humidity is up and the Santa Anas are gone, images of hell remain. For them and for us.