This was always the best time of year: hot in the day but without sunburn or sweat, chilly at night with clean skies and bright stars. Autumn was always the best.
Except for the wind, friends used to say. But no — especially the wind. The powerful Santa Anas. Warm and yet cold. Electric. Strong.
Except for the fire, they would say, but again — no. The fire was all part of it. Wild, frightening, destroying the daily routine, putting everyone on edge, but I knew I was safe. My parents would keep it away, even if it burned all the way up to Castle Peak, all the way over to Bell Canyon and most of the way down the hillside brush to Valley Circle Boulevard, at the far end of our block. The other grade-schoolers would jump up and down, scream like sirens and hope for a ride in a firetruck. I liked to wait for the wind to die down and let the snowflake-like ash fall on my corduroys.
This was normal. This was every November at the west end of the Valley. And, apparently, all over Los Angeles. They sang about it on the radio. Our land of hills was a woman whose hair was burning.
That's what I'm recalling on a Friday a half century later while cursing the cars just sitting in front of me on the Glendale Freeway. I can't take the Ventura because on the radio they're telling me it's closed at Valley Circle. If this traffic ever moves, I can make it up to the Foothill or maybe the Golden State (we'd never call them the 2, the 101, the 134 or the 5) and then north to the 118 and then down maybe — Reseda? Tampa? — and then to the house where I grew up and where my 88-year-old mother still lives. So I can get her out of there. Valley Circle may soon be on fire.
Why are we moving so slow? And then I see. Griffith Park is on fire, and the smoke forms a huge, billowy ball, and everyone has to slow down and look. On the radio they say they're preparing to evacuate the animals. But where, I wonder, do you send tigers and condors? In the old days, maybe Jungleland, in Thousand Oaks. But Jungleland is long gone and besides, they're saying that Thousand Oaks is on fire.
Closer to my own home in red-flagged Highland Park, a colleague is right now aiming a hose at a fire that's consuming a nearby house, before giving up and getting away from the flames. But I don't hear about that until later.
The traffic clears, I enter the Valley and see that the Griffith Park fire was nothing. Ahead, to the left, is a pillar of smoke from the Malibu fire. To the right is a darker cloud, from Bell Canyon. In between, the sky is bright blue, and the air smells not like smoke but like the clean Santa Ana wind.
And now I'm at the door that my family first opened in 1964, when across Valley Circle there was nothing on the hill but scrub. Then came the bulldozers and the asphalt, and now the once-wild hill is crowded with houses. I had friends in some, and some of those friends still have parents on that hill. I make a couple calls. Are you getting them out? Yes, they're getting them out.
From the front yard we can see the smoke rising above Malibu. From the backyard it's the flames in Bell Canyon. That fire is close, and it threatens to cross Valley Circle. But it's a mile or so north of us, and my mother and I decide to stay put for now.
A few blocks to the west, evacuations are mandatory. Homes are burning, and residents flee in terror. To the south in Malibu, and many miles north in Paradise, people are dying. I have colleagues who are tracking the flames and telling the harrowing stories. I’m glad my mother and I are still on the outskirts, although the fire is moving fast.
The night is like Halloween: black but with menacing explosions of orange. Helicopters and planes drone on all night.
The next morning is smoky, and I immediately think of Sacramento last summer, when I could hardly breathe for the smoke from — well, I’m not sure. The Carr fire? The Mendocino Complex fire? Or the summer before, when fires burned through my visit to Oregon. None of this feels like the brush fires of my youth. The ash seems more like fallout than snowflakes.
It’s time to leave. We walk out the door and I wonder if it’s for the last time, or if we’ll be here again for my mother’s 89th birthday in a couple of weeks. Into my car go some suitcases, some pictures, the dog and my mom. We head east.
I remember being a kid and thinking fiery Valley Novembers were fun. Then the rain would come, and the hillsides across Valley Circle would sprout with blue lupins. But the rain doesn’t seem to come anymore, and besides, there is no place for the flowers to bloom. Fire no longer seems regenerative. Just cruel. Something has gotten old, and I can’t decide whether it’s the Valley, the Earth or just me.