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CHASING DOWN THE MUSE: We grieve, but we do not give up

We watch and wait with fearful anticipation. Every year, the same weather pattern. The “devil winds" "” the Santa Anas "” suck hot dry air from desert floors, scour chaparral-laden canyons of all moisture and race toward the sea.

We live in a fire zone in the midst of a habitat programmed to burn.

Fire is a key to our environment’s regeneration. The terrain in which we love to hike is destined to become ash.

Siren screams echo up canyon walls. Sleep, if one can, is fretful, sweat-laden. The winds of October.

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We know the flames are coming. The potential for wildfire lives in the back of our minds, if not as a conflagration on the ground. We know the danger, but we don’t know. We hold a belief that, no "” not fire. Not here.

We are not foolish. It’s just a choice of habitat. The bulk of the year, ocean breezes cool our homes and press salt-laden moisture into the air.

Yet we know fire. We know the loss of 310 homes. We know of evacuation and destruction. We know of standing on one another’s rooftops spotting flying embers, watching with despair as water from our hoses dwindled to a dribble.

We share the agony of those we see on our television screens and on the pages of the newspaper.

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We have been there. Once. Twice. Five or six times if we’ve lived in Southern California for any length of time.

We’ve been through the frantic gathering of cherished belongings. What can one fit into a vehicle? Pets first, then photographs. What cannot be replaced? Artwork and family heirlooms. Silver can be tossed, but not crystal.

The last fire, I packed underwear for each child, but no other clothing. My mother and father were golfing in Newport and not allowed to return to the city.

They waited in my brother’s home, watching Laguna on every network channel. They watched their friends’ homes burning and prayed that their own would be spared.

I understand the desire to stay, to protect a home.

In 1993 our neighborhood was evacuated, and we chose not to leave. We crafted an exit strategy based on what part of our hillside was burning.

“If the blue house catches, we go." It did; we didn’t.

“If the brown house catches " And it did, as did the palm tree at the high school below us and the eucalyptus down the street. What was our plan now?

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There were four of us with buckets. Steve, our son Austin and our friend Jeff. The hose was dry, no water from any spigot. But we had a small hot tub in the back yard and created a bucket brigade that was very effective at putting out the flying embers that bombarded our 1932 wood shingle house.

Austin kept saying we should leave, that the police said we should leave.

I asked him to look at me carefully. I held him by the shoulders and said he had to trust me. He had to trust Steve. We would not let anything happen to him.

If we left, our house would be reduced to a memory. There was no one to take care of it but us.

Silently, with full understanding, he picked up his bucket and climbed down the ladder for more water.

When it seemed the darkest, the winds shifted. On the hillside, flames spewed from broken gas lines, odd torches in a desperate night of human plight and lost property.

We were lucky. Had the wind not died, our house would have been added to the lost structures list. We had crossed into the “go-now" space.

Seven years later, we tore down that wooden cottage, and we never looked back. We replaced our vintage home with a cottage for this century. A cottage built on the same footprint with the same scale of living. But this cottage is made of concrete, sheaved in metals, and while not fireproof, is very fire resistant.

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The scope of this fire season confounds our wildest imagination. It has expanded our horror with the confrontation of a situation completely out of control. Nature’s force brings us to our knees and reminds us that we are pawns in this planet’s play.

Do we move? Leave our cherished coastal habitats?

Hardly. We love where we live.

Instead, we grieve. We clean up. We put our hands to work to help one another, and we rebuild.

This is our coastline. This is our fire-mind. This is where we choke down our October winds.


CATHARINE COOPER cherishes wild places. She can be reached at cooper@catharinecooper.com


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