Miracles and hard work.
Luck, randomness, or when geography meets physics.
It has been almost 45 hours since I smelled the smoke. The ‘Tea fire” as they have named it, ignited a quarter mile from my front door. Within a half hour my household of six evacuated as the embers rained upon us, the flames now just fifty yards away. The only consolation as I drove away was that my property was surrounded by the vehicles and personnel of the Montecito Fire Department. Just the same, by the time I had driven the mile to the other end of my street, I had embraced the idea that my house and all of the bits of our lives that it contained would be a pile of ashes within minutes, if not, hours,
While I have slept twice, and sat to relax once, there hasn’t been any real rest or reflection time. All manner of aircraft cycle overhead as they continue to fight the fire which is now mostly in the back country just the other side of the ridge from where we live and the fire started.
I am, and my family is, incredibly fortunate. While I certainly don’t want to discount the apparent randomness or unpredictable nature of natural forces like fire, I am uncomfortable with people’s protestations of luck. One neighbor described the fact that although our little enclave of homes, the most immediate to the origin, were saved, a ‘miracle’. And in the relatively quiet area it is today, this could seem like the appropriate interpretation of events. But all about is the evidence of hard dangerous work having been performed. Scattered about my property are burnt plants, branches, and blackened tree trunks. Across my neighbors walls and fences are many hoses describing the action which took place time and again last Thursday night.
On Friday, after having been able to return home without encountering any authorities, I was working in my yard, putting down hot spots, when the professionals returned, doing it much better than I and with better tools. One asked me how I was doing.
“I’m great, thanks to you guys.”
As he dug his shovel into a smoking bit of my yard, he replied “I was here six times last night. It kept heating back up.”
Across Mountain Dr. the last through street in the area in front of the wilderness, destruction and divine good fortune are spread oddly. In some areas, the hand of fate has hop scotched down one side of the street, taking every other house, while on the other side taking three at a time, and then skipping three. Another curve on the street and one comes across the clean and untouched structure owned by the landlord owner who cut everyone’s mail box down last spring, while all around her all the neighbors homes are gone. Turn another corner and it is a moonscape, all white and shades of grey punctuated by black spires of burn trees, or the remaining posts of a foundation. Occasionally there is the single standing wall of a house, with every edge, internal as well as external, burnt to charcoal.
The flames that leave these results are incredible. When I first saw the tea fire descending the hillside above my house, flames were already 20 to 50 feet tall. The line of fire was a hundred yards across and descending as rapidly as it was widening. I attempted to pick out two landmarks and count the time the fire took to traverse the distance between, but was distracted by the first arriving truck. I was told to evacuate by the first firefighter off the vehicle. By the time we had gathered the dogs, the essential papers firebox, some cursory sundries, and a few bits of art (our family pictures have been in storage since the Zaca Fire last year) a half hour had passed those flames were not only nearing a hundred feet, but they were on the property across the street, maybe fifty yards away.
The experience is visceral. It makes people cry spontaneously. That there are people who look into those flames and think clearly, make decisions that save lives, to say nothing of the actual work, is one of those demonstrations of human adaptability and training that are difficult to grasp, unless you have looked into such a wall of molten destruction yourself, and felt the natural fear and urge to flee.
So the drama and excitement that media allots these events is justified. It may be exploitative and show like as opposed to journalistic and professional. At the opposite end of my street is the local elementary school, and I spent most of Thursday evening in the parking lot or at the fire station across the street listening to the multiple radio channels calling in to the command. When the clock passed nine, many of the television news trucks pulled up there to preprare there ten or eleven o’clock reports. As I went from truck to truck asking for who might have driven by my house, it was apparent that the standards of reporting are varied. One truck pulled up and as the driver hopped into the back of the van to edit the footage, the talent proceeded to primp in the mirror, apply make up and brush her hair. Later I saw this woman do her remote report in high heels, stockings, a short skirt and a fire jacket. To be fair, she might have been called from dinner and a party in LA to come to our corner of the state. But as she was about to go on air, she called out “what street is this?” making it clear that she had not done even the fundamentals of knowing where she was.
I don’t know what the ratings were of the many people I met, some of whom are very familiar to regular news watchers, but I know who I would want reporting anything of real significance to me. One of the people I asked was a young woman who kept hanging around the command truck listening and asking questions of service people who weren’t occupied doing something else.
“where do you live?” she asked back.
“Opposite end of this street” I answered pointing.
“Do you have an old timey car?”
“I have an old fifties car, yes.”
“I just shot an interview there. I have footage of your house.:
“Can I see it?”
“Can I interview you?”
Seemed a fair trade and we went to her truck. Her Spanish born cameraman was reviewing with the editor in the van. They brought up the footage without the sound. The young fireman was clearly tired and dirty, but his energy and dedication was apparent. For whatever reason, he had defended my car from the flames. The footage didn’t really show my house, which meant that is was dark, as opposed to lit by flames. I figured that if my old classic car looked that good, my older home had been defended successfully as well.
The sense of relief was huge. All the thoughts of lost assets, fiscal, emotional, and illusory, lifted. The weight of the challenges of rebuilding the fundamentals of modern existence- a home, clothing, transportation, tons of documentation, was avoided. The many uncertainties from how to handle a life trauma for oneself and children. Having had to sue an insurance company in the past to receive contracted benefits, having this possibility alone removed was a feeling that is difficult to share. Complicating it was the knowledge that lots of my neighbors were losing those assets and more.
As I waited to be interviewed, my son Eric called to say he had just seen the Chrysler on TV. I thanked him and told him to keep watching.
So when the inevitable interview question was delivered, I got to say I felt very fortunate, relieved, and I could thank my interviewer for knowledge that first responders couldn’t give me. So while media may be twisted, let’s give the adrenaline junkies who have to deliver on a broadcast schedule credit. The authorities give press fairly unrestricted access to dangerous situations, and their bosses really can’t be concerned with anything other than getting the story on time.
As soon as it was over, my cell phone was jammed. A little broadcast exposure can do that.
I wanted to go home then. But the fire had spread to Westmont College, about a half mile down hill from my home, and the ashes and smoke were too dense to get through, to say nothing of the police roadblocks.
A little later I decided to drive to the home of a friend where the rest of the family was sleeping. As I drove out of the area it was striking in contrast to the chaos of my street. Traffic was low. Lights were on in homes. Things were normal, smoke free, and pleasant. It was so spooky that I decided to drive back up the hill and loop back toward my house. Dodging around one unmanned barrier, I was able to head west across the windy street that traverses the foot of the hills from the area. In the area east of the fire, there was no smoke, no flames visible. It was strangely quiet. As I got closer, I turned up the small valley the local creek flows in. On the opposite ridge I could see the house three down from mine. The lights were on, and it seemed normal. It was that way all the way to the turn to cross the creek, where suddenly the canyon wall was a quilt of red embers towering above the road. Less than two hundred yards from my back gate, the fire was burning trees, freeing rocks to fall on the road below. It was impassable I was told, and I had to go.
It was not a good nights sleep. We dressed and left early and were able to drive into our street and up to our house with no control. Our house stood as we had left it. At both the east and west ends, fire had burned right up to parts of the structure. In our yard, broad swaths of hedges, scrubs, were black skeletons. Ground I had never seen in twelve years of residence was bare and black. Smoke rose from many places, including a gravity retaining wall a foot from the guest house.
Most striking is the Chrysler. It had been housed in a canvas covered structure. The pipe frame and a few panels of the canvas remained. One wide white wall is blackened by fire, but holds air. While dirty, the paint appears unmarred. Charred wood is on all sides. Just beyond is a totally blackened corner where the two streets that surround our house meet. A dense stand of aloe vera, a water dense succulent, is reduced to black sticks.
The sense of relief was now reinforced by the seeing is believing experience. We spent most of the rest of the morning exploring our neighborhood. Each corner on the walk revealed another staggering vista. Whether moonscape of total destruction or seemingly inexplicable random survivals, remarkable details of spared plants or isolated bits of furniture, the sights were transformative.
What those transformations turn out to be, only time will tell. Tonight I get to sleep in my house, secure that the threats of fire negligible. Hopefully tomorrow, with the power now on, authorities will be open to having grandmas and children return to the homes that await. I look forward to having them all together for the first time in several tumultuous days.
What I do know is that it isn’t just good fortune. It takes miracles and hard work. And possibly, in our little local way, the Tea Fire is a model for what we all face as a nation and world. We need both. And we need to do everything we can to make sure that if we are lucky, having worked hard will put us in position to make the most of it.