Monday, May 14, 2007

Summer and Smoke.

The sky last Tuesday here in Los Angeles was the clear flat blue of a paint chip. I turned on to Vermont and was driving toward the hills when I saw the plume of smoke up in Griffith Park, as emphatic as an exclamation point. Within a minute, two fire trucks raced past me.

Fire, I thought, breathing deeply, fire in Griffith Park. We’ve had four inches of rain since last July, Griffith Park hasn’t had a cleansing fire in my lifetime and it’s eighty degrees.

The first helicopter streaked in from the north and started circling.

Sitting at a stop light, I examined the smoke with all the obsessiveness of a Vatican-watcher at Pope-picking time. White smoke, I decided, is good. White smoke means some moron put out a cigarette while hiking, and it burned a couple of acres but the firefighters got up there in time, put it out, and the white smoke means they’re just cleaning up embers.

Another two trucks screamed towards the park. I drove home, glancing sideways and then backwards at the smoke. It didn’t appear to be diminishing. In fact, the smoke appeared to be spreading.

Our neighborhood is not in Griffith Park. It isn’t even next to Griffith Park. Our neighborhood is a neighborhood and a major thoroughfare away from Griffith Park. We can, however, see the park from our yard. By the time I got home, the foothills and ridges near us were covered in what appeared to be a low-lying fog. That fog was smoke and, as someone once noted, where there’s smoke, there’s news helicopters. I turned on the TV and had the singular experience of looking out my window and seeing one view and then turning to my television and seeing the overhead perspective.

White smoke, it turns out, doesn’t always mean the fire has been extinguished. Sometimes it means the brush burning is so dry and the fire is so hot that it isn’t even creating ash. It had been seventy years since the last big fire and at least twenty since the last big brush-clearing. This fire was merrily skipping through the park, even the tiniest ember finding a full banquet upon which to feast. The fire was now either thirty or two hundred acres, depending on which network you were watching. It was encroaching on the 5 freeway, one of the two major arteries in Los Angeles. I called Consort and suggested he start making his way home and arranged for Daughter to spend the afternoon at a friend’s house. By evening, the fire would have burned itself out, Consort would be white-lipped from making his way home in fire-rerouted traffic, Daughter would be overstimulated by a weekday playdate, and we’d all have a laugh over what a paranoid lunatic Quinn was.

I watched the water-dropping planes attack the fire again and again.

I called Consort. If he were going to have to leave the house suddenly for some reason, what would he take? We discussed what we would take. We also discussed what a paranoid lunatic I am.

An hour passed. The fire started to edge west. My friend Marina, who lives on my block, called. She and her husband had a party they were supposed to attend that night near Beverly Hills. Did I think it was insane to leave their kids with the babysitter and leave, what with the fire and all?

I looked outside, and watched a few more minutes of TV. Go, I assured her. First of all, the fire’s heading west. Second of all, we’re nowhere near the park.


Funny thing about wildfires: they have certain times of day wherein they might not behave badly, but you can bank on them behaving erratically. Sunset is one of those times. The winds shift just at the time when the water-dropping planes and the recon helicopters stop being able to fly, because they can’t see the power wires. Things which weren’t even on the radar can become problems within minutes. I had picked up Daughter, brought her home, fed her and bathed her. Consort, having gotten home, was now monitoring the news reports. Once she was ready for bed, he wanted to take her outside, show her what was happening. Only then did I look out for the window for the first time in about an hour.

I gasped.

The fire had continued west but had also swung around and was now coming down through the foothills above the neighborhood above us. I walked into our front yard, and found about twenty neighbors standing in the street, watching in silence. Some people were taking pictures. It was still across a major thoroughfare and a neighborhood, but it was close enough so we could see discrete flames. Consort, carrying Daughter on his hip, had seen what he described as a little fire tornado whirl up and then skip a few hundred feet to start another fire. Daughter’s hair was being blown around by the hot wind the fire was now creating.

The phone I was carrying rang: a friend from the neighborhood above ours had seen embers landing in back yards. A neighbor walked up to me. Her grown daughter’s friend was a firefighter and had just called her, suggesting she water down the roof. Consort and I looked at each other. He shrugged.

“Can’t hurt,” he said in a voice which you traditionally use when talking about increasing the fiber in your diet.

“I’ll just go inside, put her to bed, and grab a few things,” I said in a way which sounded as if I was going to the dry-cleaners. Because as boisterous as Consort and I can be about absolutely nothing, we’re not bad people in a crisis. It’s the only situation where our energy level is actually useful. Also, Daughter’s total emotion at that moment was excitement over staying up late and watching a fire, and I wanted to keep it that way.

I took Daughter on my hip, and walked her indoors. Consort headed for the backyard, to get on the roof.

NEXT: More.


Blogger LJ said...

Thank heaven you're all safe, and please don't make us wait a week for the next installment!

11:38 PM  
Blogger LJ said...

Gosh I'm sorry my previous post was so peremptory. I'll amend it to pretty please with sugar on top don't make us wait a whole week.:)

11:46 PM  
Blogger houseband00 said...

I'm glad to read that you're safe. You blogging about it I think is a good sign.

My prayers go out to you and the rest of the Angelenos.


11:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm glad you are safe!!!!! As a child we lived Los Feliz so seeing that fire on the news here in NYC made me sick to my stomach. I'm so glad it was contained and that you and the family are well and unscathed!!

8:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, I hate cliffhangers! Trusting all turns out well for your family and home, Quinn.

I can remember living in Temple City circa 1978 and seeing fires burning on the south slopes of the San Gabriels. Unnerving, even from afar.

10:28 AM  
Blogger Monogram Momma said...

Quinn, come back and finish, please! I hope you are all okay, and you and your neighbors homes are all intact.

Stay safe.

1:39 PM  
Blogger Valerie said...

i had no idea you lived in that area.

between Griffith & Catalina and all the crap going on in Arizona, the whole dang southwest is going up in smoke.

(p.s. - are you making us wait on part two because it's May sweeps? kidding!!)

3:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow. Well told. I can't even imagine. I would be terrified. Can't wait for the next installment.

4:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"...I examined the smoke with all the obsessiveness of a Vatican-watcher at Pope-picking time..."

I've read this a dozen times and that STILL cracks me up!

6:06 PM  

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