Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The unforgettable fire.

( I rarely demand anything of my readers, but please read the previous blog before reading this one. Really. We’ll wait.)


I went inside and put Daughter to bed with soothing music and a book. I could hear Consort walking around on the roof and the sound of the water rushing down the walls and on to the plants around the house. I walked outside and called up to him, as I motioned at the conflagration, “You know why this happened, right?”

He sprayed and thought. “Um. Because of the year-long drought? And the homeless guy with the cigarette?”

“It’s because you finally washed all the windows last weekend.”

We both looked at the windows, which were now festooned with water-marks and sticky ash. He shrugged.

“That’ll teach me.”

I went back inside, swooping the cat away from the door as I did so. I had brought her inside and refused to let her back out again during the first hours of the fire. I had no interest in evacuating my family while also shouting “Soy turkey!” Apparently, though, when you are an animal, and you smell smoke, your first impulse isn’t to hang around and see how it all works out. As the fire grew closer, Lulabelle grew more and more adamant that she needed to get the hell out just as I grew more adamant that she needed to find another hobby. Now, I finally locked her in the office. Her gutteral growls and periodic full-body checks to the door added a festive touch to the night.

I then collected the things Consort and I had discussed taking with us and piled them by the back door. I didn’t put them in the car yet because it all seemed so absurd. It says something when a devout pessimist and a nearly-professional worrier such as myself looks at a situation and says “There is no way this dreadful thing can happen”. I understood evacuating when you are in the way of the fire, but we weren’t in the fire’s way. Did I mention we are in another zip code from where the fire was? And yet the embers were not democratic as much as anarchistic, and it was looking pretty likely we’d have to move. I could recognize that, but I wanted to pretend this was all some supremely realistic drill. Hence the pile of stuff at the door. Upon Consort’s suggestion however, I did take my car out of the garage in case our power went out and took the electric garage door opener with it.

Consort was still watering. Daughter was sleeping. The stuff was ready to go. So, I did the only thing a reasonable person could do: I washed the kittens.

I washed the kittens because as their foster mother, I was supposed to be teaching them hygiene. Had they been human, they would have been those kids you see on “Cops”, toddling around the background of the trailer park at midnight wearing only a t-shirt with Kool-Aid stains. I washed the kittens because we had gotten many calls from concerned friends offering their houses in case we needed a place to stay, and their current smell would have made us ungracious houseguests. I washed them because it was something to do.

Having cleaned up the kitties, I walked outside. The fire had moved closer and the street was now pretty empty.The photographers and the gawkers were mostly gone. There were no cars driving around besides neighbors driving away with their family and pets, so I guessed the police had blocked off the streets. I looked over at Marina’s house and saw her babysitter standing in the doorway. She was watching Consort, now back on the ground re-soaking the plants. I walked over. She was chalk-white.

“Are we going to have to evacuate?”, she whispered. She looked about ten years younger than her age, which can’t be any more than twenty-three. I got cheerful and brisk.

“This is all going to end up a great anecdote for your out-of-town friends, but we’re going to be fine,” I said, avoiding the question. Behind her head, the fire found a glen of fresh fuel. The flames flared up, turning her blonde hair orange. “But, just because we can,” I continued. “I want you to walk home, decide what stuff you would take and put it in your car. I’ll stay here with the boys.”

She nodded, grabbed her purse and trotted toward her house, about a block away. I checked the boys, asleep in their beds. They were fine. The babysitter had already called their father’s cell phone and left a message but hadn’t gotten any reply. I learned later she had called Dad’s work number, not his cell, which was on his hip all the time. Still, from the looks of things, it was possible Marina and her husband might not be allowed back into the neighborhood, what with the roadblocks popping up all around the fire.

I started doing the math.

I could get three kids, a box of kittens and a cat carrier in my car. Consort would take everything else. The baby could go in Daughter’s car seat, which wasn’t exactly the right size for his age but, really, I’m going to get pulled over for that now? I walked around Marina’s house, unplugging laptops and identifying a couple of pictures I thought looked heirloom-ish. I could now hear helicopters flying above our houses, flashing lights into every corner, looking for flare-ups. Underneath the helicopters, I could hear the fire. It sounded like a stadium full of people all exhaling loudly through their mouths at the same time.

I stood in Marina’s doorway, looking back at my house. I never actually wanted to buy a house. I always liked the obligation-free lifestyle of renting, especially the part where when something goes wrong, and your greatest concern is finding Ivan the maintenance guy before he gets his drink on. But my mother and my accountant were quite forceful that handing vast amounts of my income to the government was a mortal sin so I was told in no uncertain terms to buy a house.

I had a checklist: price, square-footage, neighborhood, age, absence of meth lab next door. This house fit the requirements so I bought it. Nowhere on my list had I written “Quinn must love it”, and Quinn didn’t. It was an arranged marriage.

As the various plumbing, electrical and other essential upgrades piled up, any hopes I had for developing an affection for my house plummeted. It became the high-maintainance friend whose name, when seen on your cell phone, causes you to grimace and mutter “Oh, we’ll let voice-mail pick up this one”. Now, with it’s very existance possibly at stake, the strongest emotion I could generate was a vague guilt that I, its last owner, hadn’t loved it more.

At some point while waiting for the babysitter to return to Marina’s, the fire turned. At first, it was just a ripple of hope from those of us watching from the orchestra section that was our street. But it didn’t seem to be moving toward us as quickly. Within a few more minutes, even the doom-sayers had to admit that while it was still hammering the park, it appeared to be dying out in our immediate foothill. The babysitter, Marina and her husband all showed up at the same time. Marina raced in to smell and touch her sleeping cubs, the sitter brought them up to speed and I walked home.

I fell into a fitful sleep somewhere around midnight, sleeping on the couch fully-dressed, including shoes. When I woke and stumbled into our bedroom, I noted it was 3:30 and that Consort was awake, dressed, and reading in bed. I got into bed without changing.

“You can go to sleep now.” I yawned, carefully putting my shoes next to my side of the bed, right where my feet would slip into them the fastest.

“I think I’ll just stay up and read a little longer,” Consort said casually. Glancing out the bedroom window, he added, “maybe do a crossword puzzle”.

Confident that he was on guard, I finally fell completely asleep.


The next morning, I raced outside. The park was the combination of black, grey and white I have seen in the marble backsplash in better bathrooms. What I didn’t see was red; our part of the fire was out. The news said the fire had been 70% contained. Astonishingly, the firefighters had managed to save the Zoo, the Autry Museum, the Greek Theater and the recently renovated Observatory. Not a single house was lost. I said a prayer for the animals in the park, and hoped more than a few ran like hell and made it through alright.

Within a day we were being told it was 90% contained. Some time after that, the fire was put out. The TV stations didn't report that moment, being as it doesn’t keep people glued to their seat in quite the same way. But the sky got banal and blue again, our important objects got crammed back into closets and our suitcases were again used in the intended way, which is for storage of winter clothes.

As the air and the mood lightened, I started to second-guess my behavior that night. Sure, the fire had been large and threatening, but the fact was, it hadn’t threatened us. We were never in harm’s way; at most, we were harm-proximal. Watering down the roof and yard was unnecessary. It was just possible I had made a production out of nothing, a phrase which might possibly be the definition of the name Quinn.

I had made my peace with my drama-queenitude by Saturday when, racing to the car, one of the lavender shrubs by the kitchen window caught my attention. I stooped in for a closer look, finally poking it with my index finger. The bottom third of the plant was burnt, a black circle in the middle, right above the ground, lightening to grey and then finally becoming green again on the top of the bush. I tried to think of a more benign diagnosis, but it did look exactly like a burned plant. A plant which started burning from the ground, possibly from an ember which flew over and landed there, and only stopped burning when the fire reached the part Consort had soaked the night of the fire.

I stood up and looked around. The plant was surrounded on all sides by native plants, most of which were dying back already, thanks to the dessicating heat and the February frost. This had clearly been after we had come inside, after the helicopters had stopped scanning.

Had the fire not gone out, had Consort not watered, it could have skipped through the entire yard. Our first hint our house was in jeopardy would have been the entire side yard in flames. My evacuation plan had factored in ten minutes warning from the police, five minutes at the worst. We would have had a minute’s warning.

If luck comes in finite amounts, we had just used up several months’ worth. If bad luck is balanced out by good luck, I think I just got paid back for the head business. If luck comes in streaks, I’m buying every Super Lotto ticket I can find. If luck is random, all I can do is bow my head.


Blogger Judy said...


That's all I can think to say.

9:08 PM  
Blogger mandarine said...

I confess the gap between the two posts was quite a cliffhanger (I even checked the news to make sure there was no QC reported missing). The burnt bush epilogue is perplexing in the least. The difficulty with all close calls is that you never know how close it was.

11:44 PM  
Blogger houseband00 said...

Close call, Quinn.

I'm glad you and the family are fine. =)

2:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That is an amazing story and you told it in a riveting way. And I'm glad all is well.

5:15 AM  
Blogger Monogram Momma said...

WOW- Glad to hear everything turned out okay for you guys. What a scary experience.

5:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good Gravy. See? The cat knew what she was talking about.

8:18 AM  
Blogger Yvonne said...

Ok - that gave me chills!

3:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Quinn, I'm so glad that you and your family are okay. The words mat sound trite, but they come sincerely and truly. Thank you for sharing your story.

4:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Moral of the story-Dont wash your windows!
I'm so glad you came out unscathed. And thank you for your amazing account!

5:58 PM  
Blogger Valerie said...


i'm SO glad none of you were hurt or lost..except for the bush.

6:06 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Holy cow! Whatta story! One more reason I don't miss living in LA so much...

Better to be too cautious and overly-prepared in situations like that (as you were), than under-prepared. I've always felt it's better to have an escape route planned and not need it, than need one and not have it.

Perhaps it's my inner paranoia serving me as well as yours served you, but either way, I am glad you and Consort, Daughter, plants, house and cat are all okay. Whew!

6:33 PM  
Blogger Wen782 said...

OMGosh. I'm really glad that you and your family and your neighborhood were spared. Thank goodness (and overpreparing) for that!!

Please, never worry about taking too many precautions. As I will tell my lucky friends that are parents, you never know what your mind and instinct is doing behind the scenes that may ultimately turn into gut feelings saving the day and possibly the life of your offspring. That was you. That was Consort. You did everything right.

Hugs for what you endured stress-wise and sending thoughts over the West Coast way for those who weren't fortunate, as well.

7:50 PM  
Blogger Bobby D. said...

so glad the fire was put out before homes or the observatory etc...were damaged. I have such fond memories of being a kid and roaming around griffith Park..

9:36 AM  
Blogger John, famous in Siberia said...

I'm glad you didn't burn up, and I hope the cat didn't do too much damage. One thing though, most garage door openers have a way to unhook the door from the chain, or belt, or screw mechanism so you can raise it by hand in case the power goes out. :)

1:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow. I just stumbled across your blog, Quinn, during an internet search (actually looking for Lucille Ball's natural hair color but somehow wound up here...). Is the hiphugger baby sling your creation? It's brilliant! When I have kids I am buying one the instant I find out I'm pregnant! lol
G-d bless

5:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Glad you are okay and everything worked out.

BTW did you know you used two different names for your neighbor in the posts?


12:46 AM  

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