Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Fire Escape

The map of the Tea Fire shows our home (at the intersection of Stanwood Drive and Sycamore Canyon Road) surrounded. In every direction, the fire raged, flames up to two hundred feet, winds up to 70 mph.

The fire claimed 210 houses. Ours is less than 100 feet from the power lines in this photo. But it survived. I can stand in my driveway and see destroyed homes, hillsides scorched, burnt brush as close as across the street. But not a single leaf on our property was damaged.

We benefited from the firefighters' expertise and courage, from being low in the canyon so that the wind wasn't as bad, from the neighbors who cleared brush, and from pure luck.

That's not to say it's been fun. It hasn't. Still isn't. Robin has suffered, is suffering the brunt of it. She was working downtown, saw the fire in the hills, and rushed home. Good thing. If she hesitated a few minutes, she would never have made it through to pick up the cats and a few odd treasures. She was there for half an hour of Armageddon, the wind whipping embers through night sky above her, emergency vehicles in full siren mode, the cats freaked out, and her own flight instinct working in high gear.

I was teaching. I heard the phone buzz in silent mode a couple of times, but didn't answer it, keeping to my policy when teaching even though Robin had called me before she went home. Bad decision on my part. When class was over, I listened to the messages. In one, she said in a stern voice to call her immediately. In the second, which she later told me came after twenty attempts that all failed since so many were using the system, she screamed in panic and frustration: "PATRICK, PICK UP THE PHONE." I had to call several times before I could get through to her, just as she was leaving.

We met at George and Amy's house (though they were at--where else would they be?--a wine dinner). Hugs. Deep sighs. Relief. Safety. Though our ordeal had hardly begun, the worst was over, at least for us. I looked up at the hills and I could see the towering flames seven or eight miles away, advancing a hundred yards in thirty seconds.

We spent the night at Larry and Sue's, whose house, among the many offerings of help from our great friends, had the best situation for the cats. They gave us food and drink as we watched the fire coverage on tv and constantly checked Edhat for the latest local perspective. We went to bed that night with those images in our minds, not knowing whether anything we owned would survive.

I was optimistic. In fact, I said to Robin as we went to sleep that night that I was 75% sure our house would survive. She wasn't particularly reassured. She didn't sleep much and by 7AM was on the phone with the landlord, who had talked with "crazy Tom," a neighbor who stayed to fight the fire. That's how we learned that the house survived.

I went to K-Mart to buy some underwear and toothbrushes and then on campus to work for a while. I got back about 2:00. Robin had spent the time mostly on the phone, seeking more information and reassuring family and friends that we were relatively, remarkably unscathed. She was overwhelmed by the emotional support, frazzled by the anxiety, and exhausted beyond her limits. It was all over her drawn face, her slowed speech, even her unsure movement. Somehow we managed to grab some borrowed t-shirts, the cats, and head over to the empty condo of Jim and Martha, who were back east for a death in the family. I put Robin to bed about 3:00 and, except for an hour or so in the evening, she slept until Saturday morning.

During a long walk on the Elwood bluffs and beach with my old friend Pete, the Golden Retriever, I decided I'd try to get to the house on bicycle. So I borrowed one from George, parked the car near the Five Points circle, and pedaled up toward Sycamore Canyon Road, which is closed to traffic between Five Points and our house due to a landslide a few years ago (ah, California), but normally passable on a bike. I approached the cop at the roadblock and asked if I could go up and see if my house was still there. He said, "Go for it."

Bicycling up Sycamore Canyon Road, I saw the fire-damaged hillsides on both sides, especially the west side up toward the Riviera, which was mostly toast. But dozens of houses saved, many with scorching all around. One man I met said he lost half his orchard, but not his house. "Fair trade," I said. He agreed.

Closer to our house, starting about fifty yards from our driveway, along Conejo Road and its side streets, folks were not so lucky as us.

We returned to our house on Sunday afternoon. Since then, we've been cleaning up the ash and suffering the poor air quality inside and outside the house, again Robin bearing the brunt of it since I'm apparently too insensitive to be be affected much. Plus the neighbor hood has been swarming with heavy vehicles, utility companies, refuse collection, public works, you name it. Chain saws fill the air. Helicopters still frequent overhead. No doubt the construction companies will soon follow in mass numbers. We'll be ground zero for months.

That's how we know we're lucky.
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