John Heubusch is a novelist and the executive director of the Reagan Foundation and Library in Simi Valley, Calif.
When Californians see the tragic weather events that interrupt the lives of so many year-round in other parts of the country, we grimace. Most of us have friends or relatives back East who have been caught in a storm of one kind or another.
But, to be honest, it’s often hard to relate to those stories when the weather here is so friendly all year. Sunny and mild most all of the time. No hurricanes. No such thing as a tornado. Our blizzards stay in the mountain ski resorts where they belong. We rarely hear of floods because our constant droughts dictate that we seem to never, ever see a drop of rain. There’s just no weather here.
That is, until the fires arrive.
Santa Ana winds that come roaring out of the Western desert about this time each year arrived last Thursday. They were not a welcome guest. This time, they’ve brought with them massive fires and a world turned upside down. No one knows just yet how the fires got their start. Flames erupted nearly simultaneously in several canyons that stretch like fingers into the San Fernando Valley. A quarter-million people living just north of Los Angeles had to evacuate.
Many managed the escape the California way. There we sat, stalled in traffic for hours, as famous freeways such as the Pacific Coast Highway along the ocean were closed north and south to make way for the firetrucks. They moved fast, but for many, unfortunately, not fast enough. Large swaths of comfortable neighborhoods; Paramount Ranch, the site for countless Western movies; idyllic outdoor restaurants; mansions, horse ranches and vineyards were ravaged as flames jumped the 10 lanes of Highway 101 intent on making their way to Malibu, 15 miles west.
Make it, they did. Fifty-mph gusts of wind might not sound like much to the hurricane-hardened. But when they are pushing a 40-foot wall of fire down suburban streets, you know it’s trouble. Two people have died in Los Angeles and Ventura counties. Our neighbors to the north, victims of the “Camp Fire,” have fared far worse. There, at least 29 have perished in the most destructive firestorm in California history, many of them trapped in their cars as they attempted to outrun the flames. More than 200 people are missing. The entire town of Paradise in the Sierra Nevada foothills is gone. Some 6,700 structures, most of them homes, vanished in just a few hours.
As I type this on my iPhone, I am standing in the middle of the street a hundred yards from our home where, by some miracle, there is still some cell coverage. Scores of neighborhoods around me lie quiet, without power, many guarded by police to prevent looting or the return of owners trying to find if their houses still stand. Hundreds of homes and countless memories are in ashes. I am told satellite views from space show much of Southern California shrouded in smoke. I believe it. Most everyone you meet smells like a campfire. A haze fills the air, and it’s not safe to breathe. Children cough. Eyes burn.
The skies have looked like a war zone for three days. I stood perched on our rooftop two days ago, garden hose in hand, trying to soak our wood shingles before a burning ember might descend, taking our home with it (don’t do this). I watched as helicopters and prop planes, laden with water, took turns diving behind the hillsides nearby to drop their loads. All at once, a huge DC-10 seemed to emerge from heaven. Flying low, it dropped bright orange retardant on a fire climbing a hill just a few streets away. I felt I could reach out and touch it. It just as quickly turned and arced out of our neighborhood, having saved the day.
Brave pilots have been attacking the fires around the clock as the winds swirl and flames flare up, die down and then flare up again from one deep canyon to the next. God bless them all. They, along with the firefighters on the ground and the police, are the heroes here. Farther north, 200 inmates, part of a volunteer force, joined the professional firefighters there. Our home was saved. Our best friends, who introduced us to Southern California and helped us find our cherished neighborhood, were not so lucky. They live in Malibu Canyon nearby and lost everything.
You find that these moments are tests. What do you reach for in the dark when the power is out and you have just minutes to pack only what you can carry? It turns out, not much. Things to get by. Some clothes. A toothbrush. A comfortable pair of shoes. And, of course, the things with meaning. The things impossible to replace or that help keep you alive. Wedding photos. Keepsakes. Passports. Prescriptions.
Everyone is tired, running on adrenaline. When you are forced from normalcy so quickly, it’s difficult to sleep. But there are benefits, too. It’s been heartening to see people in our neighborhood come together to help one another like never before. We’ve met new and wonderful people. Hugs are shared. The fires have found a way to forge us together like nothing before.