October is fire season. While the rest of the country swoons over crisp fall air and Mardi Gras foliage, Southern California braces for color of a different sort. We residents scan painfully blue skies for scribbles of smoke. We examine hillsides furred with browned grass, punctuated with the gray-green eucalyptus trees -- ten-story candles, arboreal dynamite. We wince at forecasts predicting “Santa Ana winds” -- super-heated exhalations from the Mojave Desert which often mark fire season’s opening.
I’ve lived in Southern California my entire life. When I was young, the town I lived in, built in a bowl at the center of bone-dry, high-desert foothills, periodically found itself hostage to wildfire. I remember orange skies and ash falling like snow, a layer of black grit on windowsills and the hoods of cars. The omnipresent smell of burnt vegetation and swimming pools sporting an oily slick of spent fuel.
When I was about ten years old, the street I lived on found itself directly in the path of a wildfire. The houses across the street had backyards bordered by natural hillside, separated from relative wilderness by flimsy chain-link fencing. The fire’s point of origin was somewhere to the west of us, started -- intentionally, we found out later -- in the center of a small state park, and blooming outward. We watched the news for word of the fire’s trajectory, paid close attention to the direction and power of the wind. As this was before e-mail, before home computers, before reverse-911 alerts, the information we gleaned was attenuated; it was still possible, despite the orange skies, to feel somewhat removed from the action.
Then we noticed the fire trucks. Five, then six, then seven of them. Converging on our little neighborhood, their shiny red bulk diminishing our homes to mere backdrop. At first, none of the firefighters would talk to us, though we neighborhood kids were dying to talk to them, bouncing up and down on our heels and sprinting back and forth on the sidewalks behind our parents -- our poor parents, whose fear was mostly lost on us, fixated as we were on the firefighters’ uniforms, on their helmets, on their walkie-talkies, the tangible evidence of their importance. Then, receiving word of a shift in the prevailing winds, the firefighters’ focus shifted. A moment of awful, visceral thrill: the firefighters were talking to our parents, telling our parents to pack up and be prepared to leave on their order. We were no longer spectators -- we were the main attraction. We might be on T.V.!
With faces of stone, my parents hustled me and my sister back to our house. We were told we could fill a paper bag each with things from our rooms. At eight and ten, my sister and I did not acquit ourselves particularly well, here: I remember we both stuffed our Barbies and their wardrobes into our bags, but forgot our scrapbooks, our souvenirs. I did have the presence of mind to grab my stuffed rabbit -- named, imaginatively, Bunny -- from its accustomed place on my bed before rocketing out the door, where my parents were waiting in the driveway.
We stood beside our loaded station wagon and watched the firefighters race to the top of our dead-end street, where Little Sugarloaf and Big Sugarloaf (our local names for the neighborhood hills we’d all hiked countless times) could most easily be reached. Our dogs, loaded into the wagon first by my parents (before the photo albums, before my dad’s paintings, before my grandmother’s wedding dress, before my Barbies, for that matter), threw themselves at the windows, barking furiously in an excess of confusion and excitement and doggy-rage. We watched the hill directly across the street.
And then we saw it.
With the speed of water tumbling out of a cup, the fire poured itself over the lip of the hill. Untethered, the fire chewed its way through the brush, through brittle sage and grass and manzanita, a thick spill of red and orange flaring down and out, urged onward by gravity and wind, erasing the usual brown of the hillside. The fire made no sound; it was quiet. Except for the shouts of the firefighters already on the hillside, already in its path, there was nothing to hear. This seemed odd. To my ten-year-old mind, the absence of sound was the scariest bit. Anything moving that fast should have been noisy, should have sounded like a waterfall, like hail, like an engine. This fire was quietly, simply, efficient.
My parents had had enough. We joined our now-hysterical dogs in the station wagon and left.
When we returned to our house several hours later, the only evidence of the fire was a blackened hillside, relieved here and there by the pale gray of scattered boulders, and the smell of ash. The fire was contained quickly, and our neighbors’ homes were spared. Half the kids in the neighborhood vowed to become firefighters when they grew up. And fire season passed.