Here in Southern California, you learn to live with the fires. And living snug up against the foothills in the San Gabriel Valley (“The Other Valley,” as we call it), you get used to the sirens heading north, helicopters and fixed-wing water-bombers rumbling by overhead, smoke plumes rising just beyond the horizon, and the occasional red glow in the sky during the night. The Colby Fire this past week, though, was something different.
The sirens started sounding before the morning alarm. Not that I paid them much attention, of course, even when they kept coming, and coming in multiples of two and three and even more at one time. Even when “The Bingle” started softly baying at them from beside the bed, I didn’t think or do much, at least not beyond mumbling “Quiet, girl. Go back to sleep.”
Eventually, but still before the alarm, I realized the sirens—and the dog—were not going to let me get back to sleep. So I got up, glanced out the bedroom window, and saw the thick, low clouds of smoke catching the morning light. Still, this was nothing I hadn’t seen before, in the 10 or so years I’ve lived in this particular town. I just called the dog, found her leash and my shoes, and took her outside, like every morning.
Dark clouds of smoke were filling the bulk of the sky by that point, but I already knew there was a fire, somewhere. It happens out here, like earthquakes. Both just become part of the landscape after a few years living with them. It wasn’t until I saw the Bingle’s nose craning up and sniffing the ash drifting down around us like snow that I realized this was more than the usual.
The last time I’d seen ash coming down on our heads had been several years ago. A large fire had been burning to the north, with another, equally large fire somewhere down to the south. The smoke clouds had merged above us, and the sky had rained ash, and the horizon had glowed.
It was like living in Mordor, but with Priuses.
I stood there, remembering coming up with that line at the time, and smiled. (I am a writer, after all.) Then I took the dog through the courtyard to the street, where I would have a better view, and saw the flames, big sheets of red leaping up after and into their own smoke. And so close that you could hear their roar.
I had never seen actual flames on this hillside. They had always stayed beyond the crest in my time here. So I did what any modern idiot of the social media age would do: I went up to my office window and took a picture.
Then I started finding the news.
The mandatory evacuation stretched from the houses farthest up the slope to only four blocks north of our apartment. And the blocks in this town are not large. The fire itself had started when three young men of questionable common sense were tossing paper into an illegal campfire, only to have the wind gust and carry off embers, which then touched off what had become a 1700-acre blaze only a few hours later. All three are currently in jail facing federal charges, with bail set at $500,000 each, and are described as “apologetic.”
Maybe I should have been more worried than I actually was. My wife certainly thought so. Put me in front of a bureaucracy that can destroy my family and my life because some nameless functionary is having a bad day, and I’m a catastrophizing wreck until it’s over. But this fire was something tangible, something I could see. I knew that my wife and I might have to grab the dog and some clothes and whatever we might not be able to live without and head south, but I also knew that we would have warning. And how very, very good the firefighters here are. You can’t live out here and not learn that as well, and quickly.
So I went to work, editing someone else’s book on my laptop while the desktop streamed live coverage of a fire I could turn my head and see burning just outside my office window. At one point, I even found myself watching a close-up, helicopter view of a water-bomber making its run, then looked over my shoulder and saw the water still falling and the same plane pulling up and flying past over my building.
It was one of the most surreal workdays I’ve ever had.
By that evening, the flames on our hillside had been extinguished, and the bulk of the fire had moved out of sight and to the west. The mandatory evacuations were lifted, and most of us who had been untouched but for smoke in our lungs and ash on our cars realized just how lucky we had been. And how good those firefighters out here really are.
Kids are even joking about it now. Like a certain 5-year-old I know who yesterday spun me the tale of how he had heroically saved his family’s home with the garden hose.
Then we realize that even now, days later, the Colby Fire is still burning, somewhere out of sight.