California Burning

Post-fire life in Santa Barbara will never be the same—or will it?

I am still not prepared. I am resolutely not prepared. And while I know that material things are a drag on the soul and that you can’t take them with you (Tutankhamen tried, and look what happened to him), I can’t imagine the kind of triage an evacuation would involve. Which vital papers to sacrifice, which to preserve? What about bank accounts, insurance policies, the 50 boxes of my archive, the deer antler I found in my boyhood woods, the first record I ever bought (Stan Getz, Jazz Samba)? Not to mention the immovables, like this house in which I am now sitting, a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and constructed entirely of redwood 100 years ago. If it came to it, I could probably induce my wife to get into the car, my children, certainly the dog, but not the cat. The cat, I’m afraid, would do what cats do—hide—and that hiding would be the end of her.

When the Tea Fire hit Santa Barbara at dusk on the clear, unseasonably warm evening of Thursday, the 13th of November, we were, like everyone else, busy living our lives. Two friends had just flown in from Chicago, complaining of gloom and wet, and we were celebrating their arrival. We’d walked down to the Cafe del Sol, on the lagoon that overlooks the ocean, to sit out on the deck, drink margaritas, and enjoy temperatures in the 80s while reveling in the contrast with the dreary, benighted Midwest. Walking back along the beach, we barely noticed the winds, which had begun to rock the palms and eucalyptus but not in a particularly alarming way, not in the way of the arid Santa Ana winds (or as we call them here, Sundowners) that seasonally rake the hills and steal the humidity from the air and the moisture from the chaparral.

At home, we went about our business—that is, celebrating—over dinner and wine, and all of that was very usual and fine, until the telephone rang. It was a friend of my son’s calling to say that a fire had broken out on the ridge above us. In the next moment we were out on the lawn, looking to the darkened mountains that frame the city, and there it was, in deadly earnest. The Chicagoans—damp no longer—were soon scuttling around and providing essential assistance as the power went out like a fist slamming down and I ascended to the roof with the poor pathetic little strand of a garden hose in hand.

That night we were very lucky, but our luck, which depended on a change of the wind, proved devastating for those families and individuals to the west of us, who lost everything when 231 houses burned. Once the danger had passed—for us, at least—we went down to the waterfront to see what we could see, and there the smoke was overwhelming. The glazed sea washing behind us, we looked up at the hills of Santa Barbara’s Riviera neighborhood as the fire climbed and jumped with the winds, now gusting like the draft of an infinite woodstove. Palm trees exploded like rockets. Houses went hollow-eyed as the flames chewed through the windows. The winds shifted and shifted again, now blowing ash in our faces, now pushing west and then north into the blackness. Helicopters, manned heroically by pilots wearing night-vision goggles, swarmed and swooped, dropping their loads even as fire companies from all over the region gathered to fight the inferno on the ground. We went directly home—fled, flew—and I dragged out the garden hose all over again. All night, sleepless, I awaited the evacuation call.

Earlier in the year, in reaction to the Zaca Mesa blaze, which burned north of Santa Barbara for two months in the summer of 2007, I’d written a short story called “Ash Monday,” about our vulnerability in the face of natural forces. I was, of course, whistling by the graveyard, trying to allay my own fears—or at least address them. In the story, a disaffected 12-year-old boy seems, in the reader’s mind, the motive force for the catastrophe to come, but it doesn’t work out that way at all. The fire is started by accident, by an innocuous human activity, by a woman who had no thought of it. So, too, the Tea Fire—named for a garden structure on a deserted estate few of us had heard of—was started by human activity. The night before, a group of young men and women—celebrating, as we all celebrate—had sat around a bonfire there, and the bonfire had died down to coals by the time they left in the waning hours of the night. But then the winds came and breathed on the coals, and the coals came back to life.

Just like the fire next time.