The day the world burned down


    Whenever I wake up on the morning of Nov. 3, my first conscious thought is to sniff the air and taste the moisture. I never worried about moisture before the Topanga/Malibu fire of November 1993. It didn’t matter because that kind of stuff happened to other people, not me. The Santa Anas weren’t personal, they were just a passing local weather phenomenon.

    But in the course of one day, I lost my innocence and that comforting and totally irrational belief that these kinds of things happen only to the other guy, and I’ve never been the same since.

    Five years ago today, even though the Santa Anas had been blowing and other neighborhoods like Laguna had already burned, it still came as a shock. It was like a death in the family. Even though someone may be old and sick, when death finally comes you’re always startled.

    It had been several years since Malibu had a major fire. La Costa, the area where we live, hadn’t burned for 60 or 70 years and was overgrown with old vegetation, the kind of vines that take years to grow and ultimately envelope the buildings. Many of the houses were also old, with wooden siding and decks, and trees that brushed up against the buildings. The land around the buildings hadn’t been cleared of brush, and our water system was a travesty. There was little water pressure, and what storage there was for water high up in the hills was quickly used up. Nor could they refill the water storage tanks after they emptied — the pumps were electric, the electricity came from the same direction as the fire and the wires quickly burned out.

    The hills were filled with dry brush, the fuel load was up and the plant moisture down. Years of wet winters had produced green springs and brown falls and winters, which left miles of kindling waiting for a spark.

    Rambla Pacifico Road had always been the fire break, the last line of defense, the place where the fire trucks marshaled to make their stand, but that, too, was closed by a slide some years before.

    The city was still very new, its disaster preparation practically nonexistent, its budget limited and its council and staff filled with unjustified confidence in themselves and their ability to protect us all.

    All in all, the stage was set for tragedy, and none of us knew it.

    It started with the early morning reports that Topanga and Calabasas were burning. Still it wasn’t real, even though it was coming our way and coming fast. A neighbor living on Las Flores Creek, a retired fireman, came into the Times building and told us he thought it was coming down Las Flores and it was time to clear out. We did. We took all the copy, grabbed the photographs, put the computers into our cars, parceled out the two Malibu Times cats, Fred and Ginger, and sent everyone home with instructions to come back the next day if the building was still standing or to stay by their phones for further instructions if it was not. At 2:30 in the afternoon, I left the Malibu Times building with Chris Ford, our then-editor, standing out front with a hose in his hand, watering down the roof, his silly parrot, Lola, sitting on his shoulder. I remember thinking as I pulled away, “Goodbye, Malibu Times.”

    The shock came when I got back to La Costa and my entire neighborhood had already been evacuated.

    Karen was in Orange County on business and couldn’t get back. The scene was surreal. The day was beautiful. The sky was blue, and the sun was shining. I stood on our deck, with our chocolate lab, Cece, by my side and watched the fire slowly moving towards our hill from Carbon Mesa Road, where it almost burned down the fire station. The strangest part is, the smoke was blowing west while the fire was burning east towards us.

    I looked around. What do you take? I grabbed the hard disk from Karen’s computer, a few paintings from the wall, a couple of Oriental carpets that were rolled up and waiting to be taken to be cleaned. I looked for the family photos and couldn’t find them. Karen must have moved them, or perhaps I just never noticed. The Pathfinder was filling up, and I knew if the sheriffs came back, they’d throw me out. The fire kept moving closer but at a leisurely pace, and the sun was still shining, and the sky was still blue.

    Then suddenly it changed. The air got dry, and you could feel the oxygen being sucked out of it. The fire was pushing a wind storm in front of it, and dust and paper and just about anything not tied down was swirling around. Cece started whining and finally growling at me. The message was clear: “Let’s get the hell out of here.” No valiant last stand by that dog, or, for that matter, me either. We got in the truck and down the hill we went. We tried to stop, but they wouldn’t let us. It was one long refugee train. They were sending us all in one direction, out of town.

    That evening, we stayed at a friend’s house in Pacific Palisades, not knowing whether we still had a home or a business. Late that evening, our older son, Clay, called us from the Malibu Times building, which had survived. Somehow he had driven through the back hills, evaded the sheriffs and firemen, who would have thrown him out, and finally made his way to the neighborhood on foot. He told us it was all gone. Not just our house. Everything was gone. In fact, there were small fires and dying embers all over the hill and an occasional house that miraculously survived.

    Now, five years later, the neighborhood is just beginning to come back, but most of the new houses still look pretty naked. The vegetation is not all back yet, and there are some burned out chimneys still standing like cemetery monuments. But the neighborhood is alive again, even though it’s not the same neighborhood nor, I suspect, are we the same people.