Paradise lost-remembrance of the ‘Fires’


    Nine years ago this month, a fire consumed 18,000 acres, 323 homes, 112 miscellaneous structures, killed three and abruptly changed countless lives in Calabasas, Topanga and Malibu. Nov. 2, 1993: Paradise lost.

    They say the big one happens once a decade. Scary anniversaries beg remembrance.

    I had recently purchased a charming four-unit apartment building a mile up Las Flores Canyon Road, creek side, where I lived with my partner, Susan, who was in town for the day. A character actor with income property in Malibu. Unheard of. How lucky can a character get? So what if I was under-insured? I’d already survived three fires, several floods and a couple of quakes. The odds were in my favor. However, the then-recent flare-ups in Altadena and Laguna scared me into conformity, so, just to be on the safe side, I’d made an appointment with an insurance agent named Bruce to toodle out to Malibu at noon on – as fate would have it-Tuesday, Nov. 2 to assess and insure the stuff of my life.

    Bruce failed to show up, so I was on my rowing machine, working out my disdain for the insurance industry, when about one o’clock I received a call from Sharon Barovsky. She addressed me in an unflattering epithet (we’re close) and suggested I get off my boat and turn on the TV. “Malibu’s on fire again.”

    I thought I’d smelled something.

    I decided to bypass the TV and step outside where I discovered a wisp of smoke at the ridgeline, top of Las Flores. My thighs tightened and my personality split down the middle and stayed that way for three hours.

    The Dreamer and the Realist engaged in a costly debate.

    Dreamer: Luckily, the smoke is way, way up on the tippy-top of the utmost faraway ridge.

    Realist: Notice those people driving down the canyon with grim faces and sad dogs and their belongings sticking out the windows?

    Dreamer: They’re from the Valley.

    I pulled my little red phone as far as the cord would reach out the front door and leaned against my woodsy building. The phone rang so often the Realist became impatient, while the Dreamer answered every call and reassured the world.

    Another puff of smoke appeared on the near horizon. And then another. (A new pope, perhaps?) The wind was up and kicking. The birds were gone, yet the feeder swung.

    Steve in Apartment 1 was loading his car.

    Dreamer: Steve is a scaredy-cat.

    Realist: Steve is a realist.

    I picked up the phone. It was Frank in Apartment 4, calling from work. Yes, I assured him that if and when I felt it necessary to leave the premises, I would certainly snatch his irreplaceable family photos off the wall. So I did, and put them in my car. And added my Olympia manual typewriter and an unfinished manuscript. For good measure.

    Minutes later, it was Roberta, the attractive producer in Apartment 2, calling from the set. Would I please go into her apartment, climb upstairs to her bedroom, locate the chest of drawers on the east wall, open the second drawer on the left, not the big one in the center, but the small one underneath, and find her mother’s jewelry on the right hand side under the lingerie, and put it in my car. I wrote it all down and brought my notes with me. The Dreamer dismissed a measure of guilt, as we rummaged through Roberta’s little panties. The Realist located the goods.

    On the way back to Apartment 3, my home with Susan, the wind had grown irascible, and wildly unpredictable. Ash was in the air. Police cars and fire trucks screamed up the canyon. The sun was dead. The Realist was frightened, the Dreamer hopeful. We stopped to stare.

    Dreamer: The firefighters will surely make a stand on top of the ridge.

    Realist: Pack up.

    Dreamer: It is a well-known fire fact that flame travels up, not down.

    Realist: Choose quickly.

    The apartment was dark, not unusual on a day suddenly turned gray, since the place was surrounded by sycamore and eucalyptus. Dead quiet, too. No lights, no water. I made my way upstairs to the spacious loft. The Realist’s legs were severely cramped. The Dreamer noted the banister was a little loose, that the brackets needed attention. Tomorrow.

    I walked the perimeter of the room and spoke out loud to a lifetime of hanging art, gifted to me by a variety of talented friends.

    The Realist: Thank you and goodbye.

    The Dreamer: See you in the morning.

    I tucked what fit under an arm and left the larger pieces where they belonged. And even one small one, my favorite, a self-portrait of an artist I knew and loved in the ’50s. It was no larger than a good-sized cheese board. The Dreamer left it as a testament to his resolve, and told it so.

    Wouldn’t you know, I couldn’t find the fabulous suede jacket I’d had made for Susan? The one she looked so good in. Would she ever learn to organize her closet? I grabbed the laundry basket instead.

    I loaded the car with partials.

    Sparks danced helter-skelter. Fire engines and patrol cars now worked their way down the canyon. A policeman spoke rudely to me on his bullhorn. The day was hotter than the hottest day; fences flew. The Buckner home across the street exploded like a marshmallow too near the campfire.

    I summoned one more trip up the stairs. The Realist grabbed a box of negatives that recorded a portion of my past. On the way out, we hooked a bottle of Scotch. The Dreamer made sure the front door was left ajar so the firefighters could help themselves to cokes. They usually appreciate a cold drink after making a final stand.

    One lone fireman sprayed a corner of my house with a single stream of water from his truck. Most of it whipped back into our faces before it hit the building. He was a wiry guy. Handsome, I would imagine underneath all that gear. Has anybody ever seen an ugly fireman? I thanked him in advance. The building was Cape Cod blue.

    I must have driven to PCH and crossed the highway. I do remember parking at the Sea Lion. The Realist and the Dreamer sat together on the rear bumper and watched Las Flores Canyon fill with grief. One of us took a swig from the bottle; the other had a good cry.

    The following day, Bruce the insurance agent located Susan and me by phone at the Barovsky residence, where Susan, a realist, remained numbly devastated, because no one would let her come home when she was needed. And where Sharon cooked and poured and Harry made dozens of phone calls to make it better.

    “Hey,” Bruce said, “I tried to keep our appointment yesterday but they wouldn’t let me into Malibu because of the fire. Let’s re-schedule.”