We’ll take wildfire over Katrina any day


Brown clouds drift over the tops of the steep slope behind the house, obscuring the sun and pushing wisps of acrid smoke across the canyon. Susan drives out to see where it’s coming from, then phones from her cell. She’s on the old road that parallels I-5 on the west just north of Gorman. The California Highway Patrol has already closed the northbound lanes and is running caravans on the other side. Flames are licking over the crest above Tejon Ranch’s Equestrian Facility. It’s only noontime.

Susan said it appears to have started on the southbound lanes of the freeway and jumped to the other side. There are two helicopters in the air. She thinks they’ll get a handle on it.

I’ve been doing laundry all morning, white T-shirts and Devon’s football jerseys flap on the line. They’ve dried in 20 minutes. Not a good sign. I bring them in.

I’m exhausted from two emergency wildfire drills already this week, wondering how much to do. Susan returns and the phone starts ringing. Her brother, Bobby, is minding 11-year-old Devon and his friend, Marshall. He’ll call three more times in the next hour.

My friend, Dick, is driving to Santa Barbara for a jazz gig and calls from his cell. He heard on the radio that I-5 is shut down, and are we all right. So far, so good, I say. Thanks for the call. Susan’s husband, Pete, calls from his motorcycle shop at the corner of Frazier Mountain and Lebec Road. They have no electricity and are surrounded on two sides by what has become two separate blazes. The trailer park behind the shop has been evacuated along with homes on the opposite side of the freeway. Part of the ranch behind the Flying J truck stop is on fire. Bobby’s friend has horses there and can’t get to them from where he is on Highway 138. Bobby hooks up his trailer and unloads the hay he brought up from Bakersfield this morning. We can’t reach our friend Robin who runs Amy’s pre-school at her home. She’s right in the path of the flames and has been evacuated.

By 2:30, the whole thing is out of control, burning on both sides of the freeway. So much for getting a quick handle on it. Bobby returns from the horse rescue and drives up on the quad to give us an update and see if we need anything. He says if the fire gets this far it will come right over that hill on the southwest side of the house. In that case, I could use one more long hose.

I’ve got sprinklers on the perimeter, gravity flow lines from rain barrels and storage tanks. We’ve never bought pumps because the fire usually comes from the northeast and cuts off our power supply straight away.

This time, all the power poles that serve the fast food joints, gas stations and houses on Frazier Mountain Road have burned to the ground. We would learn later that their power wouldn’t be restored for four or five days.

Well at least we’re not up to our armpits in fetid swamp water like those poor folk in New Orleans and Biloxi. Nor are we being shot at by looters, though Pete thought for a while he might have to defend his shop. No power to run the security alarm system.

There are now three tankers in the air and two spotter planes. And while there’s still a ton of smoke coming our way, its color has paled. Then there’s a shift in the wind, though it’s hard to know if it’s behaving the same way in the next two canyons. If it is, there’s a chance it will blow the fire back on itself.

Bobby makes another run up the fire road on his quad. When he gets back, he says that seems to be what’s happening. The three tankers are still dropping phoscheck or borate or whatever retardant they’re using now.

We’re starting to relax a bit. I’ve turned off the sprinklers. Amy tires of wielding the borrowed hose and lets the wet bandana slide from her nose. Pete’s still practicing his golf swing on dried mustard and ladder fuels on the other side of the driveway. I take my pruning shears to the buddlea and escalonia by the house. They needed deadheading anyway.

As the sun sinks below the tall hills to the west. The planes are still crisscrossing above, but the air is getting easier to breathe. Finally, we give up and go inside. Bobby goes back down to the ranch house to feed the horses and refill his water tank. Devon and Marshall follow on a dirt bike. Susan starts a pot of spaghetti.

I collapse on the couch, thanking the powers that be for the wind change, the forest service tankers, and once again, for my super kids. What if we lived in Biloxi or New Orleans and had to rely on the government to save us. No way.

With hot water for a shower, ample drinking water and food, and a half case of Two Buck Chuck chardonnay, I’m thankful, big time. Don’t worry, be happy.