Paean to fire heroes


    I turned on the television a little after 6, sipping the coffee Patty had already made, at the same time enjoying another spectacular Malibu sunrise. I hit the remote to get to a local station and, bam, flames over Malibu. The reporter was talking about fires at Encinal and Corral canyons. Power lines down, oops! Our cable went out and then the power. The dreaded Santa Ana winds were piling on to the damage they had wreaked on my defenseless rose bushes and patio furniture during the night.

    Fast forward. It’s 10 o’clock, cable back up and running, power comes and goes. Sitting in our living room, something catches my eye. I look over Patty’s shoulder out the window facing east. Smoke. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Now it’s visible, flames growing before my eyes, whipped into a frenzy by the winds and marching toward us from Trancas Canyon Road. We move to the patio for a better look and Patty notices flames on the mountain behind us, less than half a mile away. The ones to the east are much closer. We watch the flames grow in breadth and height.

    A man is calling his cat, not frantically, but with a sense of urgency. We can’t figure out exactly where the sound is coming from, and don’t stick around to find out. We retreat upstairs, pack an overnight bag, and put it by the front door, along with computers, some files and papers I would be lost without, and four small works by Picasso. Other favorites by Matisse, Nakian, Lautrec, Tamayo, Matta, Zuniga and Dobroruka, are left hanging. If the house goes, they and other works of art will be reduced to ashes and memories.

    Helicopters buzz about. One lands in the adjacent field from us. Moments later, two fire trucks appear and stop on Pacific Coast Highway not far from where still another fire had been sparked into life by a flying cinder or two, literally a stone’s throw away. Firefighters, clad in their yellow uniforms, begin their single file trudge up the hill from the highway. Because of the rolling terrain, they keep disappearing and bobbing into view, looking like a giant caterpillar inching its way into the space between the fire and our house. No ordinary caterpillar, these mighty warriors. They are my Maginot line. My goal line stand. Roy Campanella blocking home plate. Phil Esposito in the crease. The Marines at Iwo Jima.

    Unless you have seen firefighters in action up close, you might not grasp what I am about to tell you: Just knowing they were between us and the fire, Patty and I knew we and our home were safe. Out of harm’s way. No way that fire could get past our yellow-clad heroes. And it doesn’t!

    It’s late afternoon. Power is restored. We hear about a fire to the west of us. The one on the hill had moved on, no longer threatening us, but bearing down on 250 other homes. Patty walks down to Pacific Coast Highway for a better view. A parade of red, yellow and green fire trucks rumbles by, lights flashing, but no sirens, as the yellow-clad superpeople move to another challenge. She tells me that the silence was eerie, and she stood at attention as they roared westward. I wished I could tell those 250 homeowners not to worry, that their indomitable protectors would get there in time. They would learn for themselves a day later.

    The flames, which had met their match 80 yards from our house, re-ignite before dusk, but a small rescue squad is there to squelch it. Our heroes are there when we need them. The past two days, as they wait to be sure their job is done, I bump into firefighters at the market and in a parking lot. “Thank you” seems inadequate, but it is the best I can do. I wave at a few of them relaxing on their trucks, they wave back and I throw them kisses. They smile. All in a day’s work. And a night’s. Whatever it takes.

    New Yorkers came to love them at 9-11. The entire nation embraced their bravery, humility, skill, and dedication. Malibuites have known it for years.

    As I said, “Thank you” seems inadequate. But it is the best I can do.

    Alan Klevit