Friday, November 14, 2008


I'd just returned from a twilight walk with Sally to hear the voice of Jim Alexander on the answering machine, offering to come by with his truck to give evacuation assistance. What evacuation? I asked, picking up the phone. From the fire, he said, usual no-nonsense voice. The whole fricking area around you has gone up.

It was six, barely dark. With Alexander's prompt came the rush of sensory things, the thrum of helicopters overhead, moving from their base at what I later learned was Santa Barbara Junior High, taking on fifteen thousand gallons of water from the hydrants deployed there, then off to the fire line just above Mission Canyon. The Sant'Ana winds were up, gusting at over thirty mph, swirling plumes of smoke skyward. The oppressive weight of the wind-warmed air, laden with smoke. The local NPR station suddenly dead, its transformer a probable victim of the fire. News on our local ABC outlet: fifteen acres of chaparral gone in a flash, the roar now of equipment moving across the landscape. Then the lights and utilities are gone. The decision to start packing things for a quick get-away.

By one this morning, still no lights or TV or Internet. A phoned infomercial about Hot Springs Road being on the cusp of the mandatory evacuation perimeter. All too aware of what living at 652 Hot Springs Road implies, I gather Sally and some things into the car and make my way back to the very place I'd walked her earlier, there to spend the night in the car.

Home in time for a quick check to discover utilities back on, prognosis for more Sant'ana winds later this afternoon, and a layer of ash crusting everything, like dandruff on an old boy's shoulders. At about seven thirty this morning, the usual suspects gather in the newly opened downtown Peet's to drink coffee, exchange horror stories, and celebrate Mary's birthday for which Melinda has miraculously prepared an enormous, complex cake.

The news is that at least two hundred homes on the area known as The Riviera are burned toast, the fire daunted but by no means down, news persons guardedly offering that the fire is by no means under control, reading off a litany of names of closed streets. Indeed, coming home from Summerland this morning I see two barriers across Hot Springs Road as it intersects East Valley Road. Taking advantage of the size of my Toyota Yaris, I scoot past the signs, head up toward Mountain Drive which I know to have been evacuated, then turn in at 652, down the long drive past the garage that was once an office, relieved to see no immediate signs of burning.

It is more than an anomaly; it is an irony to see Martha Stewart talking about cornbread baked in the shape of a turkey. As such things go in Central Coast fires, the flames are idiosyncratic, leaving homes standing in the midst of burned-out neighbors, a kind of Bridge of San Luis Rey, a random menace, waiting in the wings.

Seventy-mile-an-hour winds confirmed for last night; thirty-to-forty-mile-an-hour winds forecast for this evening out of the north east, Hot Springs Road on the eastern perimeter of the evacuation.

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