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.


Anonymous said...

just glad to hear you're ok.

lowenkopf said...

Serious appreciations to those who've posted or emailed their concerns.

Sara said...

You amaze me - even though this must have been written in such a stressful state, you wrote it so beautifully and eloquently. There's much that can be learned from your writing, here as always.

Stay safe, please, and keep us posted.

lowenkopf said...

Early afternoon, sun streaming through the whispy smoke, the sounds of chainsaws gnawing at vulnerable trees and brush an incessant argument with the sounds of the 'copters and flying tankers bringing water drops to the fire line. As I drive to the lower village to gas up the Yaris I see a group of tired fire fighters, leaning against the sides of trucks, munching on enormous Italian sandwiches, oblivious to the coating of ash and grime on their clothing. The winds have started to make themselves known, as if awakening from a sleep. At one point, on the crest of a hill, I can see a clump of marine layer wanting to move in from the ocean, to do battle with the hot, dry wind. Everyone I see, too tired to make eye contact, too aware of the enormity of events not to make eye contact with another human.

The squirrels know; they're nowhere to be seen. The crows know too, but they're so opportunistic, they're not going to let a fire matter.

Sally, asleep on the floor as though nothing had happened on this day in which we are all doing something we had not planned.

You think about things to pack in the car--just in case. Do you pick the watercolor Henry Miller gave you or the thick piles of your notebooks or the shelves of your books or the stacks of magazines and journals in which your stories appeared or do you affect the denial of confidence the fire will not touch this house?

What of your things can you "do" without?

Simply put, risk begins at about five thirty on a Thursday afternoon, springs out like a schoolyard bully, showing off, posturing.

Last night, you were on the phone to ENK, who'd already been forced out. Standing in the parking lot on Milpas Street between a PETCO and a Carl's Junior, she describes her view of two houses in the hills above her, going up. Simply going up, then not being there.

There is nothing or no one you can do without, as though there ever were or will be. You do not expect to be philosophical at two fifteen on a Friday afternoon, drinking cold latte from this morning; you expected to be working on an editorial project from an author you greatly admire.

As with everything, you'll do what it takes, even if you don't at any given moment, know what that means.

Kate Lord Brown said...

Keep safe, Shelly - sending love and blessings to you and yours (the only things we cannot do without at the end of the day - the two and four legged loved ones who fill our hearts. Everything else is window dressing). x

Heather said...

You and your neighbours are in my thoughts. I very much hope that the fire is brought under control quickly.

John Eaton said...

Be safe and well, Shelly.

Lori Witzel said...

Sending you wishes for rain, and some end to the wind, and safe places/passage for you and Sally until the last ember cools.

I've been near dry country fires; they're scary in their explosive rip. One summer in Flagstaff, the San Francisco Peaks caught fire and glowed like coals at night for a month until the fire was finally put out.

I may have to play hooky this weekend to find some fresh pix -- you're welcome to come along.

Anonymous said...

Such trouble and such great detail. Stay safe and let us keep reading.

Querulous Squirrel said...

I just saw clips standing on line at the bank and saw Monticeto on the bank. I'm glad you're OK. Forest fires are one of the most frightening things in the world. I hope you and Sally stay well.

Smiler said...

Hope you and Sally and that Henry Miller watercolor stay safe. If I could send some of our rain your way I really would.