chat with kim, 11/13/08
|7:09 PM||me: the wind is warm and it smells like fire outside|
|7:10 PM||kim: uh oh
late season santa anas?
me: not sure what’s going on
it smells very fire-y in here though
and i’m pretty sure it’s not my house
|7:11 PM||* checks neighbor’s houses *|
|7:12 PM||kim: how are you, my darling?|
That’s when the power cut out.
I pushed my chair back from my computer desk and stood up. I found some shoes, put them on. I walked out onto the porch and peered into the black. And that’s when I saw the flames; strokes of bright orange undulating above my head, across the mountains.
Two and a half hours earlier, one of my close friends lay sprawled across her bed. She could nap a little longer, she could get up and shower, or she could get on the road to see her family down south for a weekend visit. She dozed a bit, checked the time — if she left now, she could get a head start on traffic. She got up, packed a few clothes and toiletries in a bag, and left at 4:45 p.m.
At 5:00, my friend’s housemate turned on the local news. She puttered around half-listening, putting things away. The breaking news banner flashed across the screen and one of the anchors announced that they were getting early reports of a wildfire in her area. She looked out the window, across the road, but didn’t see anything. She continued straightening up.
A few minutes later, she thought she smelled smoke. She looked out the window again and still saw nothing. Her curiosity got the better of her, though, so she slipped on shoes and padded outside.
The roof of the next house was already on fire.
She ran around the corner to knock on my friend’s door and saw her car was gone. She ran back inside, grabbed the landlord’s dogs, and jumped in her own car with them. By the time she backed out of the driveway, the roof of her house was engulfed, as were the trees on both sides of the road.
It was like driving through a tunnel of flames, she later said.
I didn’t know any of this at the time the power went out, of course. All I knew was the fire on the mountain, and the eerie stillness in my home.
A dark city makes for restlessness and vulnerability. To distract ourselves, a couple of my neighbors and I went around the block to a cash-only bar. Candles flickered on the counter; tiny effigies of the fury from above contained inside glass. A battery-fed AM radio droned on a shelf. The bartender wept and worried threads on the hem of her shirt.
In the center of town we were mostly safe from wildfire, but on this night it felt like anything could happen. So we hovered in the doorway with our glasses and watched tongues of flame sprint up canyonsides and explode, triumphant, into towering sparking infernos at the top.
The wind had shifted by the time we left, sending big flakes of ash helicoptering to the ground.
This area is no stranger to conflagration, especially now. October and November are the warmest months of the year. And since it usually hasn’t rained since March, the brush is crackling dry. Put those two elements together, and you’ve got a wildfire just waiting to happen.
Add in wind, and you’ve got a disaster just waiting to happen.
This time of year, too, meteorological conditions can conspire to reverse the wind from onshore to offshore. The gentle breeze morphs into a screaming, howling banshee, racing down the mountains towards the water. The effect usually peaks at sunset, inspiring the local name sundowner. The wind heats and dries as it descends from the mountains, and when it does the air becomes electrified. It buzzes, sparks.
Raymond Chandler described the phenomenon best in “Red Wind”:
There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen.
What happened on November 13, 2008, was this: shortly before 5:00 p.m., a sundowner re-ignited embers from a bonfire held the night before by a group of college students.
The house where my friend had lived just happened to be down the road from where the party had been.
By 5:30 p.m., the house was gone.
After something big happens, you marvel at how badly it could have turned out. What if my friend had gone back to sleep, or what if she’d gotten in the shower, oblivious? What if no one else had been home to warn her?
Any chain of casual, arbitrary decisions you make in a day can lead you into — or out of — the path of danger. It’ll drive you crazy if you let it. So you don’t.
Most of the time you don’t notice you’re living at the edge until it drops away and sends you tumbling.
Most of the time you don’t realize you have something until you have nothing.
About two weeks later, after the burn areas reopened, I went back to the house with my friend. She’d heard stories of jewelry surviving fires, and held out hope that she’d at least find her grandmother’s ring.
Only an outline of the foundation and the chimney were left to indicate anyone had ever lived there. “I think this was where my room was,” she said, looking up as if to orient herself, and finding only blue sky and scorched trees.
We sifted through ash and blackened shards of lumber for almost an hour, but we never found anything.
Related reading from Joan Didion’s essay “The Santa Ana” from Slouching Toward Bethlehem:
I recall being told, when I first moved to Los Angeles and was living on an isolated beach, that the Indians would throw themselves into the sea when the bad wind blew. I could see why. The Pacific turned ominously glossy during a Santa Ana period, and one woke in the night troubled not only by the peacocks screaming in the olive trees but by the eerie absence of surf. The heat was surreal. The sky had a yellow cast, the kind of light sometimes called “earthquake weather.” My only neighbor would not come out of her house for days, and there were no lights at night, and her husband roamed the place with a machete. One day he would tell me that he had heard a trespasser, the next a rattlesnake.
The city burning is Los Angeles’ deepest image of itself. Nathaniel West perceived that, in The Day of the Locust, and at the time of the 1965 Watts riots what struck the imagination most indelibly were the fires. For days one could drive the Harbor Freeway and see the city on fire, just as we had always known it would be in the end. Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse, and, just as the reliably long and bitter winters of New England determine the way life is lived there, so the violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The winds shows us how close to the edge we are.