Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Monday, November 17, 2008

Fire, again...

The end of the world as we know it?

So here it is mid-November -- just a few short weeks from the official start of Winter – but in Southern California, the thermometer hovers at 90 degrees and five percent humidity as firestorms rage through the canyons consuming houses like a fat man inhaling popcorn. Sirens rend the air while Hollywood swelters in the strange coppery glow of sunlight filtered through a dense pall of smoke. The throat-tightening stench of burning tires drifts through my windows.

Yes, it's just another day in paradise...

My phone isn’t ringing these days, so there’s plenty of time to read the newspaper. Bad idea. The stock market plummets like a dying bird, while the sclerotic American auto industry teeters on the brink of bankruptcy. Closer to home, we’re suffering through a sustained drought with no end in sight, the state coffers are in the neighborhood of 25 billion dollars beyond empty, and once again Southern California is going up in flames.

It feels like the end of the world, all right.

Obama might be our new president-elect, but the Santa Ana Winds don’t care, nor do those sick arsonist bastards whose eyes begin to glitter whenever the humidity drops and The Heat blows in from the deserts. Accidents are one thing – shit does indeed happen – but there’s a special place in Hell for people who deliberately set fires at a time like this. Personally, I’d just as soon beat the living crap out of them with a lead pipe in the here-and-now rather than await the questionable justice of the hereafter.

I’ve been through a big fire, and it’s no fun. Back on the home planet in the last century – during the hot winds of October, naturally – a huge, fast-moving conflagration came over the hill towards my house. As the immense wall of reddish-gray smoke approached, cops drove up the street ordering mandatory evacuation. It’s a very strange feeling to stand in the middle of your house, looking around for what suddenly feels like the Very Last Time, while trying to decide what to leave and what to take with you into the future. And later, of course, come the regrets – a small watercolor I’d foolishly left behind, painted by my grandmother, along with other small items that escaped my attention as the flames approached. But there's no time to think, so you make your choices and go, heart pounding with adrenaline, down a narrow road, dodging fire trucks, crazed wildlife, and other fleeing cars all the way.

And once safely past the fire lines, away from the swirling vortex of panic and confusion, all you can do is watch and wait and pray.

In the end, I was among the lucky ones. Although forty-five houses in the immediate neighborhood were incinerated, a late night wind-shift drove the flames back over the hill, sparing my place – but not before the fire came within four feet of the carport, and fifty feet from the house. A bullet dodged. It was several days before those whose homes survived were allowed to return, to a bleak lunar landscape reeking of smoke and ash. Not until months had passed and the winter rains come did that awful stench fade away.

But such is life in California, which has been a boom-and-bust state right from the very start. It’s always something out here -- if the earth isn’t shaking, then the hills are burning – but between disasters, it can be a nice place to live. That's the Devil's Bargain we all make: live here at your own risk, and be prepared to take the good with the bad. Trouble is, disaster seems to be visiting a lot more frequently these days, mostly in the form of fire -- and the Big One is still out there lurking in the gray mists of the future, awaiting the right moment to grab us by the throat and shake our world to pieces. We've been through some pretty good earthquakes in the last twenty years, but nothing like what's coming. When that one hits, it really will be the end of the world as Californians have known it.

How nice to know we have something to look forward to...


Nathan said...

Your photo is much more frightening that anything I've seen on the news.

And during my brief years in L.A., there was one earthquake. It scared the crap out of me at about 2:00a.m. and then the next day, I discovered that it was so small it didn't even register with the rest of the Angelinos. Oh well.

AJ in Nashville said...


Natural disasters are one thing, but the saddest of all the challenges to living in SoCal are the fires.

I feel so badly to those who just helplessly have to watch their dreams go up in smoke.

Geeze Michael, your story just gave me the full body shiver...