Friday, November 23, 2007

Torre Fire

Why living with high fire risk is worth it.

Thursday afternoon three weeks ago, the call comes in on the fire brigade pager that my husband always carries: a vegetation fire between the Coast Gallery and Partington Ridge. I hear the (Hawthorne) Gallery, where we both work, and Partington, a difference of a few miles and assume the fire (if it is a fire, since pager calls are notorious for bad/incomplete info) is far away from my home.

Wrapped up in my daily cares and pending town errands I head north down the road in the opposite direction (lesson, when I hear the words Partington and fire in the same sentence, even the same paragraph, I'm going home, pronto.)

On the way to meet a friend who is selling me the laptop I’m writing on now, he calls me on my cell phone, (itself rare occurrence since I don’t use the phone in Big Sur, it generally doesn’t work there.) He tells me that the local tv news says there's a fire near Partington Ridge in Big Sur and (this is key) the ridge is being evacuated.

Our mountain neighborhood is way under the radar, to think it’s being discussed on television is surreal. I stop, dead in my tracks, in the parking lot and immediately change course back to my car, the freeway, home. I don't know what I'll find but I'm going.

I make calls to neighbors to check on my 90 year old neighbor, who is barely mobile, arranging for his transport, and for my dog, who is my surrogate child. I give the ok for the use of our house for another neighbor’s kids and sick mother to stay there as the situation becomes clearer. “It’s a blazer” says my friend who is watching it from her perch at the top of the ridge.

It’s easy to express what is just under the surface freely when confronted with a threatening situation. As I make these calls I find myself telling people I love them, which seems natural and right.

A special thank you went to my computer guru friend, Michael, for alerting me to the danger. He offered his home to for us to stay at if we needed to, and we exchanged “I love yous” too.

Rounding the corner past Deetjens Inn, I saw what we never want to see: that pale orange pall in the night sky, the smoke dancing above as if it were some supernatural phenomenon. Almost like what tornado watchers must feel—here it comes, and it ain’t good.

Drawing closer, flying through each curve of the highway, I try to assess it, west side of the highway, white smoke is good, no high orange sparks. But that glow, that glow is always unforgettable.

I park in the pull out just before Torre canyon, where a sheriff has stopped traffic. He scolds me for parking there but I leave the car where it is and begin chatting with the neighbors.

We can’t get through, it’s not safe. Firefighters and equipment, sheriff’s search and rescue team and flames that could jump the highway prevent us from getting to the other side and the tiny road up our ridge. None of us can evacuate our pets and belongings, but some have family members at home who are packing up.

So far, though, not too much stress, it looks like it’s under control, from our safe distance we can’t see flames, and it appears to be dying down. It hasn’t jumped the highway, the main concern. We pride ourselves on being country people, after all. Some even talk about hiking up the back road to their homes, if only they could cross the line.

One neighbor opens a bottle of French wine, out of sight of the sheriff. We pour it into the only cup we have amongst us, a plastic travel coffee cup, rinsed out with bottled water. We despair of the local authority not letting us through. Other neighbors drive up, are stopped, chat, then most head back to the valley for a bite to eat or to find a place to sleep just in case, thinking all will be well soon.

I stay, and walk down to the edge of the pullout, where there’s a locked gate, guarding a tiny point of land on the edge of the cliff. It’s where I got married 12 years ago. Quite a different experience, with flowers strewn across the field making a path to my beloved, standing at the very edge, on a drop dead gorgeous day, our friends assembled, champagne. One neighbor, who is up at the top of the ridge packing at this moment, rode her horse down the mountain to see the ceremony.

Now I really see the dancing smoke. I watch for a while, remembering. Then back to chat with the scolding sheriff. I find him eating a banana. Seems he’s been on duty for 15 hours. The radio crackles with the voice of our local volunteer fire chief. He oks the admission to the fire area of Mary, who lives next to the edge of the fire. Her husband and young son are there, packing and watching.

Moments later, Mary and a friend pull up, and I hop in the car with them to help. I feel a moth to flame attraction, my husband is on the fire line, and I want to be close (or, since we had a fight that morning, perhaps immolate myself.)

Around the corner and over the highway bridge, lined with emergency and tv vehicles. The tv crew part is funny, basically none of the people who live in Big Sur get local tv coverage, even from satellite, so the practical usefulness of the coverage is moot, except, come to think of it, the tv news got me back down the coast, v. doing the grocery shopping. if you'd like to see
local tv coverage of the fire here you are.

Down the driveway to Mary’s house. Aghast, we all stop and look at a huge line of fire, coming up from what looks like the bottom of the cliff, hundreds of feet long, snaking up towards the road. A few firefighters on the other side of the fire line look like figures in a Hieronymous Bosch painting, so tiny against the roiling bright orange flames.

The fire is maybe 50 yards away. Mary drops to her knees. As she turns and runs toward her husband and son, we watch as the wind changes. A long orange ribbon of fire rises up as if in slow motion, and then the whole line is moving toward us, fast.

At the house I say, what can I do, and the fire chief and his wife (who lived there many years ago and are friends with Mary and her family) both say, Leave now. We are all leaving NOW.

As I run behind Mary’s young son up the driveway, the fire begins to reach a stand of nasty, oil-filled eucalyptus trees. Keep running Jesse, keep going, we’re right behind you, don’t worry, they’re fighting it, it’s going to be ok, I encourage him, and myself too, as we move up to the road. A burning eucalyptus branch falls to the asphalt and we run around it.

Next we’re all hopping into cars, and the possibility of gridlock on the bridge occurs to me. I end up in Mary’s husband’s truck, with their cat meowing loudly. Jump in Linda, jump he says, and I grab the bar above the window and swing up. Then a few sobs escape me, I’m so worried about my man. Sam talks about their goldfish, he had to leave them. O fuck the goldfish! I say, your family is safe, that’s what’s important.

The fire chief’s wife and I check on the other nearby residents: an elderly couple, who’ve lived in Torre canyon for decades. They move quite calmly and purposefully. Dogs and birds chatter in their SUV. We watch the flames going up the east side of the mountain as we wait for him to disconnect the propane.

I drive to Deetjen’s, where the mood is somber. It’s 8:30 pm and we’re all wondering if we’ll have homes in the morning. Upstairs in the office, we make calls. The phone at my home rings and rings and rings. I know the power is out, but many of us keep old-style rotary phones for emergencies. After several tries, I reach my husband, who has left the fire lines to rescue our 90 year old neighbor, our dog, and some possessions. What should I take, what do we need he asks me, Bob, the dog, the computer, the camera, I reply.”I’ve put on the sprinklers,” he says. Then, he adds, “it’s all going to shit!”

Well that’s it, I think. And toddle off to the Fireplace room (funny) which Deetjen’s has kindly given to me and two other neighbors, mother and daughter, to share for the night. I’ll eventually sleep on the air mattress, which takes several comical attempts to inflate. The General Manager, who I know from a previous lifetime as a teacher at Esalen, brings me a bowl of soup, which I eat slowly on the bed curled up like a weak cat.

Later in the evening, we hear that the fire, miraculously, is dying down. Just like that. Down to the restaurant for an update, several folks there chatting quietly. We chuckle over a neighbor who never moved from his spot looking down at the fire; if he’d been in a tornado he’d be holding onto the storm cellar door, commenting on the stiff breeze.

Several hours later, it rains. We’ve been passed over. Like death, as the old-timers say, it’s not IF, it’s WHEN. This is part of how we feel about fire on Partington Ridge. It’s a great clarifying experience, to really get that possessions mean NOTHING, that all our accumulating stuff is silly, that in a crunch, we only care about our people, our pets, artwork, our memories preserved in photos and a few sentimental objects. O, and nowadays the computer hard drives.

If given too much time to think it over we’re like the wife in Steve Martin’s “the Jerk” I only need this, and this and this and this….what do we really, really need? What is really important to you? What would you carry with you from your home if you had 15 minutes to choose, in a stressful and scary scenario?

Update: The Torre Fire was started by a man who drove off the cliff just north of Partington Ridge. He was injured and unable to climb the 250’ to the road. So two days later, he allegedly started a signal fire. He’s not liable for any costs or damages because he was trying to save himself. 75 acres were burned, no homes damaged, there were a couple of minor fire-fighter injuries. CDF, BLM, USFS, North Tree fire, Big Sur Volunteer Fire Brigade, convict labor from Gavilan, and a few good Samaritans all helped put this one to rest.

To contribute (EVERYONE should) to the local, Big Sur all-volunteer fire-fighters (the first on the scene, at this fire, and most) please do so now! They're currently fund-raising for a new engine, the one we have is several decades old.

The car that started it all.

Scary eucalyptus, after the fire.


Anonymous said...

oh wow. i've heard several versions of this event, all of which made me fearful for you....but your account got to the thick of it the best. And make me giggle. don't immolate yourself! You too hot already.



Anonymous said...

Earthquakes and Fire! Amazing Linda, how of a sudden, pastural scenes of paradise suddenly transform. Ponds become barrier, amber waves powder kegs. I just began to read, “Women of Big Sur,” and I’m thinking of you sweetest One. Now I comprehend the trepidation which always rides on the heels of those much-anticipated guests, and your fair Fire-fighters continual admonishments and warnings over stray ashes. The night after we left Bob, I was sitting in my little shop/garage contemplating the little wood stove in his shack. Whilst secretly coveting it, I was imagining what it must be like trying to stoke some warmth up on a freezing Partington night, mostly blind, unsure of where popping greenwood embers may fly. Trial through Fire! What an ordeal! If it weren’t for the Phoenix, all would be burnt and bitter. Then suddenly, … intervention, and the terrible future you were living out in excruciatingly endless seconds turns to RAIN glorious RAIN. I for one am Very Thankful you were spared that.