Friday, February 15, 2013

A Puff of Santa Ana Rage- Southern California

The firestorms Old and Grand Prix were merging.  Both my husband and I were working feverishly in the combined fire camp to serve the people of Southern California in this devastating 'natural' disaster.  'Natural' only in that the forests burned.  All the 10 firestorms that were set upon Southern California at that moment (during Santa Ana wind season) were arson and quite strategically set at that, in my understanding.

We were supposed to be getting sleep- much needed sleep; but, that was impossible.  We spent the early part of the sleeping hours watching the Grand Prix and Old fires merge.  It was a choking, gripping moment.  Like watching a tragic movie that you don't want to see, but can't tear yourself away from.

When Jamie and I finally went to our tent, it was perhaps near midnight.  Our tent was in the middle of a baseball field, secured within tall chain-link fencing, filled with perhaps 60 other uniform tents of our fire camp coworkers.  We were a rare married couple sharing one tent in this field of singly occupied tents.

As I went to sleep that night, my gut wrenched at the image from within our tent: a ring of pulsing orange flashing with yellow rimmed our tent nearly completely.  There was fire on the hills and mountains in almost every direction.  A complete circle of spitting combustion.  The smoke should have been choking, but it wasn't (an eerie sign to a wildland firefighter- a preface of an unforgiving saint).

Sleep did not come easily for me in this moment of painful reality, though Jamie had less reservation in succumbing to the 'Sandman'; but, I did finally fall to sleep.

Not for long.  About 2 am, powerful Santa Ana winds pummeled our neck of the woods.  We both woke to our tent flattened by deafening wind (near 80 to 100 miles per hour we guessed).  An unusual experience to witness the top of our tent hovering just above our noses as we lay in our sleeping bags shaken out of sleep.  Though laying next to each other, conversation was lost to the wind.  We were unable to hear each other.

When Jamie and I mustered the nerve to look out of our misshapen tent which was clearly wishing to become the kite our two bodies and weeks worth of personal supplies provided grounding in resistance of: what we saw was a once in a lifetime image.  Ours was the only tent remaining in the middle of the baseball field.  The remaining 59 or so tents were heaped against the western fence line, a roiling snowdrift of tents with wild haired people working to unwind themselves from the drift and resurrect their personal effects from the jumbled mess of tents and people.

For the first time ever, this young lady was grateful for being bigger and heavier than the average American supermodel.  And, for the first time, Jamie complimented me on my indulgent need to pack way too much unnecessary stuff.  Our weight, for once, saved us.

I don't recall laughing that night.  The effect on my heart was too harrowing and shocking.  The knowledge that so many homes were burning down in the midst of this unfathomable disaster weighed too heavily on me to crack anything but a few emotionally charged tears.  But, now, so many years later, I find that very strange moment hard Not to smile about.

This moment was the stuff that dreams are made of... but it was no dream.


  1. I remember being at school teaching and you called crying on the phone You had been camping at the fire and loaded up and left and you had fire on the left and right of the road and you were driving through it. It scared the crap out of me and I could do nothing because I had students in front of me and had about 4 more hours before I could leave. My hair turned gray about then.

  2. Yes. A moment burned deeply in my memory. A tragic day. A tragic month. Do people understand what it is to work in the midst of disasters? But, work must be done.

    I am sorry to have scared you so that day. There was nothing you could do to help me. But the brother you sent up to support me was a sight for sore eyes... thanks for that help!

    As for gray hair- at least I was not responsible for it falling out!