In the aftermath of the Malibu brush fires, I write to commend the quality of organization, efficiency and good-natured help provided our family by the firefighters of Los Angeles County and neighboring cities.
Our home is perched above the coast on Sweetwater Mesa. To the north of us lie about 100 or more acres of virgin brush. Over the years, we have grown to love the unpredictability of the winds that fill the canyons, the sound of coyotes and the soaring flight of hawks. Deer, raccoon and birds of every description are our neighbors. At dawn on Oct. 15, the fire we had watched for hours as it traveled across the tops of the mountains in a kind of fierce dance of destruction fell upon us. It came raging down the slopes with flame, heat and smoke unimaginable.
We were prepared. We had taken the advice offered by the Fire Department, the insurance company, neighbors with first-hand experience and our own common sense. Our house is plaster, the roof is crushed rock. We have metal, roll-down shades to protect the windows. We had a firebreak from 50 to 150 feet wide around our property. We had a gas pump on our pool and 300 feet of fire hose. Our landscaping is sensibly planned to resist fire. My husband, my nephew and I were ready on the roof with hoses; my daughter and others were safely in the house, packed to evacuate as a final resort.
Within a very short time, perhaps minutes, we were surrounded by flames. The fire jumped over the house and attacked from the canyon in front of us. The smoke was a complete, choking white-out, embers and burning fragments showered down on everything. At what was surely a critical moment, a fireman on the ground called down the helicopter. Twice the pilot passed over our house, dropping gallons of water on what was by now an inferno.
In the hours and days that have followed the successful efforts to save our home, it has become clear to us that all of our preparations, our commitment and the expertise of the firefighters might not have been enough. The timely use of communications equipment, personnel and helicopters was required, and we were fortunate that it was available. The strategy of stationing men and vehicles where they were most needed, waiting for the flames to approach structures and acting to protect them worked in our case.
We have seen from first-hand experience how necessary are the planning, the priorities, and most important, the budget for acquiring the latest and most useful firefighting equipment.
This morning, as I write, the sound of birds can be heard. Last night one lonely coyote barked on the mountain. The blackened slopes smell awfully when the wind stirs, but there is the cheerful thought of the rejuvenation process under way as the fire-dependent plants respond to their new and oddly necessary environment.
We are grateful to have survived, even though when I close my eyes I still see flames. Consider this letter a thank you note to all who helped.
JO ANNE VAN TILBURG