We live in the Kinneloa area between Altadena and Sierra Madre, where more than 100 homes burned in Wednesday's fire. This is what happened to us.
5:30 a.m.: Awake after a sleepless night of a rising Santa Ana wind, I hear the sounds of garbage cans rolling into fences and doors slamming. It is the kind of dry wind that has made my sinuses ache and my eyes itch.
I say to Nora, the first words of the day: "We better hope there's no fire."
She looks out the window: "There's a fire."
In the blackness of the early morning, a ridgeline of Eaton Canyon Park is spewing fire--alarmingly close--in huge bursts. The bright orange of the flames gives the billowing smoke an ominous hue.
We meet our neighbors in the street and watch the flames move. We are new to the neighborhood, built in the 1940s, and our neighbors say they know of no fire that ever swept through. Everybody is calm. Nora thinks I'm overreacting when I suggest we gather a carload of things and be ready to get out. I mention the Panorama fire in San Bernardino that I covered more than 10 years ago. That one burned more than 300 houses over dozens of blocks.
But there are lots of ridges and houses between us and the flames, someone assures.
An hour later, the raging fire has moved over two ridges and the smoke is being whipped upon us. Nobody is calm. The roads are full of horse trailers, cars, people running.
We go through the house room by room, piling things by the door. I always thought this was an interesting question--what people choose in such moments. Now we choose.
We take a mix of the practical, the irreplaceable and the ridiculous: family pictures, paintings, only copies of things I wrote and no one published, various documents, some clothes, an antique egg scale and a wooden duck.
We hear police calling on loudspeakers for evacuation, but we don't see them. Because of the smoke, we can only see a house or two away. A neighbor says the only road out has been cut off by fire. Another neighbor, about the age of my grandfather, is setting up sprinklers on the roof of his house across the street.
At 8 a.m. we leave. We pass a woman riding a horse. There are flames on the hillsides and lowlands surrounding our neighborhood. Yet the possibility of losing the house isn't real for me until several hours later at work, when I see our block on TV and a neighbor's house is burning.
10:45 a.m.: Mark goes to the office, but I am assigned by the paper to cover the blaze. I decide to find out what happened to our house. I drive to our street, where fire engines have blocked the entrance, and walk from there. Flames are leaping through the brush and half the houses are burning. Homes burn loudly; they pop and explode bit by bit. As I go down the lane, fire is shooting from our neighbor's house. I brace myself. The air is full of thick smoke, worse than in the morning. I remember Mark telling me that white smoke is brush and that's OK, but black smoke means houses.
Before I can see our home, thick waves of black smoke spill from our neighbors' houses on both sides. I reach our house, sandwiched between two blazing ones. It is an island of green. Pages from a Bible and a bridge instruction book litter the yard. There is no fire.
Ten yards from our house, dying flames are still burning the charred remains of an old, unused pigpen. The fire has seared the persimmon tree, cooking some of the fruit. It has consumed the orange tree, but the house stands unscathed. I call Mark and walk the yard. The ground a foot away from the woodpile is smoldering. I race back into the road, where the firefighters have decided our neighbors' houses cannot not be saved. I beg: "Please, my house is right here, can't you do something?" Even as I say the words, I know how ridiculous I sound. They shrug. The fire hydrants are dry.
I run from one truck to another, finally persuading two firefighters to follow me to the house. "Whoever planned your home sure did something right," one of them whistles with astonishment as he hoses down the smoldering area that was once our vegetable garden.
When they leave, I walk over to the still-burning remains of my neighbor's house. I can see him, a partially deaf man in his 60s, standing among the smoldering oak trees. He is crying. For the first time that day, I begin to cry too.
3 p.m.: I arrive home to find Nora hosing down smoking patches of our yard.
How lucky were we? The flames have burned to within six feet of our house in three places. They charred the bougainvillea that lies on the roof. They stalled against two large woodpiles lying under our eaves.
While hosing down smoldering embers, I get interviewed by a TV reporter who has just finished with the family next door. They lost everything. The reporter asks me: "How were you so lucky?"
6:45 p.m.: We write this together by a camping lantern. The telephone poles are smoking and we have lost the use of our phones. The roads are closed. There is no electricity. In the darkness outside, we spot a flame and jump up to extinguish it. Fires burn stubbornly in the ruins on both sides of us. Orange still glows in the hills, farther away now. But the winds are kicking up again. We brace for the night.
Zamichow covers transportation for the Times and Saylor is California political editor.