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When our mountain burned

November 05, 2003|Duane Noriyuki | Times Staff Writer

We live in the mountains for solitude, which changes like the beauty of seasons. In autumn, as the dogwoods glow and nights turn cool, it's easy to believe that nature reaches inside our souls and that stars are not only in the sky but also in our eyes, connecting us to the world we live in.

I used to feel solitude in the warmth of coffee and flame from the hearth to begin the day, in the smell of wood smoke drifting in the early morning air. Smoke smells different to me now. Flames turn me cold. Our home is in Crestline. We left it on Oct. 25 after packing two vehicles with photographs, a dog, a cat, a fish, a couple of laundry baskets of clothes, a fishing pole my father gave me and a few other things.

"What does evacuate mean?" my 5-year-old daughter, Rhuby, asked as we were driving away.

"It means we're going to stay with friends for a few days," I told her.

"I like to evacuate," she said.

We left not knowing if our neighborhoods would still be standing after fire ran its course, not knowing if we would ever live there again. What loomed ahead of us then, as a community, was uncertainty and fear.

As we drove down the backside of the mountain, we saw a monstrous plume of smoke, which reminded me of photographs I had seen of the sky above Hiroshima after the atomic bomb. Were it not for that and the realization of what lay beneath it, I might have thought it was beautiful.

Earlier in the day, my wife, Julia Sandidge, and I had taken Rhuby to her ballet class, a rehearsal for "The Nutcracker." It's an event that sells out every year and is a holiday tradition for many residents of the Lake Arrowhead area, part of a spirit and sense of community that we cherish. It's a very good production, but primarily we love it because it is ours. It is our doctor, our doctor's wife, students from our high school, children from our elementary schools.

But on our way home, we saw the smoke. It had mushroomed quickly, a swirling mass of black and gray and brown and white. It seemed alive in the way it moved, smothering the ground, breathing deeply of the sky.

As soon as we got home, we started loading up. My older daughter called from San Diego, where she was with her boyfriend. I told her to not try to make it up the mountain, to take no chances.

I flipped through the channels to find news of the fire. College football games were being played. The Yankees and Marlins were preparing for Game 6. Flames were drawing nearer, the cloud of smoke growing ever larger on the other side of the mountain, but on our side the sky remained blue. I went out on the deck and listened for birds. It seemed quieter than usual. I smelled no smoke.

A television report, however, showed us what was happening just a couple of miles away. The cloud of smoke was boiling ever closer. It was time to go. We said goodbye to our neighbors and we said goodbye to our home. An evacuation order had not yet been issued, but people were leaving the mountain anyway.

The smoke was thick in San Bernardino. The sky was dark. Deep down, I knew this day would come. There were too many dead trees, too many months and years of drought. Then came the Santa Anas, slapping the flames with open palms.

On our way to South Pasadena where friends had offered to put us up, we heard on the radio that the electricity had gone out and, later that night, the evacuation order came. "How could this be happening?" Julia asked throughout the night. A day that had begun so peacefully, so blissfully uneventful had turned to chaos. Solitude had gone up in flames.

I stayed up late watching the news alone. While Julia and Rhuby were asleep, there was a new development. Another fire, being called the "playground fire," was burning Crestline. They were searching for two teenagers who may have started it. In San Bernardino, 200 homes had been lost. Two people were dead.

I kept thinking about the lines I had drawn on our pantry door charting Rhuby's growth from the day we moved in three years ago. I thought about the Christmas decorations we left behind. Every newspaper story I have written during the last 33 years was in the house. Family videos. All of Rhuby's things except for the three toys she took with us: a stuffed unicorn, a boom box and a toy computer.

"It will all be gone by the time she wakes up," I was thinking.

In my mind, over and over again that night, I saw our house burn as if I were standing on our road watching flames shoot out the windows. I thought about Grandfather Tree, a redwood down the road that Rhuby likes to hug on our walks. I thought of the trees behind our house, filled with birds, raccoons that had learned to open our sliding glass doors and squirrels. In my mind, they, along with the bears and coyotes, also were burning.

It was 1:30 a.m. Sunday when I finally went to bed. Even then, I couldn't sleep. I lay awake seeing flames and wondering what would be left of our home, our mountain. At least we were safe, I thought.

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