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Style & Culture | AL MARTINEZ

Reasons to stay are stronger than fires

October 31, 2003|AL MARTINEZ

Wednesday. Temperatures drop across Southern California. Humidities rise. The Santa Anas abate. And my sister Emily prays.

"Are you all right?" she asks in a telephone call from Oakland.

"I'm fine," I say.

I'm on a cell phone driving along Pacific Coast Highway. Fingers of mist reach out from the ocean and into the canyons.

"Are the fires near you?" she asks.

"About 25 miles away," I say.

She prays for me whenever there's a disaster down here. Fires, earthquakes, floods, riots, elections. Now she's praying for all of flame-ravaged Southern California.

At 81, her knees are bad, so she prays sitting down.

"A sitting prayer is every bit as good as a kneeling prayer," she scolded once when I had the audacity to question the power of a non-kneeling prayer. "You could be on the toilet praying and he'd hear it just the same."

I decide not to tell her how really bad it is down here. She doesn't pay a lot of attention to the news anymore and misses the fine points. I don't tell her how the smoke has blackened our sky and how the descending sun glows blood-red through the black and billowing clouds. I don't tell about the fine, white ash that covers our cars and makes it difficult to breathe. I don't dwell on the deaths.

I hear from friends and relatives in Portland, Sacramento, Reno, Albuquerque, New York and even San Diego. "Are you all right?" they ask. They care about us. We care about each other.

Jack McKellar, poet of the redwoods, calls from Eureka. "I know about the Santa Anas," he says. "They can blow the hide off a pig."

An ex-logger, he stands 6 feet 3 and even at age 80 could still punch the bark off a redwood tree. I've known him for years. He tells me to stand firm before the firestorms. "If you wanna be a bear," he says, "be a grizzly."

Distance protects both Emily and Jack from the horror. They have no idea what it's like down here. But we know. An e-mailer hears from a friend in San Diego whose son is a fireman.

"He's been doing his job for days without sleep," the friend says. "He said he's close to tears because 'we could only save 10 homes and we lost over 200.'

"He said, 'People are screaming at us to save their homes, but we can't.' He said, 'This is the worst day of my life.'

"He saw a woman who had been incinerated inside her car in an apparent attempt to flee the encroaching holocaust.

"He wept as he saw dogs and cats aflame running on the roads."

God save the firefighters.

We see them in nighttime silhouettes before the towering firestorms. Distance and the immensity of the flames give them the appearance of small children. They wait to guard homes north of the Simi Valley Freeway. Flames surge toward the starless sky, lighting the ridgelines in shades of red and orange. The helicopters and supertankers have gone home. Danger chases them from the night.

One wonders why, when fighter jets can pinpoint a target on the darkest night, we lack the technology for firefighting aircraft to work safely after dark. We can see the smoke from space, but we can't stop it on Earth. An L.A. County Fire Department spokesman agrees. We have night weapons to destroy, he says, but inadequate tools to save when the sun goes down. When will we learn to turn the killing tools into tools of salvation? At what point will we beat our swords into plowshares?

We moved into the Santa Monica Mountains in 1972. I am asked why we decided to live in an area blasted by fire so often in the waning days of summer. If there was doubt of the danger, it ended a year after we settled in, when fire came almost to our doorstep. I stood on the rooftop with a garden hose, watching a wall of flames approach, the roar and the smell and the sight filling my senses. I wondered too: What in the hell am I doing here?

I'm here for the morning mist and the quiet nights. I'm here for the howl of a coyote and the cry of crows. I'm here for the wildflowers, the raccoons and the flashing glimpse of a bobcat as it moves silently through the chaparral.

A man who had been a friend for years said I was crazy. The risks of mountain living were too great, he said. Move into the Valley, he said. He lived in Northridge.

In 1994, his house was destroyed in the earthquake. He moved out of L.A. and I haven't seen him since.

*

Al Martinez's column appears Mondays and Fridays. He's at al.martinez@latimes.com.

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