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Love's trial by fire -- and mud

As natural disasters in Modjeska Canyon force six evacuations, a new marriage is tested. Resilience, community prove essential.

June 16, 2008|Janet Wilson | Times Staff Writer

I'm lined up with my neighbors in a ragtag human chain on a chilly Saturday, heaving rocks across a gargantuan pile of mud. There's a numbing comfort to the routine in a year when our routines have been upended.

I married in late October, and abandoned my Orange County home 48 hours later because of a raging wildfire. Since then I've been ordered to evacuate five more times because of the threat of mudslides.

It is a stock feature of Southern California life that took this native New Yorker a few years to grasp. When wildfires, floods or earthquakes strike, thousands of people must leave their homes, often very quickly. Reporters like me vacuum colorful quotes from the wreckage, and life picks up again for all but a few waiting patiently for insurance money or building permits. Or in our case, until the siren atop our community firehouse moans again.

Other people cluck at the news reports and ask, "Why live someplace so dangerous? Just move." Might as well ask, "Why marry that one?" How can I explain rounding the hairpin turn and seeing the peaceful valley in front of me, layer on layer of mountains soaring behind it?

The first time I saw the canyons at Orange County's eastern edge a decade ago, I winged a silent prayer upward. My wish was granted. Every time I near home, it comes true again. And this is no lonely hideaway. Modjeska is a matchless mixture of rednecks and hippies, longhaired men in huts and "downtown" folk in historic hunting lodges and stucco mansions. The occasional rooster or tarantula struts maniacally across the road.

Folks in Modjeska Canyon have always lived on the edge. We are tucked into the Santa Ana Mountains next to free-flowing creeks, protected from the outside world by the long arm of a ridge. There are no street lights, only majestic live oaks and long-limbed sycamores, dense poison oak and restless mountain lions.

We are bound together by a perhaps unreasonable passion, as surely as any married couple. I don't think I could survive sprawling Southern California without my canyon.

But the price of admission is steep -- freak acts of man and nature. Last fall, during high winds, an arsonist set a fire in crackly shrub near Santiago Canyon Road.

I was back east, getting married in my mother's small New England town. The wedding was joyous. To walk up from the stone basement of the lakeside chapel, into a room filled with friends and family turned toward me with faces shining, was mind-blowing. It was so easy to look into Frank's eyes and say yes, loud and clear.

We headed for the airport a day and a half later. Our hectic jobs didn't allow time for a honeymoon yet. Leaving beautiful New England behind, my nose pressed to the blurry glass of the airplane, I gazed down at treetops aflame in red and gold foliage.

Approaching John Wayne, we saw the thick columns of smoke, the flames chewing the hills. They let me off the plane first, the flight attendant's detached voice asking for people's patience while someone whose home might be affected by the wildfires be allowed to exit. I sprang up so fast that I knocked a man's cellphone out of his hand. Apologizing, I ran into the gangway and dialed.

The fire hadn't jumped the road to Modjeska yet, but it was getting close. Finally we pulled up to our little stone house. I was jet-lagging wildly. The day before we left, a neighbor had piled a free load of wood in our driveway, blocking access to the house. No firefighter would try to save this place.

My husband, who'd lost a home to fire in the 1980s in nearby Silverado Canyon, wanted to stay anyway. Inside, every inch of me was screaming, "Get out!" Our house is on a dead end off a one-lane road, and flames were advancing from the wrong end.

"We're married now," I said. "Let's compromise; let's move this wood, then get out of here."

My husband reluctantly agreed. We did it, then tried four motels. All full. All of Southern California was burning, it seemed. It was 3 a.m.

Girl Scout instincts never die, and I had grabbed blankets and pillows before we fled. My husband remembered a crawl space on the second floor of his office in Laguna Hills, where we'd be out of the way when people arrived in the morning. It was barely big enough for two of us to lie down.

Frank was still brooding about having to leave. He said he'd sleep in a chair. I told him to get down there next to me -- I wasn't going to be separated that easily. He lay down. We were homeless. We'd been married 72 hours.


Frank has known his boss for 30 years. Terry and his wife, Pam, opened up their spare bedroom, kitchen, anything we needed.

Tuesday, the day after we returned, was the worst. I was back on the job, a horrified front-row witness. I saw 70 feet of flame grab Jim and Diane Carter's dome house, which burned to the ground. I saw huge oaks with their insides burning, and scorched telephone poles dangling like giant pick-up sticks.

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