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SANDY BANKS

A new worry, age 88, in the fire zone

October 14, 2008|SANDY BANKS

Yesterday began as one of those days that makes me feel smug about living in Porter Ranch -- wind-swept, Windex-blue skies; a cool morning breeze; even traffic was light, making for an easy freeway commute to downtown.

But as soon as I turned on my computer at work, I heard the news: Oat Mountain a few miles from my home was burning. My neighbors north of the freeway had been ordered to leave. I live just south of the evacuation zone, in the flatlands of lower Porter Ranch as we call it. It's a wind tunnel, but not usually a fire zone.

Still, I decided to head back home. I've been a reporter long enough to know how quickly a fire can turn. As I idled on the 118 Freeway stuck in a massive traffic jam a mile from home, dozens of firetrucks and police cars roared by, sirens screaming, in the carpool lane. The drone of helicopters overhead was louder than I'd ever heard.

I could see a plume of smoke in the distance. Yet the sky above me was still bright blue.

I headed up Tampa Avenue toward the fire line, past the golf course at the Porter Valley Country Club. A foursome at the third hole was teeing off in a tournament that had drawn players from around the country to raise money for diabetes research.

They looked blank when I mentioned that residents were being evacuated a quarter-mile away. It was hard to square the threat of an inferno with the momentarily calm winds and smoke-free air. "What do we do?" asked Tim Novak. "I'm from Dallas. I'm used to tornadoes." He ambled off with his buddies toward the next hole.

A block away I drove into a wall of smoke. Mara Bennett had just fetched her daughter from school and was loading up the family camper, voluntarily evacuating. "We'll probably be fine," she said, "but you never know."

As I headed back out onto Tampa, the ash began whirling around. A line of police officers on motorcycles roared by, smoke masks covering their mouths and noses.

I headed away from the smoke and ash, and parked outside a condominium complex, where the parking lot was crowded with residents wondering what's next. I walked up and down the street chatting and peering into cars stuck in the bumper-to-bumper exodus.

Then I heard the buzz of a window roll down and a soft voice summoned me from a car parked at the curb.

"Can you help me?" 88-year-old Margaret Rodie asked, as I leaned in on the passenger side.

She had a cellphone, but didn't know how to use it. She fished it from her purse, and handed it to me. She wanted to call her son-in-law, to tell him she was all right. No need for him to come get her because she wasn't leaving, she told him.

Her cat Noni -- short for Anonymous, because he had no name when she rescued him -- had slipped out the door when police officers came to evacuate her. The officers helped gather her medicines, a jacket, her cane and walker, loaded them into the car and ordered her to leave.

"We almost had to carry her out, she was so stubborn," one of the officers told me later. "When we finally got her in the car, she said she had to go back in. She wanted to get a carton of yogurt."

What she really wanted was to find Noni. So she drove a quarter-mile down the hill and pulled over to the curb. She planned to stay parked there, she said, until she could go back home.

I got in and sat with her for a while and tried to explain how foolish that was. Her family couldn't get in to check on her; police had closed the road to traffic. She might as well drive down and wait at the church, a shelter where she could cool off and get food and water. She said no.

I offered to take her down to my house. My friend Kimberly, her husband, two kids and three dogs had already made my place their emergency shelter.

She thanked me, but waved me off. She had a couple cans of Ensure, she said. She'd be fine until they lifted the evacuation order. If it lasted past dark, she'd drive to her daughter's. If not, she wanted to be one of the first ones back.

"Maybe Noni's still there, hiding in the bushes."

I know an iron will when I see one, so I gave up. I showed her how to operate her cellphone -- which button to push for the "contacts" list, how to scroll up and down to find the number, when to press OK and when to press talk.

I wrote down my cellphone number and took hers. She didn't know it by memory, but she had taped it to her phone.

Then we sat in the car for a while and talked about what we loved about our neighborhood. We'd both spent more than 20 years here, enjoyed the same stores and attended the same church services.

The sky grew gray, then blue, then gray again, and the air went from ash-filled to clear and back.

I made her promise to call if she needed anything, then headed out of the evacuation zone. "I'm just down the street," I told her. "We're neighbors."

I drove through empty streets back home, opened my windows and let a breeze lightly scented with smoke blow in. And tried not to worry when Margaret didn't answer her phone.

--

sandy.banks@latimes.com

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