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It's the season of flames and fear in tinder-dry Topanga

September 01, 2008|AL MARTINEZ

This is the season of combustion, where heat, humidity and wind drive fires through the mountains and canyons of Southern California, howling over hillsides thick with oak trees and chaparral, scorching the summery blue skies and burning wild red patterns into the night.

We who live in the danger areas know that. We've heard the fire bells clang and the sirens scream like women in pain many times before. We've packed our pictures, rounded up our pets, filled the cars with valuables and waited for the time to run before the flames.

Waiting is the hardest part. The stress of not knowing jangles every nerve in the body, leaving one both vulnerable and helpless in the face of forces far greater than anyone can imagine. It creates nightmare scenarios in the whirling mind, turning worry into rage and compounding the frustrations of helplessness.

We curse the dry, rainless days, the Santa Ana winds and the frightening imbalances of nature that leave us prone to disaster.

I went through every one of those emotions Tuesday evening while forced to wait at the juncture of Pacific Coast Highway and Topanga Canyon Boulevard as firetrucks roared up the winding road to where we could imagine flames racing toward our neighborhoods.

And all we could do was wait.

I was coming home after being with Cinelli, who lay abed at St. John's Hospital a day after knee surgery. I had just about reached the roadblock when I heard news on the car radio of a fire in the canyon. A chill went through me.

It had already been a day of conflagration. A fire threatened homes and lives in Calabasas, and there were reports of fires in Simi Valley and Pasadena.

It was becoming another epic moment of tragedy in Southern California. The world we knew was burning. Or so it seemed.

Police cars with flashing lights blocking entry to Topanga Canyon and officers on foot waving traffic away was a familiar scene. I have lived in the canyon for 35 years, trading risk for peace by settling in the mountains on the edge of a city roaring its way onto the world stage.

Fire and the threat of fire are almost always on our minds.

On this Tuesday evening, the threat was real. A parade of firefighting equipment and trucks filled with firefighting personnel rumbled past us up into the canyon, and the piercing cry of sirens added both drama and fear to the already tense moment. Night was closing fast, deepening our gloom.

But still we waited . . .

Topanga Canyon Boulevard is a vital link between the ocean and Woodland Hills, 12 miles of state highway that winds past the small community of Topanga and through some of the most compelling mountain scenery in the state before dipping into the Valley. Heavily traveled during commute hours, cars unable to get through on Tuesday stopped along the sides of the road and in the parking lot of a feed store, waiting for whatever came.

Conversations and demands for information were never shrill among those who sought news of what was happening beyond their view. The police who stopped traffic knew very little, only that there was a fire maybe two miles up the road. A burning car had started it. That was all they could tell us.

. . . and we waited.

In my anxiety-rattled mind I could see our rustic wooden house in flames, our dog and two cats trapped inside. I could see fire racing toward our gazebo and toward a footbridge across a creek bed. I could see Cinelli's garden ablaze and fire hoses useless against flames as high as heaven that turned realities into ashes.

Reluctant to wait any longer, I found a way around the human barricade at PCH and drove to where I could drive no more. Countless firetrucks blocked the road. A Highway Patrolman ordered me out of there. I argued. I was a journalist. I had a right to be there. It didn't impress him.

I gave up and went across PCH for a quick, nervous dinner. When I returned, word was that the fire was out and the road would be opened momentarily. Then we were told a body had been found in the burning car and the road would be closed all night for a homicide investigation. I decided to take a chance of getting through on the Valley side. It was easy. The waiting was over.

The Calabasas fire was tamed. The Simi Valley fire never really got started. It was a building fire in Pasadena, not a brush fire. And Topanga had been spared again. I slept restlessly that night. Flames danced in my dreams.


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