24 October, 2007


Relief. I pulled in late this evening, two unhappy cats in tow. Amazingly, all utilities work and our property is undamaged, though about a quarter to half-mile on all sides is way too close.

To return in darkness after having left in darkness was not quite real. The only thing different in the dim light was that the palm tree under the street lamp was no longer dancing wildly and casting bizarre shadows around the culdesac as it had in the Santa Ana winds and darkness of Monday morn. If not for the smell and the burning eyes, I could convince myself that was all a bad dream, or some long-ago memory.

But for a number of people further down the hill from us, it's all too real. And the layer of ash on everything--even indoors--testifies to the fury visited on this neighborhood two days ago.

We had gone to bed at an ungodly hour on Sunday morning after listening for news of the fire developing well over a dozen miles away from us. We had smelled the smoke all afternoon, but it was too far away to affect us yet; maybe tomorrow would be the day to worry. We shut all the doors and windows and went to sleep.

I awoke 45 minutes later to a sudden increase in smoke inside. Not believing my own nose, I stuck my head outside, took a sniff, and choked. The radio confirmed: a new fire had begun, and evacuation order broadcast.

I'll never forget the wild, dancing shadows of the palm tree beneath the street lamp, and the sudden change in air pressure as I packed the car at the curb. Instinctively, I threw my burdens into the front seat and crouched as I covered my head moments before ash swirled and cinders rained down in tiny plinks.

But it was the second evacuation that was truly amazing. The fire had moved so fast that orders couldn't keep up, but we could see it with our own eyes. Winds threw branches in our path, swirled leaves and ash in micro tornadoes, and rocked the cars as we sat in gridlock. It seemed a mix of fog and snowstorm, with touches of hail and tornado thrown in for interest.

I soon discovered my DoD ID card is pure gold. I cannot say enough about how well the local bases took care of their own, civilian and military. As part of the first wave of evacuees, we got our own, well-equipped room and experienced none of the rush or stresses of mass-housing. Everybody we encountered was sympathetic and kind to the rabble we were, making things as easy as possible, and other evacuees were pleasant and courteous. A retired sailor was manning the desk tonight, and actually saluted me for "all you do for us" when he saw "Civilian" on my ID at checkout.

It is good to be home. But it is also strange--I am not celebrating as I thought I would. Relief is not joy, and it is so strongly colored by the knowledge that others have not fared nearly as well. But now that I am finally able to relax and there are no Good Spirits under Great Strain to maintain, I have let it all go; I am physically and emotionally exhausted. I will write more about this last topic tomorrow, if I can. And maybe some pictures of the unbelievable ash.