Monday, October 28, 2007
The scene blazing across the television screen brings back a flood of memories. This time, the images sparkle in high definition. It’s been four years since the Paradise Fire belched its way up the hill and over the ridge from Hellhole Canyon invading our home town devouring everything flammable. We’ll never forget those days. Now the nation watched as another Southern California October brought dry heat and high Santa Ana winds – and fire. Out-of-control, raging, ravenous fire.
The staggering enormity of the wild-fires of 2003 taxed a writer’s capacity to find words big enough to capture the sheer magnitude of the destruction. The fires of 2007 present the same challenge. Thousands of homes. Too many fatalities. Hundreds of injuries, many serious. Tens, hundreds of thousands of acres scorched. The interactive Google map summarizes a week of hellish fury, a week that sent a clarion call on firefighting resources from all over the nation. Personnel, vehicles, equipment, even aircraft (including a retardant chemical dropping DC-10 jumbo jet) all arrived on the scene. They went to work. Tirelessly. Courageously. Fearlessly.
The picturesque Malibu Presbyterian Church perched on the ridge burst into flame – reduced to ash. The nation listened in as pastor and people talked through their tears about a theology of church and the theological tension; serving a loving all powerful God while standing on the smoldering ruins of a sanctuary.
A poignant moment came in a telephone conversation with a good friend who four years ago raced barefoot with her husband and children and grandchildren from the oncoming flames in the middle of the night, that frightful Saturday night October 2003 that will forever be etched in her memory. When Brenda and the family returned a few days later, her home and everything in it was gone. Once again, October 2007, she was evacuated just like before. This time however, she remained fearful but hopeful. From her refuge she spoke via cell phone. She told me that reliable information was hard to come by – and she still wasn’t sure. Did she lose yet another house? Later, we confirmed that her rebuilt home survived the second wildfire. We are all thankful.
Pam answered when we punched in her cell number. Yes, she and Allen had been evacuated. She called it a tail-gate party at Ralph’s. The whole neighborhood made their way down the grade and off the hill. Reverse 911, a new phrase, a new strategy that utilizes new technology, went into affect. With the alert came an exodus of residents escaping the encroaching flames. The laughter and joking in the parking lot away from the flames, masked the powerful fears lurking just beneath the surface of conversation. What would they find when they returned? What did they forget that would spark a lifetime of regrets? It’s a rare sense of helplessness that’s hard to describe. All one can do is wait.
I talked to Pam later. “Ken,” she said, “there are so many stories for you to write.” She’d been contemplating them all.
John and his brother Nick fought the blaze in their own backyard. The two, one an attorney, the other a doctor battled side by side to save their homes. CNN found out and interviewed them on the national feed and aired their home video tape. You can hear Dr. Nick sigh, “Lord, help us…” Those of us who know Nick understand that this was a genuine prayer.
Pam is a resourceful lady. While most all the roads leading to her home along the ridge were blocked by officials enforcing evacuation, she managed to find an un-patrolled back road in. When she pulled up to the familiar driveway, she exhaled in relief, drew in a long breath and whispered a prayer of praise and thanks. The house was untouched. Her animals greeted her.
Then she surveyed the vista beyond the property line, panning two hundred seventy degrees around. The familiar mountains and ridges in the distance were covered with smoke; here and there she could see the flash of red and orange, flames reaching upward, angry tongues of fire licking at the tinder brush and dry grass toward the sky, whipped about by the hot winds. She saw that Paradise Mountain was still threatened over there across the valley. But her home would be alright, at least for now.
So she went inside. There it was, just as she and Allen left it. Not knowing why exactly, she took a stick match, struck the side of the box, and lit a candle sitting at the center of her dining room table. The flame took hold and flickered gently off the wick. She extinguished the match. The candle flame then caught Pam’s full attention. She pulled out a chair, and sat. Focused on the light. This flame, so innocent, so radiant, so warm, so compelling, is made of the same stuff as that terrible inferno just down the canyon. Thoughts swirled around in her mind like the smoke billowing on the mountaintop outside. She remembered the terrible midnight battle against the insatiable flames just four years before; flames that extinguished the lives of a fifty-one year old mom and a sixteen year old high school beauty just down the road. She thought about her three daughters now independent and finding their own way in a dangerous and inimical world; minefields aplenty. She reflected on the wonder of friendship, and the support of caring neighbors and a community of faith that really believed. She thought about firefighters tired and hungry and fighting still. The candle’s flame glowed before her and she clasped her hands together alone in the kitchen and she began to pray. Then tears started down her cheeks, hot tears that mixed fear and love and relief and hope and the weightiness of parenthood while outside one of history’s most destructive blazes followed the wind’s lead.
And peace flowed through her like a river.
* * * * * * *
It’s Monday morning. You are a leader. The fires seem to be settling down. The temperature drops. The wind slows; and turn from harsh Santa Anas to an ocean breeze. Firefighters gain the upper hand – “containment” they call it.
And a candle glows. The work of cleanup and restoration starts now.
And peace like a river attends our way.
Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2007