Part 1 of 2
We’re in a home, my mom, sister and I. The house belongs to Sylvia Hariton, the mother of my mom’s best friend Paula Gutierez.
Sunday I made the decision to quit smoking till Thanksgiving; 30-plus days without a cigarette might keep me off for good. ‘That’s a good goal,’ my dad said.
And then Monday, at 11 a.m, the Sesnon Fire took hold.
On TV, helicopters hover above a road I was racing down over an hour ago; smoke spreading inside my lungs on Porter Ranch Drive just north of Sesnon.
1,500 acres gone.
I live two streets up where the flames are nearing and my pet Shi Tzu, Sophie, is alone. As I stagger up the hill of our gated community I can hear her barking’hellip;raving, nuts.
The streets are doused orange; streets empty with only the sounds of black leaves rustling and sirens in the distance.
Once in the house, I see my dog cry as smoke spreads inside, growing thick in my lungs. The entire community, with the copters’ shadows cast down upon it, is engulfed.
I grab a dog leash, water, puppy food and bowl, and a white bandana for my face. Sophie is secured beneath my arm as mist sprays over us from above’mdash;going down the hill.
In a haze, two familiar figures appear at the residential gates.
Before I realize it, my sister, Kristen, is crying and runs toward me’mdash;her head resting on my shoulder, she gasps, asking, ‘What’s going on? Where are we going to go?’
The other figure, with her signature black jacket, is Paula. ‘We need to get your mother’s medicine’mdash;she needs it, now.’
‘Where is she?’ I ask.
‘Go past the gate. She’s parked towards the left,’ says Paula before continuing to my house with Kristen.
Everything is getting thicker; the impending danger of the area is exacerbated by the hard winds as they move southwest.
I open the door of our white Toyota Sienna.
‘Are you okay?’ I ask my mom. Her cheeks are clenched and from behind her sunglasses the tears swell and she frowns with uncertainty.
She nods OK. I put Sophie in the passenger seat and my mom begins petting her. I place my hand on my mom’s. That feeling of where you want to tell someone ‘It will be all right’ floods my mind, but the truth is although we have each other, she will lose so much more.
Sentiment is a dish best served never! Like Chuck Palahniuk writes in the film, ‘Fight Club,’ ‘The things we own end up owning us.’
Those live concert rarity CDs and out-of-print movies tortured me with the potential thought that they could be lost.
I felt guilt for dwelling on those materials.
My music and movies would have been better bought online. At least that way I’d have a digital receipt; the less the physical possessions you have, the less you have to truck around during citywide emergencies.
I try explaining this to my mom, but then decide to get Kristen and Paula out of the house.
3,000 acres gone
With everyone back in the van, I decide begin asking firefighters and residents for the update. Amazingly, I run into a Daily Sundial photographer.
‘You live here?’ says Jon Burroughs.
I tell him how this is the third fire to hit nearby Porter Ranch. ‘But it’s never been this bad.’
Burroughs spits out ash and coughs, ‘My eyes are killing me!’
I look for another particle mask for him, but when I return he’s gone, photographing the looming fire.
An NBC reporter pulls me aside for an interview, and afterwards I get texts and voice mails from friends: ‘I just saw you on the TV!’ I’m famous, I think aloud, and soon I’ll be homeless.
My mom tells me we forgot her mother’s jewelry from Egypt.
Again, I walk up the hill. My hair smells like charcoal and I’m picking black ash from my ears.
I get inside the house one last time, and open a secret panel in a cupboard, sweeping the jewel case CDs and TV wires onto the floor and grabbing the safety box. In the rush to leave the house once and for all, I slam the door on my sunglasses, snapping them in half.
I’m so tired. There’s grit in my teeth’mdash;mouth is dry and throat squeezed tight.
One man runs past in a suit, using his tie as a mask.
A resident on the corner, Michael Goodman, says, ‘In all my time here, this is the worst I’ve seen it.’
I get to my car, ready to go to Sylvia’s house, and it’s caked with ash; the windows sound like ancient vinyl scratching as they roll down.
Soon I’ll be in the panic of the streets. A death is already reported on the 118 freeway’mdash;someone made a U-turn and played chicken in the chaos of it all.
What I don’t know is that soon I’ll be returning to this mess, like mad horses towards a burning stable. And the flames will be a rock’s throw away, beating hard on my face.
Part 2 of 2
From the Associated Press: ‘It feels like it’s not real,’ [Teresa Escamilla] said in Spanish. ‘It’s a nightmare.’
For the thousands evacuating Porter Ranch, it is.
Among the crazed is my family, and after a difficult exodus from our endangered home, we shack up in a friend’s house.
When imminent danger looms overhead, what do we hold dear? If we save ourselves, what objects do we grab to feel complete? And could our arms ever be wide enough? 5,000 acres gone
I’m sitting in Sylvia Hariton’s house, the mother of Paula Gutierez, my mom’s best friend.
It has the quaint feel of a small Japanese museum exhibit and an old spice cupboard. I’m trying to watch images of my house from the TV news, but my eyes burn.
I look in a mirror, and gunked into a red corner of my eye is black ash, thick as tar.
My dad rushes to the door and tells me we forgot the only important thing in the house’mdash;our financial records.
‘We have to go back,’ he says. 6,500 acres gone
The streets are raging.
Rinaldi Street is filled with stop ‘n’ go traffic piled together like a meaty vein headed east, while on the other side, the loons are racing back to their homes. Cars trample over orange cones as though they were merely suggestions.
‘Slow down,’ I tell my dad.
Crossing through the Porter Ranch Town Center, we shortcut onto Porter Ranch Drive and swerve around the cones in the Corbin Avenue intersection.
There’s a brown haze ahead blockading the street like a building. ‘Dad! Slow. Down.’ When he finally listens, a man darts from his car parked along the baseball park across from our gated community, where the helicopter water refilling station is.
On the hills west of us, colossal flames tear through the brush’mdash;seldom embers caught in the wind bounce off our windshield. We get a quarter mile away from our residence before hitting the firefighter barricade.
‘Get out of here!’ says a fireman flagging us down and running to our car. I step out and tell him we need our financial records.
‘You can’t go in there,’ he shouts above the hurricane-strong wind. Embers have blown across Sesnon Street near the houses south west corner of Porter Ranch Drive and Sesnon Boulevard.
Flames are jumping into their backyards. The heat and dry air thin out my oxygen. And we leave. 8,000 acres gone
By the time we get back to Sylvia’s, my mom’s cousin, Marian, calls and says that her husband Raeef has ten percent vitals in a Santa Monica hospital. He won’t last the week. My friend Andrew lives nearby. He visits and the two of us offer to get dinner.
While we eat pizza, everyone begins accepting the fact we may not have a home tomorrow. We change the channel to the Dodgers-Phillies game. At this point L.A. leads by two.
Nick Wenzel, a friend of mine who saw me interviewed on NBC, calls me again and says I can spend the night; the rest of my family decide to check in at the Sheraton Universal Hotel since they allow pets (our Shih Tzu is f
used to our laps).
On the way to Wenzel’s, I switch the radio to 1070 News Radio.
‘Once Mother Nature steps in, there’s not a lot you can do,’ says L.A. County Fire Chief Michael Freeman.
Another voice chimes in: ‘It depends on the winds,’ says LAFD spokesman Brian Humphrey. ‘In this situation, wind is king. The winds could even be benevolent.’
A ball of dizziness swirls in my head, so I roll down the window, refreshed by the breeze from a merciless barbecue. 10,000 acres gone
Nick takes me into his brother Danny’s room, and I catch a glimpse of the resolved Dodgers-Phillies game’hellip; L.A. lost.
The wind picks up, and a few minutes later I get a call from my dad saying there’s no way we can get to our house tonight, so the three of us make a run to 7-11 and get a pack of Heineken beer.
The drinking game is this: Start a five-second countdown before the minute hits. When it does, take a shot. When you play ‘Hour of Power’ those moments of babying your beer are taken away.
After awhile, you don’t even use numbers to count:
‘House.’ ‘Burning.’ ‘Dammit.’ Shot.
Laughter is a cure-all at a time like this.
We’re outside having a cigarette, talking about our high school friend who is now a porn star. ‘This is Porn Valley,’ I tell them.
A couple embers from Nick’s cigarette fly into the air when he ashes it. ‘Oh, shit,’ he says, ‘I don’t want to be the guy who starts another fire.’
I stamp my cig into the ashtray.
We finishing drinking, and I lay out a blanket in his family room and finally rest. Sirens echo through the night, layered atop one another like yipping coyotes. 13, 285 acres gone
When I wake up, I switch on the TV and listen to ‘The Governator’ at a press conference somewhere in Porter Ranch.
‘We’re facing the perfect storm,’ says Schwarzenegger. ‘We have very strong winds, low humidity and the heat.’
Nick walks into the room, ‘It smells like death in here.’
I’ve yet to shower; the smoke on my body turns the place into a furnace. After we get coffee, I get a call from my parents at 11:30 am’hellip; We can go home.
On the way back, large red clusters of fire trucks are stationed on Roscoe, Corbin, and several other streets. Going back up Porter Ranch Drive, the hills are charred and desolate’mdash;no longer the lush spring hills they were.
‘The land is scarred for the next ten years,’ my dad says once they return from the Sheraton. It means there won’t be fuel for another fire for, perhaps, that long.
Sophie, our Shih Tzu, is running around tossing and tearing her toys I didn’t have time to grab. My mom’s cooking bastorma, and it’s stinking up the house.
There’s ash gathered along the depths of our pool, turning it black like a cauldron. Nothing was damaged. No burnt stucco walls. No blackened grass.
The nightmare is over. Our nostalgia was tested, and I think we passed. In the rush of gathering stuff we needed, the farthest we had to stretch our arms was around each other.
And although the firefighters prevented the destruction of thousands of homes, L.A. lost. This was the biggest wildfire it had ever seen. And it could happen again.