Frank Burnaby


Santa Ana winds in Southern California howl from the desert at 100 mph, parching mountainous slopes of woody chaparral all the way to the coast. Marching seaward its celestial heels press into the sea below the cliffs. Spray rips off the waves across a horizon of fleeing whitecaps. It is then that animals and people are reminded of the day coming when all explodes into flame. A thunderbolt that roars into dry wood with tongues of flaming sickles to blacken its path under a banner of smoke. Lavisher of wealth and light… recipient and guard of eternal law… this is Agni, the Vedic God of Fire. From the oldest of creation myths known to mankind all that he consumes is blessed. The souls of cremated humans are thus sped to heavenly realms before reincarnation. In Greek myth the Phoenix is reborn from the ashes. The same fire that lives in the sky and center of the earth is the Vaivashnara, or the center of every person. And in 1000’s of years of self-immolations by protesting monks, the eternal flame of devotion and love burns in the heart.
The little shell of our house shuddered perceptibly in the wind on a canyon ridge overlooking the sea. All night the sky groaned through shredded leaves in the tree tops. The alluring aromas of vaporized oils from sage and sumac, mountain sides of the chaparrals mixed with pine and eucalyptus around our house, all melted into our bedroom air. The fire had already begun without a flame. The wild sway of Santa Anas had ushered in the birth of our first son in this very home a year before, and would usher in our second a few years later. Living here in the Santa Monica Mountains we felt privileged to be this close to nature, a dream to be on a winding country road under a canopy of oaks, small communities or farms for neighbors, horses, clean air and quiet, and then only 20 minutes from town.

Most of us could not conceive of our vulnerabilities from having moved from cities to the mountains, or that we had unwittingly enrolled in an incontestable relationship, one that included howling desert winds, wildfires, huge floods, and all that’s part of a natural system of regeneration older than the mountains themselves. Forces that most of us were deluded to believe were negotiable with fire hydrants, water supplies, the abilities of emergency agencies and infrastructure, or some technology that could protect us. None of us imagined that after our electricity and phones failed, and the roads were closed or obstructed, that we would be cut off, exposed and more fearful than a country rat or a rabbit in the face of sky high flames. Even they had not lost their ecological and totemic connections to fire. Nor had all the other creatures in our mountains forgotten, the coyotes, mountain lion, rattle snakes, road runners, red tailed hawks, or an entire ecosystem of fire-evolved and fire-benefiting plants.
For as long as there has been oxygen and plants for fuel, fire has existed on earth, about 440 million years. Yet according to the US National Parks Service, People often mistakenly consider all fires to be negative, destructive forces. However, properly managed, fire can be an effective natural resource management tool. I am no expert, but from what I have seen not only do people mistake fire to be an enemy, but wild fires are about as manageable as a hurricane, tornado, tsunami, or earthquake. And researchers know that wild fire suppression destroys many species of plants that rely upon fire to propagate and survive, as well as the animals that depend upon them. Wild fire suppression also creates more fuel, and unnaturally destructive fires. As the summer of 93 approached, Annica and I wondered what to do about the inevitable. Groups of flatlanders and governmental agencies alike vehemently argued against taxes to protect people residing in the Santa Monica Mountains, or funding fire related emergency or FEMA services for them, or to fund the Santa Monica Airport for staging emergency operations, or even to subsidize affordable insurance policies such as California Fair Plan for anyone living in cyclical fire areas.
But this story is not about the politics of fire or scientific arguments. It is about the calling so many of us share, to be habituated to the landscape we love, just as the indigenous Chumash Indians, and others before them, and globally as indigenous people who have proven that intimate experiences or spirit relationships with nature are actually knowledge. Wildfires burn Southern California landscapes about every 15-45 years. It had been 50 years since a fire where I lived with my family in Malibu, more than my lifetime. The brush was thick and dry, probably about as flammable as gunpowder. In spite of fire department warnings to clear brush far from homes, limb up our trees, and generally prepare, some of my neighbors did nothing more than hose leaves down their driveways. Some neighbors not so secretly gloated over their home’s proximity to a fire hydrant or fire station.

Each successive year, as the probability of wildfire increased, my interest perked for the reality of the inevitable. I read a horrifying account of a woman who ran with a flaming casserole from her kitchen to the front door. They found her completely cremated on her front door step, her thick blouse having become a wick for her body melting in the fire. The consumptive power of fire could not be underestimated. When it came to a wildfire, a fire hose would not be much more effective than pissing in an erupting volcano, and that was only while water supplies lasted. And what if no firefighters with their hoses and helicopters showed up? What then? With our very flammable bodies we would urgently have to discover resourcefulness, some forgotten epigenetic resilience to keep from sizzling like ants in the blaze.
Then in the summer of 93 the old timers in our neighborhood began preparing for a fire. I watched them as if they were animal harbingers running up the hillsides before a tsunami. They brush cleared their hillsides, and hauled trash. They kept 50 gallon barrels of water full under their rain gutters, tested valves and pumps, maintained large steel water tanks that had been corroding for years somewhere on their property, old timer’s like my neighbors, Phil and Olaf above me, and Tim up the street who had lived in these hills longer than anyone in our neighborhood.

In his old age Tim had become curiously, or charmingly obsessed with purchasing huge logs which he had delivered to his driveway. He relished bucking the logs up into rounds with his chainsaw, and then splitting the rounds into firewood with a splitting axe. I watched him do this for the entire ten years since Annica and I had moved up there. He was a large framed man with an equally large forehead and jaw. He was always slightly out of breath looking up from under his straw hat to say hello. He pulled a cotton handkerchief from his pocket to wipe the sweat sliding down his brow, turning his head to better hear me. He never responded with more than a word or two but his eyes were intelligent and relaxed. That’s the only way I ever saw him, in pauses from his everyday bucking and splitting work at the front of his driveway.

One day I spotted a lovely round of pine with very tight growth rings on Tim’s driveway. It would have made a perfect coffee table for our house. I asked Tim for it, and was surprised when he shook his head. “I am saving that one to burn.” He said, “I can give you another if you like.”

That was a bit weird, I thought. How could he not let me have that lovely piece? He was just going to burn anyway. I was fairly certain that replacing the round with some logs of my own was not his concern. No, a real wood burner like Tim, must have his heart set on something else, like more BTU’s from some pieces over others. Or maybe the type of fire he wanted from that piece compelled him to keep it, some history in the rings, the smell of it burning.

Aside from his slightly odd beaver-like activities, Tim seemed to be a normal enough person, an intelligent and articulate man… I appreciated that he had taken an interest in me, and was helpful. I had never used a chain saw in my life, and Tim had several. He knew about bar sizes, sharpening chains, different types of cutting chains. He advised me to buy a steel bodied Stihl with a 22” bar. And once he came over to help me saw up a large pine stump I had dug out of the hillside with the help of some Mexican laborers. He brought a carbide bladed chain saw that howled right through stones embedded in the root. I was impressed by that.

It was not until just before the fire broke out that I discovered something more mysterious about Tim. At the time I didn’t think much about it, but nobody used their fireplaces. The Los Angeles area was rarely cold enough. But Tim’s chimney was always smoking, even on warm days. It was the country, I reasoned, maybe he was living on a pension and cooking on it to save electricity. Then one day when I ventured into the shadow of his open garage to stand by him sharpening a chain at his workbench, a well-used door into the house caught my attention, the way some things kind of have an extra charge on them… that seem conspicuous for an unexplainable reason. It was a planked door he might have built himself, and the only one he ever seemed to go in and out of. The front of the house appeared to have fallen out of use, all the curtains drawn since his wife passed years ago.

On that particular day, just after Tim had excused himself for a moment and gone inside, a FED EX truck pulled up with a letter that needed his signature. I went to the planked door and knocked, opening it slightly to put my head in and call out, but the sight of soot blackened walls in a room reeking of ash took my voice. Slits of light shone through shutters closed on the windows. In the dimness of the blackened room, an old wooden Adirondack chair with a floor lamp sat in front of a black iron fireplace with a stack of wood. Some magazines and books lay on a coffee table. The smell of smoke was overwhelming. The wooden rafters in the open ceiling were also coated in soot.
A few days later at the end of October, the Santa Ana winds had begun to blow again. The temperature rocketed up to almost 90 degrees Fahrenheit. I drove back home up the highway from a job in town, winding up our canyon road, worrying about being prepared. I slowed entering our narrow asphalt road cut into the sloping bluff over the sea. The mountainsides were dense with shrubby chaparral, manzanita, sage and sumac all so dry the leaves were desiccating into dust, and baked to an ashen color. As I approached my neighbor Jay’s house, I could not believe my eyes and jammed on my brakes. Stacked on top of his trash cans was a huge coil of canvass covered firehose, the same type the fire department uses, that weeps water into the canvass covering to prevent the hose from burning. A real firehouse with a coupling sized for fire hydrants. You’ve got to be kidding! I thought. I jumped out and examined the hose expecting it to be useless, full of holes, rotted, but instead found more than a 200 foot length in perfect condition, just dirty from years of sitting in Jay’s garage.

I walked up under the high eucalyptus trees over Jay’s driveway and poked my head in his front door to give him a shout. No, he didn’t want it, he told me. Jay’s house was a beautiful newly remodeled and expensive craftsman designed house. He was from the East Coast, and I warned him that he should keep it. “No,” he said, “it was left here by the last owner. It’s been cluttering up my garage for years. Take it. It’s yours.”

I loaded the hose into the back of my station wagon and proceeded down the road. I stopped at Tim’s house where he was directing some tree trimmers to limb up his pine trees, which helps prevent ground fires getting up into them. His gas pump was out on the driveway where he had apparently been servicing it. I excitedly pointed to the windfall of my fire house in the back of my car. He nodded approvingly. I took the moment to ask for any firefighting advice he might have. But he surprised me again, by chuckling, as if I weren’t worthy of an answer. To be honest it was a little annoying. He noticed and tipped his chin down in thought.

I thought too. Feeling some empathy for him. For I remembered my own hesitancy to give advice to a novice at the dock, after years sailing at sea. A person cannot be easily instructed on how to reach deeply enough within themselves to cope with a major storm. Technique will always fail sooner than the resourcefulness of deep respect and awareness. There were those nights I sailed at sea, hanging onto a shroud in a thundering storm, crawling down decks rushing with whitewater. I remember staring at storm sails taught as steel to keep a course off the rocks of Ashant in the Bay of Biscay, sure they must tear apart right before my eyes. That was when a kind of listening happened, when a path emerged from the brink of being swallowed in the next instant, or as it will from every breath knowing strength is not in the concept of conquering or winning, but in submission or being a part of. How do you tell someone that?

Tim looked back up and simply told me to get myself a smoke mask and a 1,500 gallon water tank with a gas pump. I nodded. “Hide somewhere safe till the firestorm passes over. Then come out and see what you can do.” He straightened to look over at the tree trimmers, and went back to work. I never bought the water tank, but I sure remembered that black soot on Tim’s walls.
Growing up in Southern California was a Ring of Fire upbringing. When I was 7 years old, I awoke before dawn and saw my cat launch into the air off my dresser, legs outstretched through the yellow glow of my night light, my dresser rocking wildly back and forth and shoving its drawers in and out. It was a magnitude 7.2 quake in 1952, the largest of the century in Southern California. Although the newspapers were full of shocking photos of devastation, my family did not try to escape or move away. I learned like most Californians living near the San Andreas Fault not worry much about the constant tremors up through my legs. People live there and by default accept that buildings and highways may collapse in only seconds of earth shaking, and that many could lose their lives. I grew up with an unspoken understanding that home included vulnerability and potential disaster. That nature was like this, just as it was everywhere in the world for people living with tsunamis and typhoons, exploding volcanos, a predominance of predatory or dangerous animals, or vast areas of devastating drought, famine, and disease, or viciously cold climates.
I was at Sammy’s Graphics in Santa Monica, when Annica called my cell to tell me she could see smoke rising over the mountains behind our house. She told me that the fire was already on the news. It had started up on the Mulholland Highway and was racing to the coast. I dropped the roll of ammonia reeking blueprints for lighting clients and hurried out the back door with her still on my cell. It was just after 3 pm on November 2, 1993. Dark brown mushrooms of smoke climbed the blue skies. “I see it,” I told her. “Oh my God, it’s happening.”

“I’m packing up things and getting ready to leave with Matthew.”

“I’m on my way home.”

“What are we going to do about Tareana?” she asked, and hung up without waiting for an answer.

Yes, Taerena. No horse trailer. How could I have not thought of that. I rushed out to my car parked on the street, incredulous this moment had arrived. Notations of what about this… or what about that began pasting themselves in my head with adrenalin as I sped off. What about my just completed ocean view office addition… my dream after all these years.. the beautiful glass drafting tables on rusty legs sculptures, the new furniture, wood floors, all the thoughtfully designed wiring and lighting … My mind frantically collated what could or could not be repurchased… small things big things, irreplaceables… certainly our family photo albums… our son being born, the box of my mother’s photo albums she painstakingly assembled over her lifetime. I hadn’t even looked at them all myself. The signed Edward Weston photo of my father… I never cared much about it… probably valuable but I had never appraised it and it’s not insured. And my grandfather’s antique gold Movado dress watch with his name, the same as mine, engraved on the back… easily packable… and my dad’s old Rolex. Annica’s gorgeous wedding dress boxed up on the shelf in her closet… a big box… too big to fit in. The mahogany dining table I grew up having breakfast around, making faces at my brother so he would choke on his food laughing. The driftwood table I made myself… hard to let that go but I could make another. But not my oak desk… my dad handmade that for me when I was a teenager. The things I could not take burned up in my imagination. I can’t leave my ex-wife’s oil paintings, left to my son after she passed away from cancer last year. Or my grandmothers antique silver… I had never cared much about it but impossible to let it go. And all the beautiful clothes, shoes and leather purses I had given Annica over the years. My 100-year-old Gibson Guitar from my great uncle! Oh, and Annica’s conga drums, beautiful Gon Bops. The ashes of my life were screaming back at me from the future. Annica was already loading. Not even a tiny fraction would fit into her car. Oh my God, our horse… What else could I do but release her to run wild before the flames?

As I sped up the Pacific Coast Highway, the opposite lanes were clogged with bumper to bumper traffic trying to escape the smoke looming up behind them. Cars full of dogs, goats, cats, chickens, personal stuff all jumbled inside as if a bomb blast had collapsed the floors above… a tangle of belongings shoved in up to the headliners, hanging out of windows, tied into the gaping mouths of trunks… a tangle of frenzied decisions. An ironing board in a car trunk just passed by. For God’s sake! Were people insane? Everyone’s choices were on display, a pornographic parade of now seemingly ridiculous objects. Not just expensive stuff. Some choices seemed more about clinging to life style, like surf boards, bicycles, and saddles. I’ll bet some people through in their yoga mats. Some clearly emotional attachments passed by, such as a child’s chest hand painted blue with white ducks, or a favorite plant, family heirlooms, chandeliers, a ugly gold mirror laying like a corpse atop everything else. Useful items were also taken, irresistible totems, such as a box of buttons my neighbor grabbed on her way out, leaving a houseful of very valuable things behind.

In the somber visage of every adult trapped in traffic, with their bewildered kids craning their necks, nervous pets dripping saliva out the windows, and some with an elderly relative riding in the back seat, there was a similar expression of tension or annoyance over being evacuated, unprotected, unable to escape, an aggravation in the viscera that argued for saving oneself at any cost. A neural fuse burned in every foot on the gas pedal. One or two cars pulling out of line would have been all it took, a few cars rushing by the others on the wrong side of the road, ignoring officials, breaking through a barricade, or side swiping other cars without stopping. Any sign that others were getting ahead, and the reflex to stampede would have been uncontrollable, like the Who concert in Cincinnati in 79 when fans trampled each other to death just trying to get to their seats.

Looming up behind the miles of bumper to bumper cars trying to escape was an annihilating convulsion of oxygen and matter, ascending in a pall of black smoke soon to be 5 miles high, a magnificent monster of the natural world, blistering, incinerating, vaporizing with insatiable 150ft walls of flame. A firestorm that would create its own weather patterns with 70 mph winds raging up the mountain slopes like solar blowtorches, blasting embers and flaming brands 2 miles ahead of itself. A force incapable of making deals, or being swayed by irrefutable arguments, that is instantly indifferent to privilege, social status, credit ratings, big or small bank accounts. A presence without mercy, respect, fear, or ambition, and that rejects all compromise. A thing that is insatiable for capitulation and morbidity, and that rages against all life and inanimate objects equally. An unprejudiced force that fairly incinerates clothing, furniture, roofs in the same light, melting car bumpers into the same silver puddles reflecting the sky on blackened foundations, and that BBQ’s people the same as rabbits for hungry coyotes. A voracious and contagious inferno that continues burning in imaginations for generations, a perfect process of oxidation replicated in the genes and biology of all living things.

I raced past the city bound traffic, my lanes empty headed back toward the smoke in Malibu. As of yet, no roadblocks had been set up to stop residents like myself from returning home. A short way off, the ocean pounded the shore along the highway. Large Pacific white-sided dolphin broke the surface, sliding smoothly along the surf line with their porcelain indifference to the chaotic lives of humans, manically connected to our cell phones in rush hour traffic jams to and from work, shuttling our kids back and forth to schools or the dentist in Santa Monica, summers sweating it out in our cars trying to reach beaches, and now on the verge of trampling each other to flee smoke blackened skies.
I turned off the highway at Big Rock Canyon and headed up the winding road. The sound of my tires ground the pavement around corners as fine ash descended from the tarnished pewter ceiling of smoke. My windshield wipers noisily plowed the ashes off. In my gut was the irrepressible knowing that I had to be in this fire. Most of us who strain our necks, drawn to witness a collision, disaster, or tragedy are horrified, but still yearn to be sobered and humbled, to be healthily apprised of who we are in our surroundings. The fire was that for me. But I also knew I would be better at this than anything I had accomplished since settling in the Malibu hills with my family 10 years ago. Not good at something like being professionally top in my field, as I was at the time, or a devoted father and husband. In those cases I always felt my shortcomings, missed opportunities, and some gap in my sufficiency. No, I mean good at something 100% with no gap. A connection that would consume all of me. It was the same me who had toiled in a previous year’s torrential rains, sand bagging the hillside below our house, and who paused to look up at the warm glow in our windows, when an epiphanic realization struck me. With absolute certainty, much as I loved my family, I knew I was happier outside covered in mud, soaking wet, shivering with cold, and exhausted in the wet dark, long as there was the storm in my hair.

Once in my travels as a young man up a remote river in Borneo, I lost the foot path at nightfall and ended up in a jungle swamp. Travelling light I had no tent or flashlight. Rather than risk getting more deeply lost, I just stood there for hours with a small mosquito net draped over my head in thigh-deep water. From time to time I pulled off the dangling weights of leaches on my legs. I waited for dawn listening to large animals moving nearby. There are times like these when no positive outcome can be anticipated, all a person can do is just be there, breathing, and undistracted by his imagination. The fire department had already warned we would be on our own, because our private roads were too narrow for their trucks to turn around. Staying meant that sooner than later there would be no water, no power or phone, no helicopters or doctors, no visibility or breathable air without a mask, and most likely no contact with anyone, not even neighbors like me who might have stayed up there.
I pulled up our driveway. Annica’s gray Volvo sedan was parked facing out with all the doors and trunk open. Behind our house smoke billowed up over the hills. A steep canyon below our property was all that separated us from the approaching fire. Annica hurried out with her arms full of clothes. The car was already almost full. Our youngest son was in his car seat. My 16-year-old boy from my first marriage was at his grandma’s. Annica told me a helicopter had flown over with a loudspeaker telling everyone to evacuate, but no fire personnel or anyone else had come down our road.

Annica went in the house for a last load, and I tried to collect my thoughts. Ash drifted quietly down with tiny embers burning my bare arms. I listened to our horse’s high pitched whinnying down at the corral. She sounded like she was screaming. Her hooves thundered back and forth. I stared down the driveway at the fan shaped roof of her stable. I had built it with my own hands from heavy timbers I got from the old Hollywood Reporter newspaper building after they tore it down. The corral was a present for Annica. Should I try and bring Tareana into our house? I wasn’t certain I could control her? I stood there immobilized, when a small man on foot suddenly appeared from nowhere, hiking up the incline of our driveway. Annica reappeared from the house with one more load, and the small man stopped in front of us. In a heavy Texas sort of drawl, he said, “I know horses, want me to take her out of here?”

Annica nodded, and I shouted a quick, Yes, as if we had been expecting him, “Yes, thanks!”

We hurried back down to the corral. He shouted that he was a house guest at my neighbor’s. He had heard Tareana crying out.
At the corral gate we both reeled back as Tareana charged toward us to leap the gate, veering away at a full gallop around the corral, slamming the railings with her chest. We found out later this magical little man had once been a professional jockey. Without hesitation he climbed right into the corral with her bridle. In a remarkable moment countering her panic in the smoke and ash, he reassured and bridled her. He declined the saddle I rushed to him and leapt up on her bareback. Annica handed him her cell number on a scrap of paper, and he just rode off into the smokey haze of falling embers. It was another mile or two down canyon road to the highway and then another 10 miles through the madness of evacuation, blaring sirens, flashing lights, roaring fire truck engines all the way to Santa Monica.

Annica got in her car to leave, with our 3-year-old wedged in his car seat in a hollow of our belongings, our newfoundland panting in the front seat, our cat yowling in her cage, our diseased hairless and ill-tempered hamster named Scubie hiding in his sawdust, all of them bewildered and panicked by the stench of smoke. She leaned out of the driver’s side window, “I know you will be ok, that you’re determined to do this. Please be careful.”
She started the engine, then held me again in her eyes for a moment, that kind of embedding look a loved one gives just in case they never see you again. I know she would have stayed with me if it weren’t for our baby and pets. She had given birth to our son with a midwife alone up there in that house. Choosing to be exposed for her own empowerment and connection was always her way. She was the only person I have ever known who had been hit by lightning, as a youth washing her hair in a barrel under a rain gutter at home in Sweden. Not only that but her mother had been a hospice nurse her whole life. I could see spirits crossing over her mother’s eyes when I first met her. Annica had learned early to saddle forces beyond her control, just as she rode Tareana out alone on moonlit nights. Annica’s gaze I often likened to the sliver of the moon, the magnitude of which remained mostly out of sight. The unspoken was her way, unlike any relationship I had ever known. In some wonderful way we accepted being unconnected parts of a cosmology we shared. She reversed down the driveway and looked back up at me before she drove off, this time with a I know you can do this look.

In spite of my good fortune finding the firehose stacked on Jay’s trash cans, it was completely useless without a nozzle. My neighbor Olaf just above us on the hill had agreed to store the hose in his garden shed near the city fire hydrant. He was another old timer in the neighborhood, and we had discussed coordinating our efforts in the event of fire. Now I just had to get a nozzle. A fire station was my only hope. The closest was a couple miles up the highway at the junction of Carbon Canyon, where the fire was in the process of destroying 85% of the residences, and was raging up the mountains toward my community.

Day had turned oddly into a kind of dusky twilight, oddly darkening as if by an eclipse, as I raced up the empty highway. The litter of an exodus lay cast along the side of the highway, boxes of things no one had stopped to pick through, items fallen off of vehicles like chairs and a rolled-up carpet in the gutter. As I pulled up to the fire station, firemen were running every which way. It was like an ant nest that had been kicked. Equipment lay strewn over the driveways and inside the empty engine bays. Hoses lay thrown around like spaghetti. The energy was frantic. I could not get a single fireman to stand still and speak to me as they rushed to rumbling diesel trucks lined up on the street, most from out of area. I nosed around the chaotic scene looking for an opportunity, a conspicuous locker or door where equipment might be kept when a wild-eyed guy whirled around in his slicker and yellow toed fire boots paused in thought. “No,” he said, “everything is out. No, we cannot spare any equipment.”

I insisted that our neighborhood was undefended down a private road. That some neighbors and myself were all alone there to fight it. “It’s a 2 ½ inch hose,” I said.

“Oh a deuce-and-a-half. That’s a heavy hose; we don’t use’em much. That we might have a nozzle for.”

He grabbed me by the arm and hurried over to some lockers. With a sideways glance, he threw open a locker door and pulled out a very large and heavy bronze nozzle with a flow lever across the top. “Here, put this under your coat,” he says. I did not have a coat, but walked swiftly out with it hanging at my side.
By the time I drove back to my house, the sky had already grown more strangely dark in the middle of the day. All humans and other living things had fled leaving the mountains in a primal feeling state of inactivity. Probably the first fires on earth before faunal life even existed were like this. In the early days of oxygen a lightning bolt struck those first landscapes, and the smoke descended like ink in a liquid silence over the empty hills.
I hurried smoothly around, closing windows, stretching my garden hoses out, making ready some tools, pipe wrenches, shovels, an axe, buckets, or anything I could imagine I might need. An orange luminescence had begun to infuse the blackened skies. I shouted up to my neighbor Olaf up on the hill above, and he shouted back for me to come up to his place. Being prepared made less and less sense, the more imminent the unknown became. Our plan was to simply join forces and make my house the first line of defense. If the fire got mine, it would climb to Olaf’s and others up the hill. There was one house below me, my neighbors Hal and Marlene, down where the canyon dropped into a gorge, but no one was there to defend it.
The power had not gone out yet, and I climbed my hill through the pine trees into the ashen but glaring illuminations of Olaf’s outdoor lights. His burly construction worker son, I’ve forgotten his name, had come to help, and provided much needed energy. Together the 3 of us stretched the fire hose out from the hydrant on the street to a hillside position overlooking my house. To test it Olaf turned the hydrant on. The blast was so powerful the two of us almost lost control of the hose as it recoiled behind a plume of water arcing over my entire house, front to back. The hose was also immovable, stiff and heavy as concrete. Had my hose been smaller, like modern hoses later used for their maneuverability, that fireman back at the station would never have found me a nozzle. Olaf’s son quickly nailed together a wooden framework and lashed the hose to it. Then straddling the hose like a giant python, he test waved its head from side to side.

Out of nowhere my very dear friend Arnaud suddenly appeared at my side. Instead of evacuating with his wife and daughter he had come back to check on me. His house was further up the road, away from the leading edge of the fire’s approach, but he was cutting it pretty close. The orange glow in the sky brightened as if a spectacular sunset had changed its mind and was coming back up into the night. I pulled out my cell phone for a photo, and we leaned together with our arms around each other, me smiling for no explainable reason in a water soaked shirt and bandana, and Arnaud grimacing like gargoyle leaning from the side of a church, and Olaf’s son as if he had just arrived at a neighborhood BBQ, all of us seemingly oblivious of the sky full of hot coals spilling over our heads.

Olaf’s son yelled, “Ok this is it!” Flames leapt across the ridge behind us in the moment we had turned for a photo. Olaf eased the lever forward on the massive nozzle, and a neon orange plume of water arced over my house. I tobogganed down the hill on my butt back to our house, and dashed to the garage where my ladder leaned up against the roof. I turned on my hose and dragged the spewing jet up the ladder with me. To my surprise my rock roof was already a flaming bed of embers under a sky of molten petals drifting down, as if I were looking up from inside a volcano. With a wet rag tied around my head and breathing through my smoke mask, I waved my hose, blackening wedges from side to side. An instant later all turned back to flaming coals. I can’t remember any sound, only the distant, barely audible shouts from Olaf’s son.

The front of the fire had still not reached us. It still had to burned down the canyon from the opposite ridge, and back up our side. But suddenly all the trees beneath our house burst spontaneously into flame, having leapt the canyon, burning through the air itself. My legs were moving, I remember that clearly, running with my hose in both hands toward the dark backside of our house. Unable to see the roof edge, I listened to my own voice repeating instructions like a calmly recorded message, “Don’t break our leg. Look for the edge. Don’t break your leg. Don’t break your leg.” I leapt. In a split second of an arc I collided heavily with the slope. Clutching my hose spewing water, I rolled and stumbled flat into the shadow behind our garage. I remember no recognizable sound, but the deafening incomprehension of hissing, like the sound of millions of insects masticating.

In my transparent cocoon, a molten chrysalis in my thoughts, I came to life in the incineration of things. Moments later I emerged from behind my garage in my gasmask with an insect strength beyond my own weight. My new world was visually bizarre, but beautiful. Fires floated like phosphorus or flamed in bursts from liquid black smoke, a velvet opacity that absorbed all ambient and reflected light, discharging flame like electricity in every direction. Depth perception gave way to the chemistry of being consumed, as if deaf in waves of sound but following a vibration or pulse. I dragged my hose to flame, the water pressure tugging my arm back toward a physical world. The flaming hillside hurled embers like hooks that stuck onto sections of wood siding, dervishly jubilant little flames that I quickly dismissed with my water stream. In the din, Olaf’s son shouted from above, “Fire at the back of the house.”

I hurried, dragging my hose along the concrete pavers under our arbor along the hillside edge to our back bedroom. There, large flaming juniper bushes against the house exploded in grey smoke at the end of my stream. I spun around upon flames crackling in the podocarps trees over our small deck. Below them in darkness were our avocado and citrus trees, which I had nurtured for years and were finally giving fruit. The blackened skeletons of the tall pines on the front hillside that had caught fire first, stood still flaming in the joints and dropping limbs like broken arms through smoky illuminations.

Olaf’s son’s voice called out again, “Front of the house!” I lunged with my hose back to out to the driveway, but I reared back from the heat as our Italian Cypress ejected fountains of sparks skyward, like Roman candles the length of our driveway. My blast of water had no affect at all, but the trees quickly suffocated into sickening smokey wads of blackened sticks. Then the inevitable moment came. My stream of water bent to the ground, bowing right up to my toes, and stopped.
I dropped my hose, and walked to the hillside edge where I heard a strange high pitched voice through the smoke. A whine. Then a chorus of whines from Hal and Marlene’s house below. I stared down at the skeleton of their house, the silhouetted frames of rooms leaning and twisting like optical illusions. There was a very loud crack, like a huge bone snapping, as the massive king beam in their open 2nd story ceiling collapsed, followed by an avalanche of embers. Then two staggering blasts from Al’s detached garage/workshop where he built stunts for Hollywood and where he kept his acetylene tanks for welding. There soon followed more explosions, maybe the gas tanks of his boat melting on its trailer, or his wife’s new Mercedes in the garage. The sounds of distress grew more distant and haunting as material things rang out in a chorus of vanishing from physical existence.

About 6 to 8 hours passed as I hurried from place to place without water, throwing shovels of dirt to put out the fires threatening our house. Olaf’s son had fallen silent long ago. They were fighting their own battles up on the hill above. My neighbor Al’s house below us was gone, just coals. At some point I had begun to realize that my house probably was not going to burn down, in spite of the amount of fire still around. Everywhere flames raced on the winds, twisting over the hillsides, raiding areas that had escaped, charging and flaring up into brightened volleys of crackling, until darkness laid the area to rest. In the following hours as the smoke thinned in the distance, I watched over the glowing and flickering landscape, witness to singular flames bent like soldiers, mercilessly finishing off their victims.
As visibility improved, I saw a large eucalyptus tree burst into flame at the end of the road, brightly reflecting in the swimming pool at my neighbor Peter’s house. Some trees just held out longer than others. In that ghostly white light, I spotted the smoking and flickering of a fire at the corner of Peter’s deck. The deck was connected to the house, and no one was there to put it out. I studied the road below, but unpredictable gusts of fire bent like torches across sections of the road from time to time. There was nothing I could do.

Keeping a watchful eye on all smoking and flaming things around me, I spotted a very strange site down on our hillside. I squinted into the murky dark at what seemed to be a long red coal snaking along below our house. Really it took me a moment to figure this out before I realized it was my purple ice plant, or sea fig, a supposedly fire retarding succulent used for hillsides in the mountains. The succulent was trusted planting near homes, without people realizing that thick layers of dead, crisp, and flammable material lay below the succulent green surface. The length of it was on fire below our house, stealthily creeping up like a molten knife edge. I set to work with a hoe, hacking it off the top edge of our hillside. Exhausting work, slipping in the mud from all the water and crushed succulents underfoot, I tore and yanked at tangled root until I had rolled it like a huge carpet down from our house.

Climbing back up to the top of the slope, I dropped to my knees, too exhausted to stand. I had done all I could do. My body was plastered in mud and ash, my hair stiff as wire. I stumbled into the house, and lugged a 5-gallon jug of drinking water from the kitchen to our bathroom shower. In the flickering orange glow of our frosted ranch house style bathroom windows so common in the 60’s, I dragged off my clothing, and poured glasses of water over myself in the shower. It took several soapings, to lessen the smell of smoke in my skin and to scour off the heat burnished shell of filth. I raised the remainder of the jug over my head, and toweled off the remaining suds. I felt renewed, in the way oxygen expands as you swim to the surface, the need for a breath eased. From my bedroom closet I pulled out my good pair of jeans and one of my favorite long sleeve T-shirts with a zipper neck, and dressed. Back out in the kitchen I poured myself a glass of Malbec. Every room in the house was flickering with warm dancing patterns. I took a cigarette from a pack Annica and I kept in reserve, for when we couldn’t resist. Then I walked out my front door and down my driveway for another angle of view over this new kingdom I had become a citizen of.

From the bottom of our driveway, I could now see my neighbor, Rick the dentist’s house on fire just up the road. To my right the road passed beneath our house, above the dark shadow of another neighbor’s house which for no explainable reason had not burned, and then to the embers of Hal and Marlene’s where the road switched back and descended to the Peter’s house below clouds of bright embers burning at the end of the cul-de-sac. I turned up the road and walked until I felt the heat from Rick’s house, and sat down on the velvety black asphalt to watch. Bright flames were quickly doing their work behind the windows. It was a brand new, gorgeous modern house, all concrete and plaster, that had been built very expensively on huge concrete pylons drilled into the steep hillside. Our road had often been annoyingly blocked for about a year by its construction.
I lit my cigarette, followed by a tea-like sip of wine. A flurry of sparks hissed over the road a few yards off from where I was sitting. Some observer inside me noticed that I did not even flinch, nor did the taste of wine agree with me. I preferred the smoke, but maybe I wasn’t crazy. Smoke stimulates the germination of plants in ecologies of fire. Smoke is scientifically essential to life. Ancient shamanistic ceremonies use the healing properties of tobacco smoke, and believe it unifies the physical and spiritual world. I put the glass of wine behind me against a melted pear cactus, and took another deep pull off my cigarette. The flames spewed from Rick’s house, licking the sky over the balcony. I’ll admit the moment watching Rick’s house burn was peaceful, even steadying, sitting there in the vanishing existence of things, without an opinion or resistance, just accepting the burning and transformations taking place.

Rick’s house jutted defiantly out into the black sky overlooking the sea. Flames crackled more deeply in its throat. Below was an almost vertical slope of about 600 feet to the highway. I thought I heard windows shatter, then what sounded most definitely like a scream. A weirdly pitched screech which so filled the darkness that I quickly looked up to see if an unnatural energy or phenomena had appeared the sky. Then I heard it again, this time directly from Rick’s house. I peered into the roiling reddened smoke, which groaned another ungodly groan of increasing intensity, like something dying, giving itself up. Then almost like a hallucination, the entire house tilted, as if opening its jaw and screaming, the steel rebar of its foundations stretching like fiery tendons into the black space, snapping, and recoiling back in slow motion as the house suddenly hurdled like a burning comet into the sky. In a giant fireball, it plunged down the mountainside. Plunged like an animal on fire until it dropped in its tracks on the last plateau above the highway. Then leaping back up in flame, it burned to death, and its light sank back into the glimmering black landscape.
Arnaud’s house was just around the bend. I pulled the elastic of my mask back over my head and walked past the smoldering cement and twisted rebar of Rick’s foundations. I made my way up the road, retreating a few steps when flames growled and crackled up the slope before spraying across the road like a huge timber saw spinning on its side. I was relieved to find our friend’s house in the cool shadow that unburnt places stand in. Just beyond, at the juncture of my Road and Olaf’s road, there were pyrotechnics high into the sky in front of Tim’s house. This did not make sense as the fire’s leading edge had long ago passed. In white smoke I spotted the silhouette of Olaf’s son, wearing his mask and a red bandana around his head. He defiantly held up a shovel in his fist, and gestured toward the pine trees on fire at Tim’s house. Unbeknownst to us at the time, the fire department had set a backfire on Tim’s slope which until then had escaped burning. What remained of our neighborhood had been sacrificed to buffer residential areas the next canyon over.

We stood together assessing the situation, when a disturbing sound came from behind us, something like a deflated rubber ball thumping back and forth against a wall. Then large oval eyes in a green rubber face, with arms and a pair of legs appeared through the smoke. It was my neighbor, the lawyer who lived on Olaf’s street. He wore one of those Army surplus gas masks with its valves thumping open and shut. He gave us a thumbs up greeting, and the three of us hurried over to roll the flaming rounds of Tim’s wood pile out into his parking area to lessen the flames near his house. We were already too late; his roof eaves were alight. I looked desperately around for what to do. Before old Tim must have been evacuated by a family member, he had readied his antique pump engine and a length of hose by his tank. But there was no time to figure out how to start it, we grabbed buckets of water from the 50 gallon drums Tim had positioned under his roof gutters, and managed to extinguish the flames. After the fire, Tim gave us all $100 gift certificates to the local market for saving his house.

Concerned about too much time away from my own house, I headed back down the road, stopping at my neighbor Bill’s to rip apart the arbor I spotted smoldering over his front door. The beams twisted away easily from nails in the already charcoaled beam ends. It was then I noticed new smoke coming from Arnaud and Isabelle’s house, across the street. I rushed over and peered in through the beveled glass of their front door. No flames, but smoke was filling the room, enveloping the large oak plank table where we had all visited for so many years. Some marriages are mercifully held together by a roof in common; I knew our friends would not survive their home burning down And when I stepped back and looked up, the roof it was, smoke lifting like steam from under the shingles.

Olaf’s son joined me as I climbed a ladder onto the roof. He handed up yellow plastic child’s buckets of water, all he could find to dip into their jacuzzi. As my eyes adjusted to the shadow of the roof, holes with black edges the size of saucers became visible around my feet. I might drop into a flaming attic any second and stepped carefully back over to the ladder. There was nothing we could do, and Olaf’s son left me standing there, to go check on his Dad’s place.
I could see through the glass patio doors that there was a painting on Andre’s favorite antique easel inside, but the doors were locked. That was the first. but not the oddest thing that happened next. Our neighbors rarely locked their homes in our country cul-de-sac community, especially not in a fire when emergency crews might need access. I grabbed a heavy terracotta pot with strawberries planted in cups around the sides, and heaved it at the glass patio doors. The heavy pot rebounded like a wrecking ball over my shoulder. Had it struck me I would have certainly been badly injured or knocked unconscious, possibly even burned up with the house in circumstances as strange as the lady immolated on her front steps carrying a flaming casserole. What did strike me instantly was the crazy idea that my friend Isabelle had installed bullet proof glass. That she had dangerous connections I knew nothing about. Fireman explained later of the danger of tempered glass, that it must be broken in a corner. But I had no explanation for how the fire had broken my view of my old friend, or why that sense of her never left me.
I ran around to the front of the house and easily smashed a rock through the leaded glass door, reaching my arm in to unlock it. Arnaud’s antique easel stood oddly alone in the living room, as I dashed from room to room, realizing that Isabelle had emptied the house of important things. The painting on the easel was a second version of a painting Arnaud had given me a few months before. I had never seen this one. The original was of a barn in a snow storm, painted in a warm brownish tone as if there were a hearth fire burning inside. But in this painting the barn was all black, charcoal black and abandoned. Even in that moment with their house on fire I felt heartbroken to see it, such a strange effigy and tribute to a life that had abandoned him. For a moment, I hesitated to remove it from its purpose, almost resisted being the one always trying to save people around me. It was not until later that I realized Arnaud had actually tricked me, knowing I would check on him or his place whenever I could. With my mind was so occupied with emotion for the sad painting and with the easel under my other arm, I never once suspected that Arnaud would have left his entire life’s work in the garage, to purposefully burn, rack after rack of gorgeous paintings. He had been there. He could have taken them out. I walked right past the garage, without even glancing upon the door to such a dark plan.

I left their house to burn and walked back down the road with Arnaud’s painting and his antique French easel. Dawn floated a clayish haze over the blackened skin of the mountains, pores venting white smoke in the breaking light. The soundlessness of the morning was as if I were not awake, my eardrums still dead asleep on memories of buzzing insects, crickets, crows cawing, a breeze softly brushing eucalyptus leaves against one another. Even the sea below was mute in the memory of grasslands and oak forests, in the waking of nonexistent things.

Climbing up my driveway home, I found my physical life struggling back into a new day. My little refuge on the smoking hillsides had travelled to the other side of vanishing, with me along. And where I had arrived could never be explained, but the evidence of my voyage was everywhere. The urge to cover my tracks became irrepressible. Ignoring the aches and pains in my body and without sleep, I began push-brooming the thick layers of ash off my walks. When that was done, I went inside. Fine ash had sifted inside our house, past window insulation and door sweeps. Layers of it greyed the tables tops and counters, covered the stone floor. With everything back in order I might also appear unchanged, unaccountable. Cleaning up might stop the fire crackling inside me, before I had to speed to appointments in my car again, and settle in with the wonderful sounds of my family back at home in our regular life. My heart was beating and my breath short, and I leaned on my broom handle, head down to try and relax.

Soon someone would come, but I still felt no sense of the fire as a disaster. I could not explain that to myself, or to anyone else. I read later that making the kind of thoughtful preparations I did, directly managing myself in the fire had assimilated the experience without the posttraumatic stress or psychological effects some people experience. Still I felt dangerous to the expectations of others. Certainly now, I was a wildlander, and no longer a flatlander. Maybe, I would join the old timers up here, I thought, like Tim who were so conspicuously quiet about past fires, knowing that fire would hiss from between their teeth if they were to open their mouths, that suddenly all the guises and little quirks or odd behavior would expose the Hindu god Agni riding across their eyes under his banner of smoke.

I gazed out over the orange and blue spiked blooms of birds of paradise that had survived in the front planter, and the purple bougainvillea flowers that dangled from the corner of the arbor. My house was perched atop the mute hills as if high and dry after some epic low tide. I gazed down at the pathetic evidence of my firefighting hose melted in sections on the hillside. No longer visible to the naked eye was the visitor who wielded it through the flames.
On this now bright sunny morning with so much blue sky draped over the melted mountains, I listened to the happy activity of birds growing in intensity behind our house. Their chirps and song reached me gradually like a frequency I had to fine tune. I dragged my trash can aside and leaned my rake against it to go investigate. The garden at the back of the house was more or less intact, green with only a few burned bushes. Amazingly the fire and embers had not gotten into the giant pine leaning over the lawn, or other pines around behind the house, probably because their limbs and needles were so well watered by our irrigation systems.

The riot of bird chirps broadcasted from a tall conical juniper spared in the fire. Inside the prickly foliage and fishbone tangle of small branches was an entire countryside of little birds, hopping about with distinguishing patches and colors, mostly field sparrows I think, all in a flutter of celebration. They were not the least inclined to fly off when I poked my head in. Something brought my attention to the small foot path leading down to our avocado tree on the hill, which had also not burned. I took a few steps to investigate and came face to face with several deer, standing with their ears flared, leaning back on one hoof, but was unwilling to flee like the birds. These gentle creatures, and how many others I didn’t know, were concealed in my refuge, creatures that could not escape or burrow down deep enough into nests and dens underground. Not like the coyotes we listened to every night that had raced after each other’s tails down into the safety of deep rock-sided gorges where they along with mountain lions preyed upon others trying to escape, splashing along spring-fed creeks hidden under the winding green canopy of sycamores.

As I was carrying flakes of hay from Tareana’s corral up to the deer behind our house. I heard the sound of a large vehicle straining up our steep driveway. My first thought was that it must have been the first firetruck arriving down our narrow road, now that there was no threat of fire. I hurried back around to the front of the house, but instead of a firetruck, a large Channel 9 News Truck pulled to a stop and reversed into a diagonal parking position in our driveway. One of those tall antennas began telescoping upwards from the top of its roof, and the door burst open. Annica jumped out and slipped her arms around me knowingly, holding on long enough to allow me to physically reconnect. Then she leaned back and told me the News crew had concealed her in their truck to pass through the police road blocks. “I told them you would give them your story in return for getting me here.” I looked over and a cameraman had already begun filming our reunion.

The News Channel lady introduced herself, and then me to the camera, me the humble homeowner who, she explained, had risked his life to save his home from this devastating fire in Malibu. Her arm waved back at our once bluish, but now spooky ash dusted house. The interview went more or less like this: Weren’t you worried you might lose both your home and your life, she asked. No, I said… But you managed to save it. How? I am not sure, I admitted…

Undeterred, she continued questioning. No, no fireman… No, I was not afraid… No, I was never relieved at any point… No, I never felt the house was threatened exactly… The fire was not threatening; it just burned… No, I never felt things were out of control… . No, there was no point when I knew I had won…
Then the news lady paused, with a thin but disarming smile. She turned to the scrap of melted hose on the hillside, and took me by the arm a few steps toward it. “And here is the hose Frank saved his home with,” she said. The camera examined a burnt scrap of hose. “Frank will you demonstrate for us how you used this hose to save your home.”

I looked at that melted section of my garden hose. If I picked it up, what might happen. Would I turn that scrap of resistance upon the embers burning inside me, the loses homeowners and families most feared, the tragedy and devastation, the heart breaking future. These were the truths of living here. The transformation and regenerations of the whole design that had to be accepted, and I did. I had gone over to the other side, joined the enemy of flatlanders. I was not a hero at all, victorious or even brave. I had become part of the fire. For all those that would be watching the news, how could I say that? I began to quaver inside, being completely exposed. Just as I feared would happen sweeping ash off my walks. I tried to say something about being sad for my neighbors, but my voice began to shake uncontrollably. Grief was part of this process too, but only a small part. I struggled to stand up to the breakdown in my composure, to cling to another sentence about my neighbor’s loss. I pointed down to charcoal remains of Hal and Marlene’s house below, but my attempt at composure rebounded like the strawberry pot off the glass at Arnaud’s house last night. I was suddenly overwhelmed with my love for Annica and our family, with my frustrations at work, with dreams of myself sizzling like poppy seeds needing to bloom. I was burning with the horror to be so suddenly convulsed, weeping for the whole world to see.
Not until 2 days after the fire did Annica receive a call on her cell with the address to go find our horse, Tareana. A tall graying, pleasant specimen of a man answered the door. The house was small but an upscale home in the Palisades. He led us through to his back garden, and there she was, standing Jurasic sized on a scrap of lawn surrounded by flowers and shrubs. If there had not been a fire, I could not imagine this man’s face if the small jockey man had asked to leave a horse at his urban home for a few days. That was the thing. It took the fire to germinate the generosity of the community. Like the owners of expensive hotels in Santa Monica, who allowed their hallways to be choked with personal belongings, cages, cats and dogs, parrots, even pet goats. Annica told me the Malibu people left their room doors wide open for friends and newly acquainted neighbors to share information and gather around news on the TV, many fearful for the loss of their homes. I was surprised to get a call from a very wealthy client offering me a place to stay in Montecito. For miles along the Pacific Coast Highway, 1000’s of fireman from 12 states waited by their trucks, the largest deployment of fire fighters in California history.

Our neighbors were noticeably quiet in the weeks after the fire. Most of us knew that the 93 fire was only one part of a cycle of disaster, or regeneration depending on how one chose to experience it. Now that the wildfire had shaved the mountains bald, winter rains would soon tear at the soil, liquefy it, turn small creeks into huge rivers of mud, and lubricate geological layers more than 600 feet deep so that whole neighborhoods would begin to slip toward the sea. No one talked about the challenges coming, or if our love of living in the mountains had been strengthened or weakened. We dealt with immediate concerns of insurance, the usual denials of claims as in previous fires in communities like Oakland in 1991, along with other fire related business. I replanted, rebuilt, rejoined the traffic to and from work. Tim went back to bucking up firewood in his driveway. But the connection had been made, directly as the experience of a child burning his finger. The process of incineration had been internalized; whether it be the prosperity, security, or densification of expectations in one’s life, the woodier and denser a landscape gets, the more inevitable and more necessary a wild fire becomes.

Over 300 homes had burned and almost 50 in our canyon. In the aftermath, there spontaneously occurred a number odd events, not unlike Tim privately living in his soot stained house. All of us were reenacting or dealing with the fire in some private way. The number of divorces that occurred after the fire were not the surprise they might have been before the fire. And the exodus of the elderly from our neighborhoods back to the flatlands… well that made sense too, just as animals or plants will alter their habitats, reestablish, and be replenished by wildfire. So too, the younger generation showed up to repopulate our neighborhood, just as the fire propagated seeds of California fire poppies, manzanita, ceonothus, ash hungry bulbs, or serotinous cones. Soon young mothers appeared pushing baby carriages around the neighborhood for the first time since we had lived there. The cycle of regeneration caught us all up in wonder. Welcome beginnings. Even in some curious respect our lawyer neighbor’s sudden transformation from driving off weekends in his convertible jeep with a bandana around his head to cruise town for men… well he suddenly took a Russian mail order bride and adopted her young son. But then our neighbor Bill drowned having a cardiac arrest, the same neighbor whose burning arbor I had torn down that night opposite Arnaud and Isabelle’s house. After the fire, he had become obsessed with improving his property, covering every square inch in stone work like someone who had forgotten to turn off their tap. Then most shockingly of all, we heard about Phil. He was a soft-spoken man with a stutter whom we often met walking along the road with his wife and cocker spaniel, an engineer graduated from Stanford. A few months after the fire, he went into his garage, poured gasoline over himself, and struck a match.
In less than 2 months after the fire, it began to rain on the bare mountains. We had prepared best we could with drainage systems, deeply rooted ground covers on our hillsides, and retaining walls. Water slid off the dry burned earth like balls of mercury, racing without friction and rolling up soil into every gulley and gorge. Without the wild plants to hold the soil, the rains literally melted the hills. Mountain surfaces quivered like skin before spontaneously becoming an inland tsunami of mud. Entire landscapes cascaded over flat ground. Whole trees, shrubs, and huge agave cactus that had survived the fire, planted themselves in the middle of the Pacific Coast Highway, as if the highway had never existed. Trickling creeks turned to muddy rivers and tumbled houses and cars end over end into the sea. Moving walls of mud pushed in the front doors of beach homes, shoving furniture out the bay windows over the decks and down into the muddy storm waves, followed by whole houses crumpling like paper into the surf.

As the rain eased one evening, I attempted driving down our canyon and up the coast to see all that had happened. I said goodbye to my family safe inside our house, and put together a quick adventure package in the garage of jumper cables, a long thick rope, a shovel, some tools and a flashlight, even a first aid kit. I made a last walk around the house to check on the condition of the emergency trenches I had hacked through our garden to divert surface water from eroding our hillside. Then I walked back to check the sandbags that channeled a shockingly large and thundering waterfall off the otherwise desiccated rock face behind us.

My headlights weaved their way down the canyon road past fallen rock, racing water and mud, and debris from trees and plants strewn everywhere. At the intersection with the Pacific Coast Highway, earth moving equipment croaked like huge toads flashing yellow lights as they bulldozed mud into tall mounds. The empty four-lane highway was reduced to scarcely one lane through the fallen boulders and torrents of water gushing down either side. I skirted the lakes reaching out over clogged storm drains, and after a few miles, came to the Malibu Creek Bridge. The water rose alarmingly up to my doors. I looked out over what had once been a narrow creek, but had now become a brown Amazonian sized river across the breadth of the canyon. Water gushed through the balustrades of the bridge. The folded tops of several cars scraped and thumped under the concrete lip. I pulled off the highway and parked in the empty lot behind Guido’s Italian restaurant across from the river bank. Not another soul was anywhere to be seen. From atop the bank, the broad sparkle of highway light reached up river, the brown burnished surface overlapping like scales on a rushing reptile. In that water laden luminescence, the familiar shape of a Volkswagen bus raced down stream with its nose buried, grotesquely up ending. More disturbing was the voluminous underwater tumbling and thumping of boulders, and the heavy ends of whole trees, all being dragged to sea. The urgency of water descended from the looming mountain dark, tearing into the earth, ripping crevices, dislodging more than willing mountainsides, and thundering in waterfalls.

As I stood there more or less pulsing with the circulatory system of our planet at work, I was quite suddenly startled to see a man standing near me, peering inquisitively at me. A blue and white lettered nametag of a network news channel was clipped to his coat. Behind him in the parking lot, a large news truck with an antenna on the roof like the one that had interviewed me after the fire, had parked in the lot next to my car.

“Do you mind telling me what are you doing here?” he asked calmly.

Caught red-handed, I just confessed how most people do not see the majesty and beauty of a natural event like this. “Malibu is so much more than view lots for sale at Remax Realty. This is the true gorgeous nature of this landscape. The heartbeat of it!” A cameraman stepped up, and I did not protest them filming me as I waved my arms over the torrent of mud, over the blessing of being part of it all.

The next evening Annica and I watched the news on the channel that had interviewed me. The newscaster soon cut to coverage of the Malibu floods with usual worn out footage of highway crews working on eroded roadways, swollen creeks, and damaged properties. They interviewed a family whose home had been ripped apart alongside Topanga Creek, the canyon just over from ours. A glum man and woman picked through the ruins of their home as the swollen creek raced under the dangling remnants of their walls. Their two young children pulled some of their belongings from the mud, the youngest daughter whimpering over a drowned teddy bear. Then the newscaster cut back in, exclaiming, “Now there are some people who have an entirely different view of this most recent Malibu disaster.” I hoped that someone would not be me, but there I was on TV, standing on the bank of the River Styx, extoling the beauty and beneficence of mother nature. I could almost smell myself burning at their stake.
Not long after the fire, Annica and I sold our house in Malibu, and moved to a wild forested ocean front property on a small island in British Columbia. Our dream was to raise our children in an intimate community close to nature. Summers I worried over the large fir trees close to our cedar house on a hill of brown grass. BC was dry. Fire dry. I advised neighbors how to prepare. No one paid much attention. But I discovered three fire-blackened stumps in the overgrowth of our forest from a long-forgotten wildfire, close to a century earlier. One was a tall blackened shard of trunk, standing under a cluster of old growth firs on our bluff over the sea. It looked long dead, but to my astonishment when I touched a glossy spot, it was sticky with wet sap oozing from the crack. All these years it had been secretly alive deep in the forest. I knelt down and made an altar of shells in the hollow at its base, and often visited, listening to the sea with my body against its trunk.

Some years later I went back to visit our neighborhood up on the hill in Malibu. Old Tim’s garage door was open, and I pulled up and parked. The pine trees along the house had grown back, their charred bark now camouflaged by shade. Tim’s rusty water tank for firefighting barely peeped from the overgrowth of shrubs in the garden, and the water barrels under his rain gutters were still lined up along the back side of his garage. The same barrels Olaf’s son, our lawyer neighbor, and I had plunged buckets into that night of flame. I walked up to the garage, and peered inside. Tim stood over the same oily tool bench, sharpening his chainsaw. He must have been in his late 80’s. His shoulders turned and his eyes lifted, warmly surprised. He uttered a few words in greeting with the same beads of sweat across his heavy boned brow. I confirmed we had moved to BC. Then he just smiled and held my gaze, just as he always had, as if something might bloom between us in a suspended moment. Tim, smoldering in his own soot stained house, had put that coal to me before the fire arrived. He made me aware that some of us will stay to be part of it. Some us will make sense of living out in these hills, each in our own way.