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True Reality TV: Firestorm 2008

Talk about reality TV—I have been glued to the television since I got up this morning, watching all the fires in Southern California. The news is a little ridiculous—they’re floating “Firestorm 2008” graphics on the bottom of the screen.

The devastation is staggering. Down the hill about 10 miles from us, a mobile home park completely burned to the ground. 500-600 homes gone. Just like that. Down in Orange County, more fires, more destruction. I can’t imagine losing everything we own in an instant.

But one night I came close.

Years ago, a couple of years out of college,  I was living in a house in West Hollywood, in an area right off of Santa Monica Boulevard that I’d routinely see on “Cops.” The neighborhood had so much charm—lots of old bungalow-style homes—and was in the middle of everything (a good and bad thing). We were near a park that the homeless camped out in and they’d hang out in our neighborhood because it was quiet.

One Saturday night, my roommate had a couple of friends over, watching movies when someone went on alert and suddenly asked, “Do you smell that?” My roommate, who was totally baked, thought it was the funniest thing he ever heard. We all laughed and continued to watch the movie until I (who was actually sober and not high), smelled smoke. I got up, looked out our kitchen window in the back of the house and saw that our detached garage was starting to smoke.

Before I could get everyone’s attention, the old, wooden, tinder box of a garage became engulfed in flames. I called 911. My roommate immediately snapped out of his high (talk about a buzz kill) and his friends all ran out back with garden hoses and tried to fight the fire. It was starting to look hopeless. I was terrified that it was going to ignite the trees and the roof of our 80-year-old house. The heat was scalding. The air was suffocating with the thick black smoke.  I grabbed my car keys and backed my car out of the driveway, backed my roommate’s car out of the driveway, ran into the house to grab his dog, a fat, smelly, mean little dachshund named Cozette, and put her in my car.

Right then the firetrucks pulled up, hooked up and started to put out the blaze. For a small garage, it seemed to take a long time to extinguish. We were so lucky because it never hit the house, it never grabbed the trees and it didn’t creep over to the neighbors’.

In those minutes, I was terrified like I’ve never been before or since.

It turned out, a homeless man had camped out behind our fence, and fell asleep with a cigarette. It lit the trash back there, traveled to the fence and jumped to the garage. He was lucky and so were we, but every time I smell smoke, I go on red alert and panic a bit.

I moved into that house from a one-bedroom apartment, so whatever I couldn’t fit into my bedroom went into that garage for storage. Most of my books, all of my furniture, pots and pans, some clothes and, most important to me, pictures of family and friends were gone. It was those personal items that you can’t replace, that I hurt the most, but I was about to move out of that house and only had the basics in my bedroom.

But I was lucky. I had renter’s insurance and the “things” were replaceable. My parents helped me replace some of the other things that insurance didn’t cover. But my story is nothing compared to what I saw today.

Watching the news this morning, one man’s story broke my heart. When the reporter asked what he was going to do now that he lost his home and everything he owned. He shrugged, looked in the camera and said that Monday he’ll go back to work because he needs to keep his job to try and survive. It made me cry.

It’s going to be a long night. I hope the winds die down and the fires stall. Although we’re in the center of town and far from the hills, all of the reporters are talking about the flying embers (The Flying Embers. They sound like a tacky circus act. “Ladies and gentlemen, The Flying Embers!”), the unknown in the equation.

My thoughts are with everyone in the affected areas.


4 Responses

  1. I was packed up years ago in Stevenson Ranch, and it really makes you take stock of what is important, that’s for sure. Mostly everything in our lives is replaceable these days.

    I can’t believe the people who had no warning though, not even enough time to grab those few things…just totally wiped out.

    oh, and so much for thinking these clay roof thing is the answer…I’ve seen stray embers lighting up that clay all day. Can’t keep my eyes off the TV either. Hopefully tonight goes better than last night for the firefighters.


  2. I can’t believe the news video we’re seeing these days from California — it’s horrible. It’s frightening how quickly something like this destroys. Keep safe

  3. Fires scare me WAY more than earthquakes. Fires are what scare me about earthquakes. In a big quake, I fell confident (knock on wood) that I’ll make it through the shaking and cracking structures and whatnot. But I am not at ALL confident that two minutes later I won’t be blown to bits or burnt to a crisp in a gas line explosion.

    I’m not exactly on point here, but kinda close. Either way? Flame-y!

  4. Lesley: I agree with you on this one. With earthquakes, the shaking will stop. And, yes, there will be damage, but it’s the fire potential that scares the bejesus out of me. Maybe it’s the fact that I saw what fire can do, maybe it’s the fact that, years ago, I burned my hand so badly while cooking that I thought cutting my hand off couldn’t possibly hurt any worse. The randomness of it all terrifies me.

    Hopefully, things will get better this week. The winds are dying down and the heat isn’t as intense.

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