Many years ago I lived in southern California in the hills bordering the San Fernando Valley. Every day I drove towards the city on the San Diego Freeway and then back again. Back then the traffic wasn’t as bad as it is now; there actually was a finite rush hour rather than a perpetual one.
One late afternoon I was on my way home. As I reached my exit I noticed a small patch of fire in the dry brush off the freeway to the right. It was small: maybe two feet square, maybe even less. It was summertime, very hot and very arid in the usual way of summer in southern California, so the fire had obviously just begun, perhaps started by a carelessly tossed match or cigarette.
I lived about two minutes from the freeway exit. By the time I got home I could hear the buzz of the helicopters and see them circling above. Although I couldn’t see the fire from the yard, I could smell the acrid smoke and feel the sting in my eyes.
I turned on the television to learn what I could. I was stunned by what I saw. In the two minutes since I had first spied that tiny fire on my drive home, it had become a major conflagration. Several large hills were fully ablaze, pouring thick smoke as the helicopters circled. I recall seeing water (or flame retardant) pouring from the planes, but perhaps I’m confusing that with later visions from other televised fires. There are many such visions when you live in southern California.
That particular fire turned out to be relatively easy to contain; it was over in few hours, with only a few blackened foothills to show for the trouble. Not so the fire a few years later that consumed the home of a good friend of mine. She lived on a high hill in a ritzy suburb of Los Angeles, with a panoramic view of the Pacific. When the fires came, she and her husband had a mere hour (but a precious one) to stuff their cars with whatever they deemed most important to save, say goodbye to their lovely home forever, and drive down the mountain road to safety.
Those who haven’t lived in southern California—or other areas equally dry—cannot imagine how fast a fire can spread there. I had read about it, but I would not have believed it had I not seen it for myself. I still find it hard to believe, even though I have seen it for myself.
Even for a region used to enduring huge wildfires, the rate at which the Station Fire spread is staggering. Much of the city of Los Angeles is covered with a thick layer of soot, and authorities are telling residents of the city to stay indoors if possible. More than 2,500 firefighters are battling the blaze, using everything from hand tools to airplanes, but have only contained five percent of the fire, and don’t expect full containment for at least another week.
“We are making progress, but it is very slow and very dangerous,” U.S. Forest Service incident commander Mike Dietrick said at a press conference this morning. “We have to wait for the fire to come to us.”
I don’t have to tell you how brave firefighters are, and how dangerous their job always is. Two have already died in connection with this fire, when their car went off a steep mountain road. Let’s hope there will be no more casualties.
But the winds are due to pick up tonight.