The Flames of Santa Barbara

`ALFREDO just called. He's going to be a little late.'' My Mom paused at the doorway to my room on her way down the hall with an armful of clothes for victims of the fire. ``Do you have any clothes I can take downtown with these?'' she asked. ``I put them by the front door,'' I responded, snapping out of a daze. Alfredo and I had not lost our houses in the fire that ripped down the canyon and across Santa Barbara several weeks ago, turning some 500 houses into smouldering heaps of ash and rubble. But friends had. We were going to help one of them rake through what had been his bedroom. He had had only enough time to grab a duffel bag full of belongings and the dog. Then he had evacuated, leaving his house for good.

While I waited for Alfredo, Jane Child's ``Welcome to the Real World'' blurted out of the radio. I kept hearing it last night. I thought about what had happened then.

The first part was clear.

I pulled into the driveway a little after 6 p.m., returning from the beach. The dashboard thermometer read 109 degrees. When I stepped out of the car, wind was lashing the trees. I noticed the neighbors across the street standing on their lawn looking toward the mountains. Out on the street I saw people on the sidewalk staring at a billow of smoke, the size of my thumb in perspective. It was halfway down the mountain.

I ran inside to inform my parents. They were at the end of the hall. I asked, ``Do you know there is a fire at the top of our ridge?'' My Mom came hurriedly down the hall with a half-frantic, half-disbelieving look on her face. She yelled, ``No, NO!''

And why not? This was the hottest day we had ever experienced in Santa Barbara. There were winds. We had had four years of drought.

From that moment on in my memory everything becomes a jumbled mess. Moments during that night stand out. But the chronological order has disappeared.

I do remember this:

My Mom and I are in the station wagon. We have pulled out of our driveway and are leaving our street. My Dad is in his car behind us. Both cars are filled with photos, a few clothes, my Dad's word processor diskettes, and some important papers. My Mom cuts around the car in front of us; it has a flat tire and is riding rims. She begins a second lane.

Our gigantic white cat is in my lap. He is pushing away from me. I am amazed at how strong he is. A horse, from one of the ranches up the street, is being led by two girls and a guy. The guy isn't wearing a shirt. His hair is matted with sweat. He leans in the car window. Panting, he asks, ``Do you have any rope?''

I shake my head. I look at the horse. Its eyes are wide; foam is dripping from its mouth. The guy's T-shirt is around the horse's neck. One of the girls is ripping a shirt and tying it together to make a lead. The horse gets close to the open window and the cat begins to make a deep moaning noise that ends in a howl. I close the window. Cat hairs are everywhere. One gets in my mouth and I swallow it.

My Mom starts talking to the cat, trying to calm him. I imagine that when Mount Vesuvius erupted, Pompeii must have been like this. It is chaos, but in this chaos there is a sense of order, a sense of community, a calm. Everyone has moved beyond frantic and scared; we are at the stage where one remains silent. Was this the ``Real World'' Jane Child was singing about?

An hour later dusk is nearing. We leave Dad's car and the cat at some friends' house across town. We park the station wagon in a neighborhood not plagued with smoke and fire. We walk toward our street.

I look up. The left side of the sky is clear and blue, but the right side is smoke and flames, hues from the deepest colors in a painter's palette. The smoke cloud is 10 miles long. I see a chocolate brown and orange color through the smoke. It is a flame and it is directly above me in the air. It has no fuel above, but the fire rages on.

We are walking fast. I hear a faint explosion in the distance, a car that has been left behind. I am aware of a man next to me. He is kneeling on the ground against a car. I hear him say to his wife, ``Our home is gone.'' I am walking too quickly to see the reaction on the woman's face.

As I walk, I think of the word ``home.'' I think of what home means to me. I have been raised to believe that home is a quality, not a place. Home is friends, good times, peace. I have found ``home'' at my boarding school in Missouri and during the year my family lived in Boston. I have left the physical structures of those places, but the qualities are still very much with me. I had been enriched by living in those places, by my experiences there - and I would continue to be - wherever my home was.

I look to my right across a field. At that moment I hear another explosion. On the hill I see Greg's house burst into flames. I had spent nights at that house. Sometimes we played cards in the dining room that overlooked the mountains or swam in the indoor Jacuzzi. The flames can be seen billowing out of the windows, scorching the adobe walls.

I feel like crying, but I can't. My eyes are too dry from the smoke. I pull the bandanna covering my head way down over my mouth. My parents and I continue across the intersection toward our street.

It is dark and raining ashes. I can see the fire burning the avocado orchard to the northeast of our neighborhood. I climb our tree and pull myself onto the roof with one arm. I have the hose in my other hand. My Dad is already up there with a hose.

I slip and slide in the water that my hose is spewing. My Dad cautiously comes over and helps me up. ``You're more important than the house,'' he says. ``I don't want you to get hurt.''

I aim the hose where the shakes are still dry. The wind is blowing 50 m.p.h. directly into my face. I have to crouch so I don't get blown off the roof. The water blows back into my face.

I see my mother on the porch. I go to the edge. She throws me up a wet dish towel to cover my face. The smoke smell reminds me of the camping trip in Yosemite when I was five.

The hill across the street suddenly is covered with fire. My mother screams at us to come. I leave the hose and climb down the tree. The phone is ringing. I run in. I answer it. It is Jay, Meghan's brother, [ed. note: see accompanying story] calling from Carmel. He says, ``Hang in there, Paulie.'' I tell him I will and we leave the house once again.

I am sitting on the terrace at some friends' house. Our cat is in the traveling box next to me. He is being hissed at by one of their cats. He looks a little unsure of what is going on. I am eating cold canneloni and drinking iced tea.

Stephanie sits across from me on a chaise. The radio is on. Reports of the fire are being broadcast between songs. The fire is far away now. Through binoculars we watch flames dance along the ridge. They loom up hundreds of feet and then disappear back down the other side of the ridge.

Jane Child begins to sing on the radio: ``Welcome to the Real World.'' Out of the punk beat comes: ``Somewhere, someone, somehow, someday, we will find a way.'' Welcome to the real world or was this the real world?

That was that night. Now I suddenly realize that the doorbell has been ringing. I quickly get up and walk to the front door. It's Alfredo. I open the door. I grab a rake by the door and we start off.

``For a second I thought you weren't home,'' said Alfredo.

``I am always at home,'' I responded.

Alfredo frowned. Then he laughed. I could tell that he had missed the point. But it didn't matter.

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