Yesterday I was planning my afternoon’s writing session when I padded barefoot into the kitchen and overheard the housekeeper and one of the nannies talking about a fire. The kitchen has floor-to-ceiling windows facing northwest — which sounds nice, and is, except it makes the eating area very bright and very warm at certain times of day — and I looked out past the yard and pool to see smoke billowing up from beyond yonder hills. “Was that flame?” I said. Because I’ve seen smoke before: one summer there was a fire somewhere else in the near-distance and I absently watched the columns of smoke from my bedroom windows while I revised LORD OF BONES sitting cross-legged on my bed*.
But then I saw it again — I believe I said something along the lines of “Holy shit” — as fire jetted up behind the hills and disappeared. The smoke shifted to the right and I stood there, transfixed, glad the kids were at school (the older boys all the way over in Culver City), until I saw the flames again, this time chasing each other up the hillside in the direction opposite the house. Key word being opposite.
I went upstairs to the little balcony facing the same direction and took these photos:
What you can’t see — or hear — are the helicopters. For the next couple of hours I listened to the chop-chop-chopping sounds as they traced the line of the horizon and moved in and out of the smoke. Once I made sure that the fire was continuing to not head in our direction, I of course thought the logical thing — I should put this on twitter and facebook! — and searched Twitter for news more up-to-the-moment than the stuff on the LA Times website. Which is how I learned that the Sepulveda Pass was on fire and a school in Brentwood had been evacuated as well as the Getty (“Oh no!” somebody tweeted. “Not the Getty!” While someone else — clearly some jaded Los Angeleno who has been here many years — tweeted a casual, “Looks bad. I hope they put this fire out soon, it’s getting smoky up here”).
I texted my friend who lives in west Bel Air** to ask her how close she was to the fire and if she and the dogs were okay. One of her dogs recently survived a coyote attack; all he needed was the additional trauma of smoke and fire smells and helicopters. She texted back to report that she was “leaving the house now”. Meanwhile I couldn’t see the flames anymore and the smoke had lightened and lessened, no longer the blooming mushroom cloud. “Looks like they’re getting a handle on it,” I was able, and thankful, to tell her.
They extinguished the fire not long after, but had to shut down part of Sepulveda and some I-405 off-ramps, which meant traffic in my area became a freaking nightmare. I’d expressed to a friend how glad I was that an appointment I had downtown — my naturalization interview, last stage of the application process to become a US citizen — happened to fall on the day before, instead of the day of, the Michael Jackson memorial service held at a nearby stadium which would make the area so not fun to navigate. Only to find myself in a gridlock of cars that took me close to an hour to travel what is usually a ten-minute distance home. I listened to music and tried to zen out and thought about fires: a fire last fall that happened not far from my friend’s west Bel Air house late at night, helicopters waking me from where I slept in the guest bedroom, or the fire that happened years ago that destroyed my actress friend’s childhood home and which she had vividly described to me, or the fire in a distant valley that rained ash in the Brentwood neighborhood where I was doing lunges with my trainer along the sidewalk.
Los Angeles: city on the edge of the continent, gang violence and earthquakes and mudslides and fire. Tilt the city one way, and you’ve got style and privilege and luxury, lifting your eyes from the traffic on Santa Monica to gaze at the hills and the palm trees; tilt it another, and you’ve got apocalypse.
* I have a desk now. And a filing cabinet. And three stacking paper trays. I barely recognize myself.
** The ‘neighborhood’ of Bel Air is composed of miles of rambling canyons and hillsides stretching east to west. You tell people you live by either East Gate or West Gate. The white colonial house used in Prince of Bel Air — remember that show? — is down near East Gate and has a gorgeous forested property complete with creek, which means in spring you sometimes have to stop your car to let a duck and her ducklings waddle across the road.