Friday, November 14, 2008

Incidental heroes, and hopeful re-beginnings...

(Originally sent out in the wee hours of 14NOV08, then re-tooled to correct an erroneous assumption we had made due to the house being pelted with live embers.)

Soooo.....tonight has been more eventful than I had originally planned, with circumstances too contrived to be anything but divine timing.

After an exceedingly dull day at work. (UML....whee?) I was scheduled to go running with Tabitha and Mike Beck. Sooo, we are driving down to SBCC, when I notice a wildfire kinda close to where I estimate Mike Beck's house to be.

So I give him a call.

He re-assures me in his "Don't worry, I've got the situation well in hand" way that I am so terribly jealous of, that the fire is way far away from his place.

After we park at SBCC ten minutes early, I get a second call, with him telling me that after seeing the fire, he's kinda worried himself (vindication!!!), and that he's going to run up to his place and make sure.

So, the two of us are sitting in my car, Tabitha bored waiting for Mike, and suggesting that maybe we should start the run or at least stretch out before he got there, when I think about where the fire is in relationship to Tab's home.

I called my brother and Derek, but neither of them could get to the phone. I called Justin. He was in SLO, and hadn't heard about it at all. Finally, I get ahold of Sanford. I asked if he was in front of a computer.

Then I remembered who I was talking to.

He informed me the fire was north of the 192 by Hot Springs Road. Suddenly, Tabitha was not so lethargic. "That's my neighborhood" she said, no longer quite as bored.

We cancelled running with Mike, and raced up to her house. As we went higher and higher into the mountains, the smoke got thicker. I was reminded of all the people who told me that smoke inhalation, rather than flame, is the most dangerous part of any fire. Putting that away, we scurried up the road to her house.

People were leaving the neighborhood in droves. The entire scene reminded me of stereotypical movies and cartoon scenes when the lights come on in a dark room and all the roaches scurry away to safety. Except all the roaches in this case were cars. And we were the lone roaches going back in.

About 3/4s of the way up, my "low fuel" light came on. Yup, Joe was being macho, and trying to delay getting fuel until the last possible minute. Now the mental movie had us coming back down the mountain, and running out of fuel halfway back down.

Getting up to her house, the smoke betrayed the location of the light beams, reducing visibility. As we parked, I began noticing the ash flying into the beamwidth.

Stepping outside, the smell of a really big CPAC bonfire hit almost immediately.

Tabitha got into her place, and started to go through her stuff, leisurely at first, but with increased vigor as I impressed upon her the probable need to quickly pack as if she were EVACing her place forever. (Order of importance: Medicine, Photos, Computers, Firearms, Stocks/bonds/mementos.)

We called her roommates and asked if there was anything we could get while we were in the area. Only one answered, and gave us a location and list of things we could collect for her in case she didn't make it in time.

Loading up the car, I noticed a live ember fly up over the car. I continued to load, and the roommate arrived. She was in a panic, as the smoke was noticeably thicker, with the lights from the flames in the distance getting brighter, indicating a closer proximity.

The roommate arrived with somebody from work who was helping her pack. As I mentioned earlier, she was quite distraught, and her friend was calming her down and directing her as to what was important. However, she was still so shaken up that when she loaded some papers of hers in the trunk, it spilled in the fire-induced high winds and spread into the street, blowing about, making the roommates sense of despair that much more tangible.

While loading Tabitha's stuff in the car, I very quietly took the roommate's stuff I had previously loaded in the car out, and put it in her car.

Looking back, the roommate's friend said, "we have to go. Now."

I turned to see the winds had shifted, and were coming in our direction now. The fires were close enough that they were lighting the street. Just then, a cloud of embers landed in the street.

I rushed into the house, told Tabitha we were leaving immediately, and "was that the last of it?" She said yes, made sure she had her keys, but couldn't find her phone. I wish I could tell you that I said something re-assuring and inspirational, but I believe my exact words were, "F*ck the phone. You can get a new one."

I have never been so glad in my life to hear the sweet sound of an engine turning over. Say what you will about Fords, but this engine came to life as if it was just as eager to leave this stereotype of hell on earth as we were.

Barrelling down the mountainside, I struggled to remember what the manual said about the "Low fuel" light. Did that mean 30 miles? 50 miles? Was that only until the reserve tank was used?

Traffic seemed to flow until we got to the first round-about. Because of police EVAC and blockading, traffic ground to a halt. As Tabitha used my phone to make calls, I sat there quietly sweating, and wondering why and how I had succumbed to the male necessity to stretch things out to the ultimate end. "A half tank" I resolved, "from here on out, I will always leave a half tank". I probably won't, but it's like a new year's resolution: You make them with the best of intentions.

We got onto the freeway, and I breathed a sigh of relief as we made the turn off of the 101 and onto the 217. Getting off at Hollister, I went immediately to the Exxon Station. I filled up, and called around to make sure that anyone else we knew in the area was ok. We tried to locate her cell phone, and we thought we heard it in the car, but it seemed unlikely.

Getting back to our place, we stopped at our neighbors who had a TV and asked if we could tune in to see if there was any new news about the fire. Jeff and Leah are the most awesome neighbors anyone could ever ask for. They invited us in, and when they heard about Tabitha's ordeal, immediately offered her some wine, which she readily accepted. While watching, they practically insisted that we eat some leftovers they had (a *wonderful* combination of pasta, garlic, Parmesan, and cauliflower), we sat and watched the fire devour more than a few homes.

We returned a few things to the roommate that I forgot I hadn't given her at our previous encounter. She was surprised that I had thought to bring her PCMCIA wireless card as well as her laptop and power supply (hello? geek here!), as well as a box that had Bond Certificates in it.

We then made the trek out here to my parent's place. And here I sit, at 0146 in the morning. The news reports that we read at the time seemed to suggest that, barring a miracle, my GF's house was nothing more than crispy crunchy ash.

We got out the critical stuff at the time: laptop, majority of day-to-day clothes, medicines. We even found the cell phone after a bit of digging.

But, all this would not have been possible had one person not been at his station, and helped us out: Sanford, I owe you big for this one. Next time you get up here, it's Middleton's for you, my friend.

I made a stupid mistake early on in my last Computer setup (RAID0). As a result, I lost everything when one of the drives failed. I lost all of the emails that I had kept since 1995, all the funny pictures I had made or found online, all the love letters and IM fights, all my digital homework, programming files, all the goofy stuff I had been up to since 1996.

It felt like a past that identified me with my surroundings of the time had been lost; like a part of my life now had the capacity to fade away, the digital reminders of life previous to my current one were that much more tenuous. Easily lost, and with all likelihood, only being recalled when something jogged it, either in conversation or by association.

That is how I imagine it must have felt for her as we initally considered the house a total loss.

At the time, we made some attempt to quantify it: all her books, chick flick DVDs (which means the fire wouldn't have been ALL bad), all her clothes not in my car, her chair, bed (which used to be my brother's, then mine.), would be gone.

I had to make a restart when I bid adieu to those RAID0 drives (burn in hell you faulty 150GB Maxtors). It's a sick feeling. But at some point you can do nothing more but resolve that you are going to move on from that point.

So here is to holding out hope that her house is still standing, complete with books, knick-knacks, and one way-too-big-for-her-room chair.

However, if the chick flicks were to somehow go missing, I know *I* wouldn't shed a tear. :)

(present day, now)

We came to LA ahead of schedule to spend the weekend with my parents. Tonight, while cuddling on the couch after swing dancing, I noticed the smell of fire. Having been in the proximity of fire so recently, I dismissed it as being attached to various pieces of clothing that were involved in the fire. Come to find out that it was actually the Sylmar Fire that blew directly into my parent's direction.

So, we escaped the Montecito fire, only to be in the Sylmar fire. Aren't we lucky?

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