Yesterday I went up to the firelines of the Santiago Canyon fire, taking El Toro Rd. off the 405 up into the foothills east of Irvine. The fires were moving too quickly and unpredictably, with too large a front for the police to effectively block access, so it was fairly easy to get right up to the frontlines.
I parked a couple of blocks away from the fire and news trucks at the edge of the blaze and walked through the heart of a newly built McMansionland. What were once quiet suburban streets now seemed more like a street fair. Everyone was moving in and out of their houses and garages, talking constantly, either to each other or on their cell phones, a hive of nervous energy. Groups of kids ran back and forth between their houses and the front lines, or up and down the hillsides, reporting back to their parents on the progress of the blaze. Many of the yards were adorned with tombstones and skeleton Halloween decorations, adding to the ethos of a dark carnivale. The sky above me was a perfect crystal blue, while two blocks away at the canyon’s edge it was almost pure black. The fire was moving down the hillside to the northeast, a long line of flames feeding off the chapperral. So long as it stayed on that side of the canyon the neighborhood would remain safe. Once it reached the bottom and started traveling up the other side though, all bets were off.
Every car and SUV was out and ready to be loaded, boats and trailers were hooked up, but for the most part the vehicles remained empty. Suitcases and documents boxes were piling in the garages, but only a few families had actually started loading their cars. The houses themselves were all new, million-dollar plus affairs, two and three story McMansions with small, perfectly groomed front yards, built up to the very edges of their lots. Given its wealth, I was surprised at the racial mix of the neighborhood, which seemed to be comprised equally of White, Asian and Latino households, something of a tribute, I felt, to America as the Land of Opportunity. Whether it was cultural heritage or just the luck of the draw on the block I was walking, the Asians and Latinos seemed to be getting their cars packed a lot quicker than their white counterparts.
Standing with the crowds of newsmen and onlookers at the frontlines things were a lot more serious. Firemen were spooling hoses from the street hydrants through the narrows between the houses to make a stand from the back yards of the homes at the canyon’s edge, moving quickly but not urgently, giving an overall impression that their efforts were either going to work or they weren’t: it was all up to the wind. A helicopter appeared right in front of us, coming out of nowhere from the blackness behind the houses, like something out of a movie. Plumes of white smoke began mixing with the black as the hoses started running and there was a collective cheer from the crowd, followed by a gasp as a huge gust of superheated wind blew off the mountain, covering all of us with smoke and ash. It was time to go.
I’m about twenty miles to the west now, writing outside. I’ve tried listening to the news, but with so many fires going on I haven’t heard what happened to Santiago Canyon. Little bits of ash are falling on my keyboard and it’s strange to think they may be pieces of the neighborhood I’ve been writing about.