Sunday, May 10, 2009

Things We Wrote About The Fire, or, Because I Do Not Hope To Burn

It all starts, like so many other things, with a spark.

And then before you know it, whole hillsides are ablaze, and the news reports start belching from the wire as regularly as ash-covered cars from the roads that lead up the canyon, or plumes of smoke from its upper reaches.

The headlines read, with minor adjustments for specificity of locale, MANSIONS BURN AS THOUSANDS FLEE; the sub-heads run something along the lines of “Exclusive Neighborhood Explodes Into Nightmare Inferno.”

From a strictly narrative standpoint, I can appreciate the “tension” created by the luxury car cortege, each vehicle stuffed to its Teutonic gills with art and jewelry boxes and hastily-packed luggage, as it inches its way down the winding road. The comparisons to Pompeii and Herculaneum are inevitable but no less satisfying for it, as is the reminder that golden lads and girls all must / like chimneysweepers, come to dust.

(Incidentally, the means of destruction in question ensures that everyone in the surrounding area will have something in common with chimneysweepers in short order.)

The article, after noting the fire’s acreage (large, or at least "growing rapidly"), volatility (“extreme”), differences from historical fires in the area (“several,” but they’re “important”) and potential to burn right up to the coast -- thereby scaring the shit out of everyone who lives between the coast and the mountains, i.e. the entire city -- will include several interviews.

(Interspersed with these interviews will be vignettes, most of which will involve one or more of the following in various combinations:
  • burning palm tree / palm tree silhouetted against flames
  • house in “miraculous” state of preservation next to smoking ruin
  • charred garden statuary (bonus points for insistently “ironic” shots of scorched children’s toys)
  • burned-out shell of car (make/model/year of which seem at odds with the categorically “upscale” description of the neighborhood – which means either the news is generalizing – shock – or some unfortunate maid had to abandon her Ford Probe in favor of driving her boss’s Range Rover down the mountain at the promise of extra cash.)
The first interview will be with a woman with an improbably geographical first name and a non-coincidentally corporate last name (usually a drug or chemical conglomerate), who has probably lost her ranch:
“Cadaques [or India / Siena / Alexandria / Mykonos] Merck [or Dow / Union-Carbide / DuPont / Bayer / Glaxo-Smith-Kline], reached via telephone at the home of a friend, said that her Rancho Mi Reposo, in the upper reaches of the canyon, has likely burned. ‘You know, it’s a calculated risk, living up there – but I’m insured and we got all the animals out, so we’re just incredibly thankful for what we still have.”

Ms. Merck, 43, is optimistic, and plans to rebuild as soon as the fire subsides. “Every time the ranch burns – and it’s burned seven times in the last fifteen years – is such an incredible opportunity for me to examine my priorities. For example, last year, I took all the Picasso sketches from the guesthouse with me when I evacuated – but this year, I just threw the Gauguin and my stock certificates in the car and went.”
The next interviewee will be a crusty oldster, who likely shares a last name with a prominent building or road in town, named for his grandfather. His last name will be his mother’s maiden name.
“McAdoo Cityhall was one of the few who stayed behind on Via Las Palmas de Oro. Standing at the edge of his property on the canyon rim and dousing hot spots and flare-ups on the slope below with a garden hose, he recalled his experiences with wildfires in the area.

“This house has been in the Cityhall family since before this town was incorporated,” he notes, “and we’ve never evacuated yet. All the really big ones – ’64, ’78, ’83, ’97, this one – I’ve been here with the garden hose and my dog Chester. The years go by – and the dog may change – but I’ll still be here, leveraging water pressure and years of inbred WASP entitlement against this natural phenomenon.’

Cityhall’s wife, Katherine (called KooKoo), was prepared to evacuate, but noted that she had never needed to before. ‘I just put all my jewelry – my circle pins and Mummy’s pearls – into a canvas tote by the door and maybe have a few drinks. The house is adobe brick, which Mac [Mr. Cityhall] tells me doesn’t burn. I know the succulents on the property are dreadful to look at – Mummy used to cover our eyes when we walked by the cacti at the Botanical Gardens – but they don’t burn either, Mac says. Can I get you a drink? If you’re still around for dinner, I think I’m having Rosita do her yummy dressed crab thing…’

A glassy, faraway look came over Mrs. Cityhall’s face. 'I hope you won’t mind tinned crab. So much more practical, up here in the hills…and anyway, Mummy always said you just can’t get good crab out West…'”
While they’re up there on the ridgeline, a woman who declines to be identified will be “struggling to wrangle a horse into a trailer” with the assistance of one or more “ash-covered ranch hand(s).” The horse trailer will be hitched to a “sleek Mercedes convertible,” and it's likely that some idyllic tree (jacarandas are popular here, but if pressed, it's permissible to resort to one of the more expensive sorts of palm) is whipping in the "gale-force winds" which send ash and smoke "eddying down the canyon." (Incidentally, one always bemoans the lack of initiative shown by the reporter here: to witness a horse person in crisis is to gain access to the remarkably creative language of the stables, which consists entirely of horrifically explicit swear words in unusual and evocative combinations.)

Next, they will interview someone who has definitely lost her home, and is very sad:
“Jocelyn Plummer, 51, wiped away tears as she described the loss of her home, with its decades-old dry brush collection.

‘Every day during the summer, I would bring back a piece of dry wood from one of my hikes, and add it to one of the piles against the exterior walls or under the eaves of my cedar-shake home. We’re talking a good ten, fifteen years of hikes, years of memories in those branches. I used to just love living up there, among all the gifts of nature. But I guess all it takes is one completely random, unforeseen event, which arises out of the blue and without warning, precedent, or logical process, to completely demolish everything.’

‘So I turned on the news the second we got to my sister-in-law’s house, and the first thing they showed was a helicopter shot of our house, going up like a Roman candle. All the Italian cypresses along the driveway, my husband’s grove of specimen Eucalyptus trees – all up in smoke. It just doesn’t make sense.’

When asked if she would rebuild, husband Harold Plummer chimed in: ‘Of course we will. This is a once-in-a-millennium event. Nope, as soon as they lift these evac orders, we’ll be right back up there on the mountain, planting resinous trees and picking up the pieces. And arranging them into a campfire-kindling shape.’”
Next up: a by-proxy interview with some celebz.
“The area is also a favorite of Hollywood celebrities. Stars, such as The Guy From That Action Franchise, That Connery-Era Bond Girl You’re Surprised Is Still Alive, That Comedian Who Played Off Jewish Stereotypes In The 60s And Then Invested Well, and A Country Singer You May Have Heard Of, flock to the region for its lush landscapes and panoramic views.

A publicist for That Guy From A Few 80s Movies (Who, You Must Admit, You’re Surprised Can Afford To Live Here) confirmed that the actor and his wife had been evacuated.

‘Mr. and Mrs. Guy-From are staying with friends down south until the situation is under control,’ said the publicist, ‘but their hearts and prayers are with all their neighbors and community members during this difficult time.’

A representative for Actress Famous For Playing Cute Even After She Aged Rather Badly confirmed that Ms. Actress maintained a home in the area, but hadn’t been there for God-knows-how-long.

‘Remember, she’s married to a supermarket-chain billionaire,’ said the rep. ‘She probably doesn’t even remember that she has that house. Between the Valium and the Chardonnay, she’s basically dead to the world these days. But I’m sure her thoughts, both of them, have strayed to fire or neighbors or houses at some point in the last few days.’

The status of the Guy-From and Actress homes were unavailable as of press time.”
The story will end with a noble, ash-besmirched firefighter gazing skyward, making some remark about having to “wait and see” what the weather will do, and possibly noting the presence of a “wild card” (the wind, the geography, the potential for one of the firefighters to actually be a secret double-agent who is setting the fires instead of extinguishing them, and YES that story’s already been optioned by a studio so don’t even think about it).

And that’s how we do it in Santa Barbara. Life’s easier when you play predictably.

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