Winds stoke deadly California wildfire, arsonist sought

I spent all my life, until I joined the military in 1977, in Southern California, and thanks to my parents penchant for howling wilderness, we usually lived out in the hills, at the end of a dirt road, as far away as one can get from 90210 or the OC or any of those other fantasy iterations. We lived in one of those far-flung and nearly rural neighborhoods, backed up against the Angeles National Forest, surrounded by acres of chaparral, with groves of citrus and olive trees and windbreaks of eucalyptus trees planted decades ago. Our neighbors generally favored beat-up pickup trucks and lots of dogs, and kept cattle and horses and chickens the way people in ordinary suburbs had cats, dogs and parakeets.
And in the fall, when the hills were tinder-dry from summer, and the Santa Ana winds blasted out of the desert we feared fire, more than anything else.
It is ironic, of course, that the whole ecology of the area depends on being burnt over, every thirty years or so; the seeds of many native plants do not germinate until they have been heated. The chaparral is resilient: within a season or so of being burnt over, the new dark green growth is coming up from the roots, around and between the dead-bone sticks— stained with black soot… of what was there before. The fires burn hot, and fast, propelled by the winds, faster than a person can run, sucking the oxygen out of the air so that creatures a short distance away have been found unmarked by fire, but dead of suffocation. At night, such a fire looks like a cyclone of flame, coming down the hillside, with small bushes and branches being pulled into it. In daytime, the smoke comes off burning chaparral and brush appearing to be a dirty beige color, gushing upwards like a fountain, and sometimes turning everything so dark that streetlights come on at three in the afternoon, and little wisps of ash drift around, just above the ground like flakes of snow. And a big fire makes a noise, as it flashes through the dry brush. Three years ago, my parents’ house burned to the ground in another big California fire, and my mother said afterwards, she knew it was going to be bad because of the sound it made, coming up the hill towards them; a deep greedy roar like a blow-torch.
Quite often in those dry summers when we were growing up, we would hear the distant medley of sirens, coming up from the direction of the fire department, and my mother would send us to the top of the hill, to look for smoke.
“It’s in town,” we would report, and my mother would say,
“Oh, thank god, it’s only a house… and not the hills.”

More on the fire, and the hunt for the arsonists, here

“Sgt Mom” is a freelance writer and retired Air Force NCO, who blogs at and lives in San Antonio, Texas.

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