National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  November 14, 2003

Cruel fire gave Beatrice a chance to see the kids


A songbird died of asphyxiation on our doorstep; FedEx failed to pick up a package. Small victims in the California fire -- which, from our street, we could see on three nearby crests. Larger each time we looked. And closer.

Red and black smoke in a foul yellow sky, the constant drone of aircraft going over. I was 5 again. It was the blitz, Nazi bombers, except no bombs to shake the ground.

For my wife’s family the fire fears, woes and genuine danger began the previous Sunday. My brother-in-law John and his wife Carol in Ramona were awakened before 4 a.m. and told to evacuate immediately. No small feat when one of your family members is a blind-and-deaf 94-year-old mother. Nonetheless, bearing only essentials (medications, vital papers) they fled to a church.

And their daughter, Michelle, by 6 a.m. had Grandmother Beatrice safe in her home. In an area itself later threatened by a fire, which, in turn, receded.

On that same Sunday evening my wife and I ran into the fire, almost literally. Returning from Monterey, we were on S-126 entering Fillmore, about a 15-minute drive from home, when a sudden shift in the Los Padres National Forest fire sent it rapidly down the hillside to Fourth Street in Fillmore.

The traffic was being waved into a supermarket parking lot. Forget it.

I did a three-hour U-turn back through Los Angeles and out on another road.

Monday I went to San Diego and brought Beatrice to safety up here. So I thought. The L.A.-San Diego coast road sky was putrid yellow, as if a deranged artist had copied a Turner sunset. Four hours of it each way.

My mother-in-law, slightly discommoded but enjoying the adventure of it all, likes getting to see a fresh selection of her children. She sails through much else as if on a sea of calm.

I did not want a double transfer for her so, to be sure, that Monday evening I went along to the Valencia sheriff’s office to check the status of local fires. Naw! The Simi Valley fire’s three-and-a-half miles away.

Naw! It would have to threaten Stevenson’s Ranch, and that’s not likely to happen.

Twenty-four hours later Stevenson’s Ranch was evacuating. Then it was Wednesday. And then, m’dears, things began to look quite serious.

The important papers (and medications) were gathered and ready. Thoughts -- having previously been solemn, contemplating the tragedies of others -- turned more serious.

Realities dawn again. Shades of fine differences emerge when faced with natural disasters. For example, while very little by way of material goods matters, every essential commodity becomes vital -- instead of just being taken for granted. Paradoxically, in disaster times a certain order is restored, an order of priorities, which the everyday material world regards as disorder. By midday Wednesday Valencia was gridlocked. There was no access to stores, and no easy flight should one be necessary. Was it in the film, “High Anxiety,” where a couple of guys are struggling with a big box, and one says, “I got it! I got it! I don’t got it!”

By Wednesday, the fire was just a half-mile distant from the town. An entire chorus line of yellow fire engines was along I-5. Huge flying water tankers seem to multiply. Everyone (including me on the phone to the relatives) saying, “It’ll never jump I-5, it’ll never jump I-5” -- the 12-lane highway between us and already evacuated Stevenson’s Ranch. Around 2 p.m. the city worker prowling our street said, “It just jumped at Wiley Canyon and Calgrove.”

But was beaten back.

At 3:44 p.m. the earth did shake. Not bombs. An earthquake.

I thought, what’s next? Pestilence?

My mother-in-law was seated on the couch listening to Malachy McCourt’s A Monk Swimming. (As in, “blessed art thou a monk swimming.”) Her smile said she was too interested in his wild tale to notice the house shake and the cups rattle.

And then, in a matter of only minutes, it seemed, a low layer of heavy sea-misted clouds moved rapidly in from the coast and dampened the dryness. The firefighters won during the respite.

An earlier generation would have rushed out of church and built the Shrine of Our Lady of the Clouds.

Down south, John and Carol returned home. Where there had been three houses higher up their hill, now only two. Theirs survived. A caprice, aided by John and son Rowan breaking through the police lines the previous day to keep dousing the area with hoses. A risky strategy.

At home for one overnight, they were again asked to voluntarily evacuate because the Julian fire was being erratic. They refused.

By Thursday it was clear again, except for air quality. A daughter was winging in to whisk the three-in-one nonagenarian (Mom, Grandma, Great-grandmother) off to Arizona for a week. More family to see.

It was a sad, cruel, killing fire.

Contrarily, Beatrice had a fine old time.

Thursday’s garbage day. We dropped the songbird into the garbage.

Everything was back to abnormal.

Arthur Jones is NCR editor at large. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, November 14, 2003

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