Spectator on California fires

Although I have a pretty good idea of the time difference, I go to www.timeanddate.com before I call my cousin in California. In a flash, I see that over there it’s seven hours earlier than Greenwich Mean Time, plus one hour for Daylight Saving Time, which, as I write this at 7.30pm in Suffolk, means it’s 11.30am out there. The site also tells me that the temperature at the Santa Monica airport is 65˚F or 18˚C, the wind is 3mph from 70˚ east?north-east, and ‘civil twilight’ ends at 6:33pm. I’m still chewing over the words ‘civil twilight’ when Jamie answers. She assures me that she’s all right, so is her month-old granddaughter Mia, sister to year-old grandson Ash. In times of disaster, what you think about first is family. And as soon as you hear the news, your mind leaps to thoughts so far-fetched that you feel dumb if you say them out loud.

For instance, why would Al Quaeda bother with hijacking aircraft when all you need to wreak destruction is a match? In southern California, the local wildland ecology is like a box of kindling. The previous two winters had been the wettest on record, but the winter of 2006?7 was the driest. It laid the bonfire of drought-parched brush and grass that turned the region into an incinerator, destroying homes, shops, offices and lemon and olive groves. Nearly a million people have been evacuated. It makes you wonder why countries bother with nuclear bombs when a match, combined with dry brush, can create such havoc; when a box cutter, combined with a distracted airline employee, can bring down the Twin Towers.

After we hang up, I go onto CNN and the LA Times online and watch the photos in a slideshow of tragedy, profiles of a fire-fighter as he ‘watches a backfire burn on Palomar Mountain’. I scan the video of beautiful wooden houses collapsing like scenes from a movie, of firefighting aircraft, grounded most of the week, finally spewing their red dust to douse the flames. I go to Google Earth and study the map with red and green pins showing all the fire sites. In between images, I read a message on the southland wildfires messageboard by an evacuee from Katrina: collect your precious snapshots; make a copy of everything on your computer; bring extra cheques; refill your prescriptions; make a copy of your address book on your computer; bring your mobile phone.

I begin making a mental list of additions to the emergency bag. The wind-up radio Sam got for Christmas a few years ago. And what about face masks? Vaseline? Bottled water? A corkscrew and a couple of bottles of wine? A bag of walnuts? A fat anthology of poetry? My biggest pashmina? As I gaze at the faces of the evacuees from the comfort of my desk chair, I conclude that they look healthier than those in New Orleans two years ago. The Californians have brought cots and blankets, towels and water and their dogs.

But the truth is, you can’t prepare for loss on this scale. People build their houses on flood plains and in fire zones because the human imagination doesn’t grasp disaster. Because to believe always that the worst can happen, that your child will disappear on the way to the store, that the fire will destroy the work of a lifetime, would derail what humanity we have mustered, would deprive us of what grace we hold on to. No one can live with the belief that it will be The Fire Next Time.