All the Leaves Are Burned, and the Sky Is Gray

the getty fire

With Australia ablaze, our writer recounts her escape from L.A.’s fires—and wonders what’s next

By Amy Ephron

We don’t live in a glass house anymore. Out the windows, it no longer looks like Tuscany. We don’t hear the church bells from Mount Saint Mary’s at noon and at five o’clock. We no longer see the bright reflection of the sun’s rays off the Getty museum across the way.

 

The night of the fire here I had been to a party for Ronan Farrow’s book Catch and Kill, recounting his reporting of Harvey Weinstein’s alleged rampant sexual abuse and abuse of power, and others’ complicity. Rosanna Arquette introduced him. Farrow spoke quietly, with an astonishing degree of calm certainty that was both poignant and upsetting, as did a number of victims in not-so-measured terms, inciting the listeners to quiet tears and remembrances and renewed defiance, if you have ever been, as I have, a victim of a sexual assault.

The Getty Fire

As if that hadn’t been enough excitement for one night, I woke up a little before two a.m. and smelled smoke. Earlier that evening, I had been sitting close to the wood-burning fire. I wondered if it might be my hair, but it was too strong. I jumped up and ran to the kitchen. Through the window, across the way, the back of Mount Saint Mary’s was lit up pink, blue, and red, the unmistakable backwash of a fire burning against the night sky, brighter at its top and frighteningly sharp around the edges.

I called 911. They put me through to the fire department.

“It just started,” the dispatcher said. “We’ve never seen anything like it. The winds are blowing 50 miles per hour.”

I looked out the living room’s glass wall. The winds were blowing 50 miles per hour.

“In your direction,” he added. “I can see where you are on my map. You have to get out of there right now.”

“You have to get up here right now,” I said. “You may not know we’re here. We’re up a big driveway; the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy property is above us, on our hillside. If we go, you’ll lose half the canyon.”

I woke up my husband. “There’s a fire. We have to leave right now.” And my husband answered, “Calm down. You’re being hysterical.” (Possibly a word you’re not supposed to use anymore.)

O.K., I thought, I’m being hysterical. You do what you want. I’m putting my jeans on.

A moment later, he came back from the kitchen a little wide-eyed and put his jeans on, too.

I ran out and moved the car outside the gates. (In a power failure, our gates default to shut. Note to self: Get gates fixed.) I got a glimpse of myself in the mirror in the bathroom as I went to pick up a pre-packed travel bag of makeup and medicine. I was bright red. The heat was so extraordinary that, in the few moments I’d been outside, my face had been burned.

We each grabbed our computers, and I picked up a black silk jacket that was lying on the couch.

Outside, an insistent, unending screech as an adjacent evacuating neighbor rested his hand on the horn to warn other residents.

We shut the front door, and as we ran to the car each of our cell phones went off, like an audio amber alert, a disembodied voice through the phone: “You are in a mandatory evacuation area … ”

Everyone was orderly; no one impatient. Bit by bit other cars joined the line, keeping to one lane to give the fire trucks a clear shot up as we snaked our way down the canyon.

I had escaped, evacuated, from other fires before: Malibu fires years ago when my children were little. But the intensity of this one and the speed felt so much different.

The dispatcher’s words rang in my head: “We’ve never seen anything like this before.”

The fire blazed above us, jumping the canyon to what was certainly our ridge. Ours, the one adjacent to our house, the actual hillside of our neighbors, who had bundled their kids in the car and screeched the horn as they drove down the driveway.

We headed west and checked into a hotel.

Possible Mudslides

The palm trees in our circle burned, as did the wood steps in the backyard on the hill that used to have a path. The firefighters saved our house. The houses above us, on our ridgeline, were not so fortunate. All around, the hillsides were stripped bare.

A flood inspector insisted on an emergency meeting with us on-site. “No one has a computer model of what happens under five acres,” he told us, looking up at the hill and the ridgeline. Then he added excitedly, “Do you think I could come back and take a look if we have a big rain?”

Are we part of an experiment now?

An inspector with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection then sent me a text concisely stating further studies were warranted. The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy posted a notice on our gate saying: “As you may know, your property, and/or property adjacent to yours, has been affected by a land failure or may be in danger of a land failure.” We are more than likely not the source. Mudslides start from above.

On the street above us, there’s a burned bicycle propped up against a charred garage-door wall, perfectly preserved like a fossil. The house there is gone. The house next door is standing. The next one’s gone. The few houses that burned are on our ridgeline. The fire decimated the hill, taking with it the indigenous brush, wildflowers, trees that dotted our hillside, cactus, meticulously planted ground cover, leaving behind a blank slate, a formidable sheer hillside.

The expert landscaper and various inspectors insist the roots are still there. The brush will grow back. I have no reason to disbelieve them. It will take some time. In the meanwhile, extraordinarily kind workers have come in and climbed the hillside and laid jute and baffle fences and wattles (whatever they are) and chain-link and debris fences on our hillside.

We will hydroseed and hope the wildflowers bloom. We have re-planted much of the tropical garden. It had been somewhat wild and a designated animal refuge: tropical birds, bobcats, coyotes, deer, skunks, doves, occasional bunnies in the spring, and rattlesnakes in the heat of summer.

In the meantime, Harvey Weinstein’s criminal trial has begun in New York. Rosanna Arquette was filmed the first day outside the courthouse saying, “Time’s up on the pervasive culture of silence that has enabled abusers like Weinstein.”

And the wildfire in Australia is as big as Portugal.

The person in the White House doesn’t act like he believes in climate change or global warming. He would prefer to blame California governor Gavin Newsom for forestry mismanagement of state parks. What about the federal parkland in California, Mr. President? Or are those some of the ones you hoped to put up for sale?

No one has done a study about the atmospheric effects of a drone strike, an explosive battle, or a ballistic-missile test, or even a short-range one. Or, if they have, I haven’t seen it yet. What are the potential atmospheric effects of a missile test or attack?

I wish there were a column called “Rant” where intelligent people could write and ask questions about subjects they don’t really have a background in. Out of the mouths of babes. (That, too, is a word we shouldn’t use anymore.)

Now Harvey Weinstein will also face trial in Los Angeles, for the rape and the sexual assault of two women. Two women in a two-day period in two different hotels.

We no longer live in a hotel. We have moved to a house in the flats a neighborhood away. There are no longer rattlesnakes sneaking under the deck or skunks living under the house. We will not be amused (or annoyed) by deer in the backyard. We can have roses now.

Amy Ephron is a writer based in Los Angeles

Photo: Kyle Grillot/The New York Times/Redux; Katrina Dickson (Ephron)airmail

 


previously published in Air Mail