When I first learned of the fires decimating Northern California, my stomach clenched and my pulse quickened, even though I was 3,000 miles away in New England. Everyone on the East Coast went about their normal days — buying groceries, going to work — barely aware or interested in what was happening out West. I couldn’t stop thinking about the people I know in Northern California and those I don’t, the exhausted firefighters who saw no containment in sight, the people who were able to outrun the flames and those who were consumed by them.
When I was seven years old, my parents had refused to evacuate for a massive brush fire.
I grew up in Malibu, an epicenter of Southern California’s brush fires, before Malibu was “Malibu.” Back then, the area was an eclectic mix of reclusive celebrities, generations of surfers, and many regular, non-glitzy folks like my parents. Malibu is split by the Pacific Coast Highway into a beach side and a mountain side. The beach side was where the wealthy people lived, and the mountain side was where we lived.
My dad repaired television sets, and my mom was a secretary. After they were married, still renting an apartment in Los Angeles, they had hoped to buy their first home and build a family. When they couldn’t afford anything in the city, they resigned themselves to what was considered the boondocks, up the coast, and bought a small, single-story tract house for $40,000 in a canyon in Malibu.
Our home was simple and uniquely ours, with Spanish tile floors, sheepskin-covered driftwood furniture, spider plants dangling from ceilings, quirky cheap antiques from flea markets, many broken TVs, loads of leftist political books, and piles of classical records. The house was my parents’ everything. Their entire savings, their self-expression, their metaphorical safety. Something they would ultimately decide to stay and fight for when the brush fire struck, risking their lives, and mine.
School was canceled, abruptly, midday. Seven years old, I stood in the pickup area with my classmates. We didn’t know what was going on. Hot, dry Santa Ana winds whipped my long hair into a frenzy, and empty swings on the playground swung as if occupied. The sky was still blue, but gray was creeping in at the edges. Already, we caught a faint whiff of burning.
With a twitchy smile, my mom pulled up in her Kermit the Frog–colored Honda. Distracted, she buckled me in fast, kissed my forehead — “Good day?”— and accelerated onto the road. She kneaded the knob of the stick shift and kept turning the volume down even though the radio was off. Police were setting up a barricade on the highway. They checked IDs to ensure only residents, not looky-loos, got through. As soon as we got home, Mom knelt down and, grasping for calm, said, “Go grab your favorite things. Just a few. Be quick.”
While she rushed around the house gathering photo albums and birth certificates, I stood in my room, looking at my things. I didn’t understand the weight of her ask: If you’re about to lose everything, what do you save? Feeling the crush of pressure and little time, I grabbed my stuffed bunny, Gumdrop, and a tin box of quarters I hid in the closet.
Soon my dad screeched up with a dented fender. Police had stopped letting even residents past the barricade, but he drove his truck right through. He was energized, focused. I greeted him in front of the house. The howling smoky wind, already peppered with ash, made me cough. Dad carefully tied a handkerchief over my mouth: “Breathe slowly.” It was hard to hear him. The sirens. Helicopters. Radios blaring from every house in the neighborhood.