“You can smell the pine wood burnin’
You can hear the school bell ring”
California often has big fires–it’s a big state with lots of country that’s ripe for burning, so that’s no surprise. But some of them seem to hit closer to home for some reason. The most obvious example was the small fire that burned in the foothills above Palo Alto when I was growing up, threatening the homes of several friends, and taking the homes and outbuildings of some of their neighbors.
I didn’t grow up in Southern California, although I would spend a month there every summer, in a beach house with the whole family, not too far down the coast from where Brother #2 now lives. That means that when we looked out to sea, which we were constantly doing, we could easily see Catalina Island when the sky was clear, and most every night as the sun set behind it.
We didn’t get out to it too many times, although there was the time that our uncles took us out there in their second offshore raceboat. It was a Cigarette hull with an open passenger area down in the back, behind where they stood steering and navigating, as they did in the races that we would watch them run off of San Francisco and out of the Long Beach harbor. It was a windy and sometimes wet ride skipping across the ocean, but it is still one of the most exhilirating experiences of my life.
On our way back to the boat, after sliding down grassy hillsides on the sides of cardboard boxes, Mom took a magical picture of the group of us in silhouette, walking under overhanging eucalyptus trees that perfectly captured the feelings that linger with me from that day, although I was so young that I can’t remember the specific events of the day at all.
Perhaps it’s those memories, or all the time staring out to Catalina on the western verge of my childhood world that made the news, which I got first from Brother #2, about Catalina burning feel like a shot to my heart. The picture gallery, which shows harried parents arriving at shelters with children, strollers, diaper bags, suitcases, and so forth hanging from and dragging behind them made me feel all the worse about it.
This is enough of an emergency that Brother #2 reports
As I type here tonight, I hear the sound of choppers overhead, carrying firefighters and equipment out to the island. The Marines down at Camp Pendleton have activated a fleet of hovercraft to ferry out heavy trucks and firefighting equipment. Avalon is the only settlement on the island, about 3,200 people in about a square mile (640 acres), and from the TV news tonight it looked as if most of them were going to wait and watch. Some were evacuating on the Catalina Island ferries that normally shuttle residents and tourists back and forth from Avalon to San Pedro, to Long Beach, to Newport Beach. The ferries have announced they’ll be running all night. Each boat can carry 400 people.
I suppose that people go to Catalina for the day, which makes it a tourist destination, but I’ve never viewed it as a resort island, which is how the media keeps referring to it. Most of the island is untamed wilderness, complete with its own buffalo herd–imported from the mainland, of course. And perhaps it’s just because they’re frantically fleeing a fire that is threatening to burn them down into the sea, but looking at the evacuees, I have a hard time believing that they view it as a resort. I believe that they view it as home, which makes the news of the fire all the worse. A resort is a place that’s designed to be left behind, but we never expect to be forced from our homes.