by Bill Monson


Fire is both man's friend and enemy. Under control, it produces heat, light and power. Out of control, it is an uncaring consumer and capricious killer.

Some time in my life, I learned to hate and fear it--maybe as a child watching the cartoon feature "Bambi" where Walt Disney captured so accurately the terror and destruction associated with a wildfire.

It was not until my late teens--when I was trapped in a grass fire at Butler Manufacturing where I worked as a plant magazine reporter-- that I had my own personal encounter with the Fire King. A wind came up and blew embers from a trash fire into dry winter grass at the plant's dump. I ran to help the dump-keeper fight it. We held our line, but it burned around us. We were back to back, beating wildly with pieces of wood at the flames which had surrounded us when the plant fire crew arrived to rescue us. The smell of smoke lingered in my winter coat for weeks--a constant reminder of my foolish bravado against an intractable foe. And my fear and hatred deepened.

When I lived in Los Angeles, I saw for myself what fire fueled by chaparral and high winds could do. I stood in my front yard in the suburb of Reseda one night in a blizzard of falling white ash and watched the Santa Susana mountains turn into a semi-circle of fire that spanned over 90 degrees of the northwestern horizon. I stood another day in my office on the fifth floor of the Administration Building at Cal State Northridge and watched through binoculars as fire-fighters battled wind-driven flames in the San Gabriel mountains to the northeast. Eleven of them died when they got trapped in a gully with fire coming at them faster than they could run uphill to escape.

I watched the Bel Air fire and wondered why people would build expensive homes with wood shake roofs on a ridge line road called Belagio above brushy canyons on both sides with only one way in and out. I crouched on my own shake roof in Reseda, head wrapped in a wet towel, spraying my house with a garden hose as firemen struggled against 60-mph Santa Ana winds to keep a roof fire three houses up the street from leap-frogging through our neighborhood. I was lucky, but the people who lived behind me weren't; flying sparks set their roof on fire and the house was barely saved.

California's greatest enemy is not earthquakes but wildfires. Its residents persist in building wood frame houses in brushy, picturesque canyons or along ridge tops with spectacular views. Residential neighborhoods are built right up to the edge of national forests. The pressure for new homes is especially high around urban centers like Los Angeles, San Diego, Santa Barbara and Oakland. All have suffered disastrous fires. This latest holocaust began when a dome of high pressure formed over Nevada and northern Arizona and drove desert-heated Santa Ana winds into the national forests and brush canyons east of San Bernardino and San Diego. At this time of year, those forests and canyons are tinder; and there were arsonists who gleefully took advantage of the situation.

It's not always arson. Sometimes it's a carelessly-discarded cigarette, fireworks, a bad muffler, a ricocheting bullet. In the Sierra, it can be lightning or a campfire. While Southern California burned, we had our own wildfire in Cuesta Pass north of San Luis Obispo. Sparks from a dragging piece of metal got into the straw matting alongside newly-widened 101 and burned up the side of the pass. The California Department of Forestry agency here had sent most of its resources south--but retained just enough to surround and eventually extinguish our blaze. Fortunately, we had no Santa Ana winds here-- only steep terrain. Still, the pillar of smoke rising to our north was a chilling reminder of our own area's vulnerability.

You've probably seen a lot of fire coverage on the national TV networks. Wildfires offer gripping dramas and mesmerizing visuals. Tom Brokaw, who cut his anchor teeth on them at KNBC Los Angeles, could not resist the siren call and moved his nightly network newscast from New York City to the fire zone.

But there's a reality he couldn't show on TV. That's the one experienced by the homeowners who see their life's possessions about to be destroyed by an onrushing inferno. The acrid smoke that shuts down your breathing and makes your eyes stream tears. The incredible heat. The unbelievable roar. The panic that loosens the bowels and sets you to mindless flight. So as I watch those pictures or see a

blood-red sun setting on our bay through smoke blown from over a hundred miles away, I empathize. Old feelings churn in me. My heart beats a little faster, my breath comes harder, and a surge of adrenalin sets my body tingling. The bile of fear and hatred rises in my throat. And over it all, sorrow.

My heart goes out to the poor fools who thought it would never happen to them and put everything they owned, including their own lives, into a house too close to the domain of the Fire King.