We were not on any map. Not the mandatory evacuation map, nor on the warning map. But the smoke was as bad as it has ever been in my 18 years living in Valyermo, an off-the-beaten-track hamlet northeast of Los Angeles.
So, we prepared to evacuate, not because of any fire danger, but because of the smoke from the Bobcat Fire in our beloved Angeles National Forest. (In an image below you can see the smoke coming in a pic taken from the road approaching our property, before the fire came.)
My wife and I are the custodians of 5 horses, 3 dogs, and 4 human lungs. My wife has a client about 45 minutes away, where the air is clean and clear. She’s got a big house, which she offered us, not horse property, just a house with 2 enclosed acres. We drove out with portable horse panels and cordoned off about an acre and a half. We planned to evacuate the following day.
As we got into the car and began to drive back to our homestead I got the call. “The big ranch is burning.” This would be my neighbor 2 doors to the west, which may sound close and as fires go it is, but my next door neighbor is on 600-acres, and the big ranch is his brother’s, who owns 1,500 acres. I still had 3 dogs and 5 horses at our place, and upon getting that news I found out that a RAM diesel 3500 and a 4-horse bumper pull trailer will comfortably go 80mph.
An L.A. County Sheriff Deputy was manning the only way in. The road was barricaded and he was turning people around. As I pulled up, I explained out the window, “We have horses and dogs up there.” He replied with something – I don’t remember what – but it wasn't, “Proceed,” and I replied with, “Shoot me or help me.” Then came another explanation that didn't include "proceed," at which point I shifted the transmission to D and drove around the barricade, with him yelling behind me.
We were on the ground maybe 12 minutes, and off again with 3 horses and 3 dogs. I needed to pass the sheriff in my way out, and my only thought was, if I get cuffed and end up in a squad car back seat, I still have 2 horses up there. I got to the roadblock, he walked over, I said, “I have 2 horses still up there; please arrest me after I get them out.” He said, “It’s okay. I get it.”
Having offloaded this three-quarters of the animal family, I left everyone at our homestay and went back for the last 2 horses. This would be the wild bunch. The mustangs. These two boys grew up in the Great Basin, before we got them from the BLM. Their early experiences in horse trailers were not pleasant, certainly not voluntary, and it has always been a struggle – a small war – to get them back into the trailer. Our trailer is a “slant load” but you just open it up, make it a “stock” trailer, get the Tasmanian Devils in there any way you can and listen to them pound the sidewalls as you drive them to wherever.
I called an acquaintance, John Herrera, who lives halfway between our traditional and temporary houses, and told him my predicament. This San Bernardino Search & Rescue leader was in his truck, right behind me, and I’d given him about 10 minutes of warning.
I pulled up to the same sheriff, who recognized me, and waived me through. The point of my writing this – as I’ll get to – is what happens to your relationships when (and I hope you’ll pardon my language) the shit gets brown (as we say out our way). But my evening was just “warming up.”
You have to drive through a pass – a narrows – to drop into the small valley in which I live. You don’t see the valley. There’s just ridge wall, and a curvy narrows through it, the walls maybe 100 feet apart. I saw flames on the ridge and I didn’t know, when I got through the narrows, what I’d find on the other side, and how I would turn this rig around if I found myself in flames.
I got through, and the left hand side of the road was on fire. Then I saw my house, and there was no smoke. I drove up the dirt road, saw that the fire department had punched a hole in my fence so that the mustangs could escape the fire. They’ve escaped once before, when I was bike-fitting those of you who live in Madison, WI, after a drunken neighbor plowed through my fence, backed up, and drunkenly slithered home without saying anything. (The fence, unfortunately for him, snagged his license plate as he reversed back out.) The horses took advantage, and were a mile down the road before my neighbor (the 600 acre ranch owner) spied them, lassoed them, and brought them to his stalls until I returned.
But the boys were standing side by side as I drove up, in the middle of the 2 ½ acre turnout that is their home, looking for me. It was as if they sensed that it was no joke, now, and they best wait for dad.
But if they were usually reticent to get into the trailer, it was the usual fight tripled. John Herrera was a lifesaver – quite literally – and it took the two of us about an hour, and several broken lead ropes, to get them both in.
As we drove out, Ventura County Fire was driving in. Two units were inbound, one outbound. I asked the outbound unit’s driver what was the prognosis for my house and Monty’s, who’s house is next door to mine. He just smiled a Colonel Jessup smile that said, “those walls have to be guarded," and no words were required; he knew the house was safe with him manning his post, and his faith became mine.
Which brings me to the point of my writing this, because I’ve wondered – for months – how to say what I wanted to say to you all, but could not figure out a way to write it. Do you think I cared, at that moment – or even wondered – the brand of politics this fireman chose for himself?
Above is a shot of the bikes I care about, getting loaded into my dump trailer, the day after the fire ripped through. Below is another angle, and you’ll note that this shot captured a firefighting helicopter in the background. I did not scrutinize the leanings of the driver behind the stick of this Erickson Air Crane as he dropped load after load of water on this fire.
I saw few people driving around in my area the day after the fire passed through, but one thing I noticed: Everyone waived. Everyone made eye contact. We all acknowledged each other, whether or not we knew the other party. We’d all been through an ordeal.
Politics isn’t life. Life is life. Everything else stands in service of it. It’s not that politics aren’t important, but they are the art of getting elected to government, and government isn’t a goal. Or it shouldn’t be. Government is simply the lubrication by which we all help protect and recover, when the shit gets brown.
When the smoke gets molasses thick, the mind gets crystal clear. Do you think it crossed my mine – once – what John Herrera’s politics were? Make no mistake, I’m ardently civic, but I’m not going to tell you about my politics. I’m just going to tell you about my community, my area, my state, my country, and its greatness. Over two days I spent time with San Bernardino, Monrovia, Ventura and Los Angeles fire departments. City, state, county and federal. I spent time with my neighbors, with sheriffs and highway patrol.
I talked with fuel contractors, insurance and power grid inspectors. And I talked with you. A lot of you, who’ve reached out. “My home is yours.” That is what you wrote to me. "Right, but we have 5 horses and 3 dogs.” And what did you say? “Come anyway.”
Which – though I am not a religious man – reminds me of two verses. The first, from the Book of Matthew, Chapter 25. "Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?' The King will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'”
And I take the “least of these” to mean, in the parlance of today, Republicans of course. Or Democrats. Whomever it is we choose to disdain.
And the second is from the book of Galatians, if I might patch between chapters 3 and 5: “O foolish Galatians! Who has seduced you? You were running the good race!”
What happened to the first century Galatians is what happened to me, and to many of my fellow 21st century Americans. The shit just apparently hasn’t been sufficiently brown for us lately. That phrase from Lawrence of Arabia seems so apt a description of us... "A bunch of small tribes, [we] are a small people, a silly people: greedy, barbarous, and cruel.” What did we lose between the Greatest Generation, that fought in World War II, and the silly generation of today? My answer?
Nothing. We still have the instinct in us. We are the same people now that we were then. We just have to experience something very real in our lives, to remember that we are all in this together.
And now to the damage assessment, for those who’re wondering. Above is the Ross Honey Farm, our neighbor 3 doors down. The fire swept through, took 2 buildings, but most of the farm, the homes, the operation were left standing. One of the occupants, and octogenarian man, suffered burns, I don’t know how severe, but it did require a trip to the emergency room. That’s all I know. (If you look closely in that pic, you'll see the bee boxes, unharmed.)
Above is the neighbor 2 doors down. A home stood here for about a century. The Ross and Anderson quarter-section parcels were the original homesteaders in our neighborhood. This was the Anderson home. The two matriarchs of the area – Mary Lee Ross and Mary Anderson – who grew up here in the 1930s, were alive when we first moved here and they befriended me. They have since passed, and the one blessing is that they were not here as neither of their homes survived this fire.
This fire burned down the Anderson ancestral home, but spared the metal hangar (which Monty and I rented for a year after storing a lot of closeout bike and tri equipment we bought).
The fire has been hit and miss. A lot of our neighbors now live in exclaves – homes that resemble life on earth surrounded by burned out moonscapes.
Our local one-room post office – downtown Valyermo – remains, still standing, as does the somewhat famous local Benedictine Abbey. The two big ranches burned to some degree, but all the buildings (as far as I know) survived.
My ranch neighbor never left, and said, "I served in Vietnam with the 101st Airborne, and our motto was, 'Never retreat, never surrender.'" His job in Vietnam was maintaining the motorpool, and he cut fire lines with his D10 dozer as the fire passed by, saving his house and mine.
We’re in our homestay, which is not horse property, per se, but fortunately our 5 horses and the dogs are all used to each other, and they do fine when turned out together. There is no separation between the house and the animals, so, it’s pretty typical to look out the bedroom window and see a horse staring at you.
We are very lucky. Whatever happens from here on in, we’re very fortunate. I feel that we are past the crisis, and now comes the time to begin the return to routine. For example, I’m able to write to you. I thought, for the first time in several days, about the prospect of workouts, swims, runs and the like.
What I am most grateful for, beyond the safety of those who I care about most, is the reminder of what binds us. That in a moment like this, who you voted for and whose fault it is and what your responsibility is for what comes next, on a global level, melts away. Life gets personal. The distasteful embroidery fouling relationships is stripped away. Every trail on which I run from the Compound is a moonscape, but we still stand – as of this moment.
When I’m again able to run on these trails, I will weep as I run.
PHOTOS: These were all taken by me, using my iPhone, with two exceptions.
PHOTO: The second photo from the top was taken by my wife, Tanya Williams, as the really thick smoke approached.
PHOTO: The image of the flames (just below the image of the smoke) is courtesy of Becky Irmen, who took this from the home of our neighbor two doors from us. The fire came almost to the doorstep.