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Sober Facing Fire

"This one goes out to the one I love.This one goes out to the one I've left behind:A simple prop to occupy my time
This one goes out to the one I love Fire. Fire."
~~REM

I am so proud of my "Gringo Carnitas". I have created a recipe that even has my Mexican friends saying, "Wow! What's in that?"
I had decided to present the fabuloso' dish in my best Mexican attire to honor the Mexican Independence at the Santa Barbara Junior High Teacher Appreciation Day luncheon. Who knew when we walked out the doors of the teachers break room what we would see plumming above the mountainside of San Roque and then the all too familiar word that is turning into Santa Barbara's anthem:"Fire!"

The look of deep weariness and frantic worry suddenly permeated the room. I have a stepson at Peabody, just below the fiery San Roque hillside. I quickly gathered the empty Crock Pot, dripping with the lovely "gravy" a good batch of Carnitas leave behind. No time to grab a fresh corn tortilla and swipe up the slippery goodness.

I tried to look calm as I quickly walk to the office to ask if they could call my seventh grader out of gym class. We hurried over to Peabody to grab my youngest. I scrambled to find AM/1070 on the radio where they broadcast 24/7 fire coverage. After I had the boys safe at home we regrouped and then we calmly walked up to Ralph's to get batteries. We lose power if someone sneezes hard in our neighborhood! Now the ritual of running to the store and grabbing D cell and double AA's is permanently tattooed on my brain.

We complete this ritual and grab some ice cream too. The store seems calm and we see plenty of batteries and realize we are one of the first to know about the fire and to respond. In two hours there will be no batteries, no candles, no flashlights and the ice and beer sections at the store will have a serious dent. I have noticed in the three fires over the last nine months that folks are almost as desperate for booze as they are for batteries.

As we arrive home we can see flames licking the hillside. The sun is still shining and the boys and I discuss the fact that the fire "shows up better" at night. We pass the evening watching KEYT and the Independent.com site in tandem to get updates. Ray Ford is my guy for fire news. He knows what he is talking about and keeps it in real perspective. He is not selling news; he is saving peoples sanity and their homes.
He is an angel to this community.
Has he gotten an awards yet?
He should!

Wednesday we wake up to two small plumes north of town. We plan to go to the beach to get some fresh air. We get there and only last about forty minutes because the wind has kicked up to about forty-five miles an hour. It was so strong it created a kind of sandstorm. I should have paid attention to that wind. Instead we head home and get ready for aikido class in Goleta. We live downtown just off De La Vina. I never imagined downtown Santa Barbara would ever be evacuated. Everything I had ever heard about fire said it would not penetrate the "wall" that many tightly spaced structures create. Not as "fuel" friendly as the Chaparral is to flame. Dense, hard structure doesn't invite the "match light" ignition chaparral does. But we had not figured on the distinct and rapid determination of the wind. I was taking my son to Goleta and as we climbed the onramp at Carrillo and 101-North I saw what might only be described as "Armageddon like" flaming funnels shooting up into the sky. Don't ask me why I kept going. Maybe the pressure that had recently been added to my life applied by a hard-nosed Sensei at our dojo, who demanded attendance, had already peaked my stressors. Even after we arrived I could see the smoke and flame expanding rapidly. From the intersection of Hollister and Turnpike it looked like the burning of Atlanta in "Gone With The Wind" the flames were leaning toward the city and black smoke covered the skyline. The wind was blowing in a lateral direction now making the smoke and flames have a seemingly flat striking position. I was having a bit by bit conversation with a Mom who was inside the dojo helping with class, while I was outside with my iPhone she would pop her head out and ask for updates. When the kids got out of class I told everyone we could not get back downtown because of the fire.

A group of us decided to go to Cody's for dinner and wait out the traffic, but when we walked into the restaurant a TV was in plain view and the screen had a large red banner that said the evacuation area had been moved to half way across downtown Santa Barbara. Going as far down as Montecito street and as wide as De La Vina.
I did not know how to react at first and I looked for my son, to shield him from the TV. My friend and I decided to stay with the plan and get some food and AIR CONDITIONING! It was ninety-five degrees outside and I was stressed and suffocating. I called my fiance who was still downtown with my stepson at a therapy session. We vented back and forth about whether or not I should head home. We could not decide what to bring if evacuated or where to go. My friend offered us a place at her house on the Mesa. She also orders a beer at dinner and the thought runs through my brain. "If this is my last day on the planet; do I want to drink?" After a couple of hours and two gallons of ice tea it is very apparent to me that I am indeed thirsty but not crazy! A drink would not help me or anyone around me.

(A grateful revelation in my new sober life. Having sat through and watched like television; a tornado... pass right in front of my face,while praying and drinking with my theatre company in downtown Atlanta)

We eventually get the gumption to head back to town and my friend leads me as we take the back way off Hollister through Hope ranch to the Mesa.
The smoke is a wall to the left and the sun shines brightly to the right. It is a visual Oreo that haunts and inspires. I leave my son at my friend's house, he is too anxious and I believe he is in shock as he snuggles under a blanket when he gets to their house,definitely a sign of shock being that the temperature is well over 85 degrees. After he is settled and feels safe, I head home.

Our house is so hot and smokey and the ash is so thick I cough every single time I inhale. Over the phone my son begs to stay up on the mesa until later that night. My fiance' and I watch the flames as they lick what looks like the top of the Mission. Seeing the Mission framed in flame is Apocalyptically Biblical. Just Monday we were all freaking out about the swine flu and what would we do if our kids were out of school: and now this. After Wednesday, the migraines set in. I get horrible constant gripping headaches in the smoke. Thank God I have a CPAP for the night. During the fire, it was my only relief.
Wednesday was another long night with helicopters overhead all night long and smoke, thick black smoke until the wee hours.The neighbors are getting drunk and being rowdy to deal with the stress. I try to reason with them;that if we are evacuated, being drunk might not help and could make things dangerous.
I try...they continue to drink. Oh well..such is life.
Drunks drinking during a crisis...go figure!

Thursday I take the kids to the beach again. We are luckier today and we have a friend of our youngest join us. He is from the south and his parents aren't sure about having him go with us. But I assure them CLEAN air is the objective. We have a very fine time at the beach. Very fine. It is not so windy; it is cool and yet warm enough to simply be comfortable. We grabbed food on the way and make a picnic. We stay at the beach until 3pm. I decide to take the kids to Zodo's for bowling and air conditioning. Air conditioning is always my personal mission because the fires always give me sinus migraines and I would very much like NOT to murder anyone in this lifetime, I am overdrawn at the Karma bank as it is. The air outside is so thick and hot that we are totally grateful when we walk into the bowling alley and are met by a rush of crisp, cool air. This oasis does not come cheap. A game of bowling is $4.50 and shoe rental is $4.00. I buy a game for each and shoes. The boys love the bowling. I buy drinks and begin my usual retreat into gallons of ice tea. The boys eat and play another game. Then we go to the arcade for almost an hour. It is around 7:15 when we leave Zodo's. I see the smoke on the hillside across from where we get on the freeway. I get off the freeway at Patterson to see my Mom who is an "inmate" at Buena Vista Nursing Home. Elizabeth senior (My Mom) loves nothing more than a visit from a gaggle of young boys delivering treats. It is about 85 degrees inside BV. This is unusual because it is an elder care facility and usually kept air tight and quite cool. I am conflicted and my instinct is strong. I feel something is horribly wrong about that hillside I saw just across the freeway. When we get back on the freeway I see pillars of flame moving over the hillside. The pattern looks East to West and it looks like it is running into the 154. We get off the freeway again to return a movie at Blockbuster at Five-Points. I tell the boys to stay in Blockbuster while I walk across the shopping center to return something. When I cross the parking lot I look over my shoulder and as I turn around the view is amazing: flame is framing the top of the building where Fresco and Blockbuster are. Terrifying and beautiful at the same time,the sight takes my breath away...literally, I gulp for air. The wind is now whipping large 3 to 4 inch chunks of ash into my mouth and eyes. I call my fiance'. "What the hell do I do honey? All hell has broken loose here." He tells me the air is horrible downtown. Again the wind is driving the smoke South toward the ocean and right over our house.

I am getting anxious,I feel fatigue and exhaustion. The boy who has joined us tells me he has asthma and I call his Mom and tell her we are in the best place for the moment because we have clean air at Blockbuster. The guys at the store are nice and let the kids sit on the floor and watch a movie. I am internally shaken. I don't know whether to go back downtown or stay up at five points. Then I get the call, "Come home La Cumbre is under mandatory evacuation." I grab the kids and we are quickly on our way. It is now almost nine and dark except for the glowing hillside. A firestorm is blazing a five mile path framing the city.The boys in my car are looking at this sight like a really great action movie...only it is not a movie!

The air is heavy with smoke and ash as we drop my stepson's friend off. We head home and the sound of helicopters is booming over our house. The windows in our two story house rattle and hum. My son is frantic with worry and he grabs me and pulls me close and whispers in my ear, "get me the hell out of here Mom, NOW!" He then falls into a heap onto my fiance's lap,weeping uncontrollably. I immediately call a friend in Santa Monica and ask if we can come down. He says, "Yes, of course sweetie:come now:come:please come:get the hell out of there:on the TV it looks like hell:please get out!"

Early in the smokey defused light of morning we load the car and head out. When we stop in Ventura for gas I open the car hatch and an ash filed "poof" flies up from the car. Folks ask me, "Do you live in Santa Barbara? Is it that bad? Are you evacuated?" Our car smells like a Hickory Barbeque. For the first time in four days I do not have a headache.

We stop at Neptune's Net for lunch as we head down the coast.My son and I enjoy the insanely delicious frozen vanilla and chocolate swirl custard on the patio. Soon we are heading down the highway through Malibu and all my childhood memories of this place. Santa Monica is my hometown and always offers a sweet retreat. As we get off PCH and head up to Ocean Ave, I am finally able to release the last few days and I begin to cry. My son says softly from the back seat, "it's ok Mom. We are safe now. You go ahead and cry." In that one moment I felt heaven and hell. The heaven of finding a safe haven and the hell of knowing what we left behind may not be there when we return.

I kept the radio on 1070 AM while in Santa Monica the news coverage soon gave way to good news and then better news.
Cool damp fog would slow the fire down and would continue for the next few days.
And then it was Mother's day and the best news came:"55% contained and no more buildings are threatened." Our friend in Santa Monica took me to Gilbert's on Pico for a wonderful Mother's Day breakfast. The BEST shredded beef Machaca in the world,fresh corn tortilla's and gallons of ice tea...all for six bucks! This was the best "martini" for this Mom's experience with the Jesusita fire.

I would not find out until days later a beloved family friend's home had burned to the ground on Los Canoas. The address is not on the published list. Someone in the family drove by and took pictures. The cement foundation and stonewalls are all that is left. In one photo I see the base of the grand old pepper tree that was on the front patio reduced to a stump. I am fraught with sadness. The house was built in the 1800's by the families great great grandfather.It was always a fragile building but it was always heaven to me.

I am reminded how blessed I am to have all that I have.
I am blessed to not have suffered the loss of a home.
I am blessed to have people who lovingly will take us in and spoil us to distraction.
I am blessed to be fast moving during times of crisis and to follow my intuition.

For those who lost their homes and possessions I am sending love and light. Strength that you will rebuild and find peace. There seems to be a communal case of PTSD in Santa Barbara and Goleta. I hope we can find our joyous spirit as a community again.

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