When the Hills of Los Angeles Are Burning

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Heading north on the 405 freeway, there’s a really great view of the San Fernando Valley from the Sepulveda Pass. This is in the area past the Getty Center and Mulholland Drive. It looks especially beautiful at night with all the lights slowly being revealed as the dark pass opens up into the Valley. I look forward to this view each time I drive home to the Valley from work in Santa Monica.

The view was different several weeks ago. The Porter Ranch fires were still burning at the time. They were a magnificent but deadly sight to behold on the hilltops at the Valley’s northern edge. There were three distinct entities separated by several dozen miles from each other. They had to have been quite large, considering how clearly I could see the flames from the Sepulveda Pass. Those fires were contained or burned out shortly afterwards because I didn’t see them on the following night. I thought nothing else of the matter because for me, the Valley has this aura of protection around it. Even having experienced the Northridge earthquake in 1994, I feel safe from disaster when I’m there.

Just a couple hours ago, I was once again driving home from work at 2 in the morning. I wasn’t in a hurry since the road was foggy. As I started up the hill towards the Getty Center, I started to notice the smell of smoke. At first, I thought that I was somehow overheating my engine during the climb. As I continued up, little flakes began falling onto my windshield. That’s when I realized the fog on the road ahead wasn’t fog at all. It was smoke. And the flakes on my windshield were ash. I closed the vents and switched to recirculated air since the smoke was starting to become unbearable.

Since it’s still fire season, I reasonably assumed there was a fire nearby. It had to have been small or burnt out because the freeway around me was as dim as ever. Despite that optimistic assessment, I knew there was still something wrong. Every fifteen seconds, a police car would drive by at top speed with its sirens blazing on the opposite side of the freeway. I could see several helicopters buzzing overhead, with their spotlights focusing on various points of interest.

I finished rounding the curve past the Getty Center and saw the source of the smoke and ash. The fire was neither small nor anywhere near being burnt out. It was huge. The entire hillside on my left was burning. Much of the brush was already blackened but the flames continued to persist. The area all around me was lit with an orange and yellow tint. I have never been that close to a still raging fire. I rolled down the window and felt the heat radiating into my car. I quickly rolled the windows back up to keep the smoke from filling the interior. I snapped out of that distraction and noticed that I was drifting over to the next lane. Luckily, no cars were near me. I straightened myself and fought the urge to pull over to the shoulder and watch fire.

The size of the fire and emergency vehicle activity made me pause to think about how far the flames were reaching. I was nearing the view of the Valley and half expected to see fires there as well. I reached the top of the hill and saw the familiar artificial lights and breathed a sigh of relief. The only flames I could see were in my rearview mirrors.

As I continued driving, I could see that all the southbound ramps and exits on the 405 within the vicinity were being closed off with flares and traffic cones. A convoy of fire trucks was heading to the area I had just exited. The drive past the fire took a little over a minute. Unfortunately, I knew it would take the firefighters far, far longer than a minute to get it under control. They have a long night ahead of them. Hopefully, the morning will bring news of minimal casualties and damage.

Update: The morning brought news of zero casualties and structural damage from the 100 acre fire. All thanks to 500 firefighters and 10 water-dropping helicopters.

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