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Brush Fire Aftermath: Welcome to My Neighborhood

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We were sound asleep when the bullhorn from a police cruiser circling our cul-de-sac woke us up last Thursday morning at 2:30am. "This is a mandatory evacuation. Please leave your homes now." You just can’t imagine how that makes you feel coming out of a deep sleep. In no way do I mean to imply any parity to the experience of the Katrina victims, especially since in the aftermath here things have turned out even better than expected. The point is simply that talking about disaster experiences like this can only help people in the future consider their own options.


Welcome to My Neighborhood
Photo Courtesy of LA Times

We live in the current fire zone, but we did not think our particular area was in danger. The fires were miles away, firefighters were streaming into town and it looked like our entire area would have to burn down before we’d be in danger. Or so we thought. So we had no bags packed and had given no thought to what we would need if we were asked to leave. It was chaotic. Mere minutes to decide what you need — in the short term, like a change of clothes — and in the long term — items selected from a lifetime of accumulation.

We took the dogs, a suitcase of photo albums, the computer with all my files, passports, some cash, all our insurance and other documents, a few extra things to wear and, in my case, the notebook I needed for my pitch the next day at the Sci-Fi Channel. This was, admittedly, an odd last-second grab but it speaks to the human need to want to carry on. This is what I do so I stuffed the notebook in the bag and jumped in the car.

We tried not to take anything we could buy again, although the lines fuzzed in our running about the house. In the end, we couldn’t find a flashlight, but we did take a box of Pop-Tarts. Ironically, Pop-Tarts have a special place in our family — after the ’94 Northridge Earthquake, our kids munched them in our van, watching Disney movies with the neighbors and it kept them calm.

We didn’t know whether we should head north or south until, on our way out of the neighborhood, a cop told us to head south. On the way, my phone died because I hadn’t left it on charge (note to self!) and my son had forgotten to take his. This was a problem considering my wife and daughter were in the other car. Eventually, we rendevouzed with friends in a parking lot next to a McDonald’s at 3am and compared notes.

We ended up the first night at the home of the parents of friends, then found a hotel room the next day. We watched the local TV news and every location was one we knew well. Our home never seemed to be imminently in danger so it seemed odd that we were evacuated like we were while we watched others, with flames in their backyards, saying they weren’t leaving until the firefighters told them to go. Despite planning efforts, I suspect that disasters have a built-in degree of randomness, something we should remember as we sort out Katrina and point fingers at everybody. It’s a disaster, after all.

Anyway, we’re back home now, having returned less than 48 hours later. The smoke was everywhere. Ash was all over the place. Fire equipment as as common as cars on the streets. But our home stands.

These firefighters truly are heroic figures. My car’s outdoor thermometer said it was 104 degrees the day we escaped. I was ready to fall over walking to a restaurant for lunch. We owe these men and women plenty. One guy I know bought 250 cheeseburgers for the firefighters. We bought some donuts. Nothing can properly express how much we owe them. Still, thank you all, thank you very much..

There’s talk the Santa Ana winds may be kicking up again. I’ll never be ready to evacuate but at least now I know where the flashlight is.


News_views_and_schmooze_jpgNews! — Views! — & Schmooze! (Dispatches, POVs and Idle Chat from Hollywood’s Front Lines) is the flagship blog of Bryce Zabel — covering TV, film, culture, writing and politics.

Bryce is a working screenwriter/producer whose current credits include The Poseidon Adventure and Blackbeard.  He was the chairman of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences from 2001-2003.  He maintains two other blogs:  Instant History and Movies-Squared.

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  • Mike

    The difference between California and the rest of the US is that our natural disasters come with almost no warning. We don’t have days to prepare for an earthquake the way you do with a Hurricane, and we don’t see a storm approaching that might lead to tornados. A brush fire can spring up on a moments notice regardless of the weather and an earthquake will hit suddenly. You mentioned the 94 northridge quake and your family’s experience through that so I know you are not unfamiliar to this areas peculiar situation. Because we live down here, we must, and that is a MUST, be prepared to evacuate with our most important items on a moments notice, as well as be self sufficient for 72hrs.

    We don’t get days or even hours to prepare, we get a rumbling under the floor or a knock on the door saying get out NOW! The question is, when we get that Knock and when we feel the house shake, what do you do next? Not to long ago we had a power outage in this area that was a good drill for many to see how their preperations were. Did you have flashlights? Water? Non-perishable food? Did you have all of your important items and documents ready to grab easily and quickly? What about your medicines and your pets needs? Cats and dogs need to eat too, and they need to drink as well. Did you have an out of state emergency contact? Local lines will be busy/down, but alot of times long distance will work fine. Did you have anything in the vehicles like water in case you are out and about and dont get to go home?

    All of these and more are questions that need to be asked every morning becuase no one knows what will happen that day. It is on all of us to be prepared for the next fire or earthquake or power outage or even terrorist attack.

    I’ve been involved in the Fire Service for 10 years now, and was in Bell Canyon with the Structure Protection Group. The main thing that saved many of those homes was the fact that they took the time to prepare the outside of their homes with brush clearance and defensible space. They had tile roofs, green belts, and many other design features that kept this fire from being any worse then it was. But people need to realize that they can’t stop there, they need to prepare the inside of their house and themselves just as well as they do the outside. It is up to EVERYONE to do their part and make sure that when a disaster strikes, they are prepared.

  • You’re right about that, Mike. We learned a lot by this latest evacuation, and we are better prepared today because of it.