Pico Iyer Journeys

In The Blazing Eye of the Inferno

The ironies, of course, begin to multiply as soon as a life comes unraveled: in retrospect, everything seems an augury. One night before, the local TV station had announced that the conditions — 106 degrees heat, gale-force winds and drought-stricken hills — were the best for a fire in 100 years. That day, at lunch, I had been talking with a friend whose mother had just died, about the pathos of going through old belongings. And when, at the optician’s office that evening, my doctor stepped out to go and sniff at what he thought might be a fire, I sat back and fumed with impatience.

By 6 o’clock I was in my home, a remote hillside house alone on a ridge, surrounded by acres of wild brush. The fire started along our road, just half a mile away, at 6:02. Two friends, arriving at that moment, pointed to the jagged line of orange tearing down the hillside like a waterfall and splitting the brush open like a knife through fruit. Then the electricity went off. Then the phones went dead. By 6:10, huge curls of flame were hurtling over the ridge a few feet from the house.

I had time only to grab my ancient cat, Minnie, and the manuscript of a book just two weeks from completion. By the time I tried to jump into my car to drive away, walls of flame were jumping over the driveway, scorching my face and shrouding the house in an angry orange haze. The three of us leaped, pursued by flames, into a van, and started to race down the mountain road. Within 50 yards, we knew we could go no farther. Flames 70 feet high were cresting over the curve of the hill on one side, and on the other, currents of orange were slicing up the slope toward us. Everywhere I turned, rivulets of orange were pouring across the hills like molten lava, sweeping up trees and feasting on houses. At times we were unable to breathe as the 70 m.p.h. wind whipped ashes all around, so strong we could not open the door. Our van was alone in the heart of the inferno, and there was nothing we could do but pray.

Only one other person was in view, a man in shorts with a water truck, standing alone in the road trying, through smarting eyes, to contain the flames with a hose. Alone, he aimed his hose at waves of flame that crashed like waves around us, now coming to a crest, and now, for a while, subsiding, until suddenly they were there again, leaping over a ridge and bearing down upon us.

Soon we were gagging at the fumes. The cat was panting feverishly, we were hosing down our van and our bodies with water from the truck. I had never before known how swift fire could be, and how efficient. Occasionally, the air would clear, and we would see the blue above the mountains; then the smoke was around us again, and a column of orange looming above. Someone pointed out that the one book we’d inadvertently managed to bring with us was called All the Right Places.

We waited, stranded, for about two hours, two of us with Minnie in the van, while the other two heroically battled the flames. The fire surged up the hill like dogs jumping at a fence. A helicopter appeared, but then was lost again in the smoke and the spitting ashes. A fire truck came up the road at last, but its consolation was brief: we could not go down the hill, they said, nor up. We squeezed together in the van, Verdi playing on the radio, and watched my room turn into a gutted skeleton.

As darkness fell, the scene grew ever more surreal. A car came racing up the hill, snatched and chased by licking flames. In front of us, the hulks of other cars were blazing. A man caked in soot appeared, looking for his horse. As night began to deepen, the dark hills acquired necklaces of orange, and the sky around us was a locust-cloud of ashes. And, when we were told that it was the time to make a break for it, we finally raced down the mountain through a scene more beautiful and unreal than any Vietnam-movie fire fight: beside us, houses were turning into outlines of themselves, the blackness was electric with orange, and cars were burning as calmly as a family hearth. Burning logs and the corpses of small animals blocked the middle of the road as we sped through clouds of ashes, the sky above us turning an infernal dusty yellow.

By dawn next morning, everything was gone. Smoke hissed out of melting cracks, and an occasional small fire burned. All the signs of life were there, but everything was hushed. Later, officials announced that the fire was probably caused by arson. On Saturday, Santa Barbara was declared a federal disaster area. Fifteen years of daily notes and books half written, of statues and photos and memories, were gone. My only solace came from the final irony. In the manuscript I had saved, I had quoted the poem of the 17th century Japanese wanderer Basho, describing how destruction can sometimes bring a kind of clarity:

My house burned down.

Now I can better see

The rising moon.

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