Spring/Summer 2008, Volume 24.3
Brandon Cesmat’s Driven into the Shade received a San Diego Book Award (Poetic Matrix Press). He’s been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Caernarvon Press will publish his story collection Party Crasher later this year. He earned his MFA from San Diego State University and teaches for CSU-San Marcos and California Poets in the Schools. Read other work by Brandon Cesmat published in Weber: Vol. 15.2 and Vol. 20.3.
You couldn’t see the edge of our backyard very well from our backdoor. But somewhere across the field, on the other side of the barranca, in the shade of the oaks, three strands of rusted barbed wire waited to resonate in the seasonal Santa Ana. On the other side of the barbed wire grew a huge orange grove.
When I was four, my family moved to Valley Center in the hills between Escondido and Palomar Mountain in North San Diego County. My mother took me out into our new backyard. She said although we had a beautiful new home, it was also dangerous. "You need to stay away from three things," she said, "rattlesnakes, the orange grove, and fires."
Since Sunday School I had a vague sense that snakes were evil. "If you ever see a snake, don’t run," my mom said, "or it will bite you." I remember thinking that it would be exciting to see a snake if for no other reason than to hear it talk to me, as it did to Eve, though I also knew that would be risking sin. The orange grove was forbidden, she said, because a little boy about my age once went in there, and they never found him again.
None of my mother’s advice worked. She herself would stop the car to move king and gopher snakes off the road. Orange groves would become the places I would pass through on my way almost anywhere.
As for fires, when I was about 12 my friends and I would begin camping out overnight and a campfire became a necessity. We hadn’t learned how to heat rocks and bank coals, so most of the time one of us stayed awake, frightened of falling asleep and starting a fire. But one summer night camping alone, I did without fire, not trusting myself to stay awake. Ironically, I was so cold I shivered all night, unable to sleep. I remember looking at the stars—there were so many more in those days—and thinking about how they were fires and wished to feel some of their heat.
There were always big brush fires in San Diego County, especially 1968 and 1987, but none of them burned too close to our home, so I grew up not knowing how beautifully dangerous Valley Center was. Truly I was unprepared for the Paradise Fire, one of three fires in the county in late October of 2003 when all Southern California was on fire. Just this side of the U.S.-Mexico Border, fires burned out of control across Otay Mesa. On the Mexican side, however, people practice controlled burns, so the fires couldn’t find a way to jump the fence. Another fire began in Julian and probably would’ve burned forty miles from the Cuyamaca Mountains to the coast if the winds hadn’t died.
After, Recovery Times ran a story saying my willingness to take "responsibility" is what saved our home which is less than half the story. The wind’s direction, the canyon’s slope and hubris all factor into survival. I can’t do much about the wind or the canyon. While it’s true I’d burned a lot of brush and branches the year prior to the Paradise Fire and while it’s true that my home is one of three on the rim of Paradise Creek Canyon that did not burn, "surviving" is not something I was prepared for. Even now I’m not sure how to respond as the mourning and compassion no longer seem appropriate.
I was born here in Escondido in November, which is to say, I was born in the season of the Big Winds. For many people, Santa Ana winds remind them of the fires. For me, I’ve always liked the winds. It’s as if the doctor who delivered me used a Santa Ana as the delivery blanket. When I went away to college in Northridge, I remember being lonely in the sprawling suburbs of Los Angeles, what they still nostalgically call the San Fernando Valley. On windy nights, I’d walk outside because the wind blew out the smog so a bit more of the sky was there.
I remember one night coming down a street where the wind was blowing a palm frond against power lines and scattering sparks onto the sidewalk. Not big sparks. The orange light stood out beside the usual streetlamps and stars strong enough to cut through light pollution. I knocked on the door of the house. The man who looked through the glass asked what I wanted. I yelled back about the palm and he told me he’d already called the fire department. I must’ve stood out on the street for a half hour watching the sparks and waiting for a fire truck to arrive. I grew tired. When it became clear that the sparks were probably going to land on pavement, I walked home. I was learning that in Southern California, a lot of things need to get out of control to get attention.
I don’t know if it was the wind or the sky that woke me early on October 26. But I remember we had the curtains open. It was warm when it shouldn’t have been in late October and there was that stillness which means the Santa Ana is about to begin moving.
Some people who were in the 2003 fire have difficulty talking about actual times because we were supposed to set our clocks back on the 26th but forgot to during the evacuation. "Around 10 or 11 such and such happened" or "It was 7 or 8 when …" we’ll say. It might also be because we were without power for eight days following the fire so even dates became vague. One friend who lost his wife in the fire would call me back to reaffirm appointments, as if his love had been his calendar; his sense of time had been disrupted so much that when he checked and rechecked appointments, I got the feeling he was trying to find out what day it was. I had a sense of how he felt. The order of days felt strange to me, too. Maybe it was so much light cut off later by so much smoke. We lost time and struggled to get back a sense of it. A neighbor who lost his daughter would say, "one day at a time," when asked how things were going. Another reason could be that that fire warped time on that day for anyone who got too close to it, so no other day feels the same.
Around 1:30 a.m., when I looked out our north-facing window toward Rincon, it looked as though the sun were rising. Since the casino went in, that part of the sky has been bright, but I knew the orange glow early Sunday morning was a fire. I went out and watched it move behind the hill toward the Yellow Brick Road area of Valley Center just before it drops off the north edge of the mesa above Rincon. I kept waiting for the flames to crest the hill and come toward us, but the Santa Ana maintained a northwesterly direction.
The wind and the glow had been moving steadily away by the time my wife got up around 7 a.m. I figured the fire front to be about three miles away, so I went to bed. An hour later, she woke me and told me that a deputy had just given us 20 minutes to evacuate.
What I hadn’t taken into account was the effect dawn would have on the winds. Looking at the satellite photographs of Southern California for October 26, you can see the smoke plumes moving steadily to the northwest and then abruptly turn south about 90 degrees. That turn is the warm air from dawn.
My wife already had all the family photos off the walls. Somehow walking past those walls hit me in a way I wasn’t expecting. Were we really losing the house? I looked out the window toward Yellow Brick Road, but the fire still hadn’t crested the hill, which made me wonder what the fuss was about. "It’s coming up the canyon," she said. To get behind us, it had burned its way through the lowest places.
I had certain shelves of books that I swept into crates and put in the back of the truck with my guitars. I went back for clothes, which I’d hung with the clothes hangers all facing the same way so they would be easy to lift off the closet pole. I pressed them together and lifted, but they wouldn’t come free. It took me several tries before I understood that the hook on my suit bag was connected to a chain that would not lift the hook of the pole. As I stood struggling with my clothes in the closet, I looked at them: shirts that didn’t fit, suits I rarely wore, clothes people had given me to make me more presentable than I really am. It was then I knew that the clothes that really mattered to me were not there. I dropped them and got the dirty clothes basket from the laundry room.
In the driveway, my wife had the dogs in the van and was yelling to go. Rafe, our youngest, was our only son home. He’s 16, so he put his X-Box in his car and followed her. Our two oldest sons were away. Jesse, 19, was staying at his grandmother’s in Hidden Meadows, about 12 miles to the west of us. Keaton, who would turn 18 on October 30, had spent the night with a friend in Escondido.
My wife, Andie, turned south on Lake Wohlford Road toward Escondido and drove away from the fire through the San Pasqual Indian Reservation. Later she told me some people ran into the road to stop the van. Andie had our three dogs with her, but they didn’t bark or growl as the strangers jumped in, and they all sped ahead of the flames down Lake Wohlford Road to Escondido.
Although I told Rafe to leave while I went inside for another box of my new book that had just arrived from the printer two weeks earlier, he waited in the driveway for me as long as he could, which was too long. When he finally drove down the same escape route his mother had, a burning telephone had fallen across Lake Wohlford Road. He turned around and pulled into the traffic on Valley Center Road. Who knows what would’ve happened if the wind had shifted a couple of degrees to the west where the cars slowly moved away.
The movies don’t really prepare you for a real fire. The Paradise Fire was not like the burning of Atlanta in Gone with the Wind where you see flames. All I could see was brown smoke driven fast and low from the canyon. I stared hard. There were houses along the edge but I could make out nothing but brown smoke. Unlike the movies, there is no music in the soundtrack to a fire. No dialog. Only a rumble or a hum. I’ve heard it called a roar but the sound a chaparral fire makes when burning is like nothing alive. It’s pure indifferent energy. The flames resonate in notes so low that we don’t recognize them although we find ourselves shouting to be heard. The fire front was so loud it drowned the crackling you’d expect to hear from burning branches.
I was going to turn on a hose on the east side of the house when, through the smoke, I began to make out the glow, not the shape of the flames, just an understanding that their light rose above the tallest eucalyptus between my neighbor’s home and mine. What was supposed to be 20 minutes to evacuate seemed to be no more than eight. I’d never seen anything so big move so fast. Not waves. Not clouds. Not a river. I ran to the truck and started down the driveway.
Our driveway winds more than 100 yards down to Station Road. Halfway, I couldn’t see, so I turned on the headlights, but they had no effect on the smoke. Nothing but ripples of smoke across the windshield, punctuated by embers. I knew there were trees, a barn and a neighbor’s house ahead, along the driveway, but the only thing I could see was the fence on my left.
Since I was boy, Valley Center has gone from a grid of connected ranch roads to clusters of cul-de-sacs. While these dead-ends make real estate more valuable, they are dangerous. One insurance company gives lower rates to homes with more than one direction of escape. That morning I was to discover why.
I made a U-turn and headed back, where I could take my own fence head-on. The turn gave me another look at our home. The flames were now over the roof. I said goodbye again.
Ours was once the main house for the Ahern Ranch, which was subdivided into several properties. When we moved in, one of our neighbors suggested that we keep the gate between our houses unlocked. I could see that this gate, which opened onto Ahern Ranch Road, was still clear. I sped back past the burning field and took a sharp turn so my truck’s bumper hit the gate straight on. It sprang open, and I pulled in behind another neighbor in his pick-up who was pulling an empty horse trailer, its back doors swinging open.
I followed him onto Lake Wohlford Road. We turned south, hoping to outrun the fire which we knew was north of us. We got a couple 100 yards when a friend coming north stopped us and said the fire had jumped the road ahead. Valley Center Road was jammed behind us and my friend needed to get to his home on Paradise Mountain. I knew a back road over the hill that I thought we could reach.
I live about a mile from where I grew up. The road around the fire led through the same orange groves my mother had forbidden me from entering. I was probably five or six the first time I lost my way among trees that all looked the same. By the time I turned nine, I not only knew my way through that grove but all the roads that connected it.
We made it to Woods Valley Road where he turned east and I went west to leave my books and guitars with friends who would be evacuated two days later. I told them my family had all gotten out but my house was gone.
The previous February, we’d lost our roof in hurricane winds. Our insurance had cancelled us six months later. Another insurance company had picked us up provisionally and then dropped us because of brush south of us. Their last date of coverage was October 25, the day before the fire.
I didn’t go back to try to save anything. I went back because I believed I had lost it all but had to know.
By now, the Highway Patrol had blocked all the roads. But I knew another old road.
A couple of months earlier, I had taken my truck to get a brake job about six miles from our house. I declined an offer for a ride home, saying I was going to walk. "Be careful out there," the woman at the counter said. "They’re driving crazier all the time."
I didn’t tell her I had no intention of walking along the road.
I‘d worn boots that morning because I planned to walk home over the crest of Rock Hill where I hadn’t been for years. I walked past the "Calle de Vista, No Trespassing" sign, which basically translates to "a view you can’t see." There was an old church on that road where I’d attended "Release Time," a church-state compromise in the 1960s after official prayers in schools were banned. We sang songs about going to heaven and listened to flannel-board stories about Biblical characters. I suspect I became a musician and writer in part from those afternoons all those elderly women put in teaching us.
What would they have thought about me walking past the No Trespassing sign, knowing what I was doing? If caught, apologize. That’s not only the Trespasser’s Code; it’s also in "The Lord’s Prayer."
Before there were houses and avocado groves on Calle de Vista, my dad would drive us home over that road and our family would ride horses over that road to get to the Community Hall. Since then, the groves have grown so tall and thick that no one can see you unless he stands right beside you. I suppose trespassing in groves is a bit like jungle warfare, not being able to see more than a dozen yards ahead of you. It’s a little slower moving between trees than across an open field, but no one sees you. On the walk from the garage I noticed three gates and thought about ways around them.
On the day of the fire, however, the gates that had once been closed for safety were now open for the same reason. As I drove along Calle de Vista, I saw a person from the Valley Center Water District opening a gate. A deputy later told of using bolt cutters to open another potential route.
The fire on the San Pasqual Reservation had burned to the edge of the groves. I came to a water truck where two Latino men were putting out spot fires in the chaparral. You have no way of looking at someone with brown skin and knowing their legal status. Many undocumented workers live in Valley Center. Some rent land on the reservation where parking a mobile home doesn’t involve a hassle with county permits. Although there would later be news stories about under-insured families, undocumented workers and their families took unknowable financial losses that day.
The back road dropped me onto the pavement between two roadblocks. I turned at the fire station on the corner, only to find another police line. Not wanting to push any further, I pulled into the parking lot. The wood fence around the fire station was burning, but no one was doing anything about it. A fence on the other side of Station Road was burning. Although the smoke was still heavy, I could see half-dozen houses on fire. The front had passed through and left plenty of spot fires but the wall of flame by then was in on the south side of Paradise Creek.
The Deputies’ Chaplain walked over to me. I expected him to tell me to get out of the evacuated area. Instead, he asked me if I knew a certain couple. I told him they were my next-door neighbors, parents with children roughly the same age as mine, teens and young adults. "I need you to sit with them in my truck," he said. "That police line is for their children. Two of them are dead and an ambulance is on the way for the third."
I’d noticed the father walking up the road. His eyes were red and wet, so I’d assumed it was the loss of his house that had made him cry. I’d told myself, he wasn’t really crying…the smoke was just making his eyes water. The rescue workers had not told the Chaplain which of the children had died. I asked him, but he didn’t know. My neighbors have a son and two daughters. Although I’d asked who had died, for the next couple of moments the grief was so heavy that who had died didn’t hurt as much as knowing they had died in the fire.
I climbed into the back of the truck’s cab. The father sat on the far side, silent, his eyes closed but not keeping back tears. The mother sat between us and looked straight ahead. She turned to look at me and then stared back through the windshield. She was saying something softly. Her tears were the only thing that made me think she wasn’t in shock. She kept talking softly, but I couldn’t make out what she was saying. The husband looked up at me and said his daughter was gone. I said I knew and I was sorry. We collapsed like so many other things did that day. He put his arm around his wife, but I couldn’t tell if she noticed. I put my arm on his and we all wept. How much more would they have to give up, I wondered. As the mother began to cry harder, I felt some small relief that she wasn’t going into shock. The more she cried, the more she seemed to be coming back to us. I prayed silently, but we were all sinking beneath the weight of the news, and prayer was our way of reaching back up. "It was too big and too fast," I said. For the second time that day something too big to understand came at me. My neighbors had lost their roof in February’s hurricane, too, and I’d watched them rebuild it. Now the house no longer mattered. Gone were things that could not be rebuilt.
Slowly, I became aware that we were having difficulty breathing because of the smoke. I had wrapped a wet rag around my face, so I was going to get them wet cloths to breathe through when the Chaplain returned to evacuate them, leaving me at the police line. Through the smoke, I could see rescue workers around a burned car crashed into a pepper tree at the end of my driveway on Station Road. Later we learned that in the blindness from the smoke, my neighbors’ son had hit another car. The airbag deployed and the car hit the tree.
All kinds of dishonest stories came out of the smoke: the casino burned down; the fire station burned down, a bonfire on the Rincon Reservation started the fire. All these stories were untrue. The story that two sisters burned to death next to the fire station on Station Road had a tragic element of truth: the fire killed only one of the sisters near the fire station.
That pepper tree was one of many seedlings from the first pepper tree planted in California at the Mission San Luis Rey. For a time the Catholic Church had owned Ahern Ranch and had planted a tree in memory of people who had passed. Later, a clean-up crew would cut that tree down. On the pavement where the car burned, however, the road is still rough. I feel it through my tires everyday I turn out of the driveway. Sometimes I think about what would have happened if I had driven through the smoke to evacuate by Station Road instead of turning around and driving through the gate on Ahern Ranch Road. Usually when I cross that spot, I remember my neighbors who lost their daughter there. I also think about them when I come to a locked gate in the chaparral. I think about them when I see the chaparral that hasn’t burned in a long time.
There was an old man who lived on the La Jolla Indian Reservation when I was growing up. As a little boy, I thought he was the only real Indian around because he wore a headband even before hippies made it fashionable. I was scared of him, but it took me years to realize that was because of the cowboy movies I watched. At community get-togethers, he would catch me looking at him; once he smiled. When I went to San Diego State University years later, I talked with him in the halls before he’d address a class on water rights and other issues he knew about. During one of our talks he told me about fire.
I probably shouldn’t say this old man’s name because he usually didn’t say names. He would talk about "the old man" but never say the name. I wouldn’t understand until later that after someone dies, some tribes mourned for a time, and when that time was over, the name of the dead was not spoken. Before the priests came, tribes cremated the dead and put the ashes in an olla. On the anniversary of the death, the person’s possessions would be burned. Eventually, an image of the person would be burned and then that person’s name would not be said because it called back the dead and made them sad in the next world. For some, "the old man" is a polite way of speaking.
One day this old man and I were talking about water and roads and other things that were becoming scarce. I was complaining as if I wasn’t one of the newcomers just because I’d been born here. He mentioned fire. Like a lot of the things he tried to tell me, I didn’t understand at first. He wasn’t saying that we didn’t have enough firefighters; he was saying it didn’t matter how many firefighters we had because, given the right conditions, Southern California would burn out of control because "most white people don’t understand where they live."
In the days following the fires, it was Indian people who made the most sense to me. Christie Orosco, a neighbor who lost her home on the San Pasqual Reservation, told me her father taught her, "Unless you burn the brush once every twenty years, it will burn you," a reference to the annual burns practiced by the local tribes until Spanish governor Jose Joaquin de Arguello banned the practice in 1793 as "childishness."
The old man had said "most white people" because there were a few Euro-Americans, like my biology professor Wayne Armstrong at Palomar College, who had told a skeptical classroom of college students that fire is a good thing, the exact opposite of what our mothers told us.
Perhaps one of the strongest proponents of controlled burns is Former Environmental Protection Agency administrator of Region IX Dan McGovern. Instead of burning uncontrollably during the dry Santa Ana season, a controlled burn after the rains can use the previous year’s burn area as a fire break and increase the needed nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus and other fertilizers in the soil.
Of course, controlled burns have been opposed as dangerous and unpleasant.
After the Chaplain left, a man in a firefighter’s suit walked up to me. I thought he too was going to tell me to move out of the evacuation area, so I started to wander back toward my truck.
"Excuse me," he shouted over the distant rumble of the fire then moving away from us on the south side of Paradise Creek Canyon and up the mountain. "You live around here?" I just nodded, rag wrapped around my face. I had just illegally crossed miles of private property into a forbidden zone. Remain silent.
I pointed to where my home had been and saw above the smoke the tops of the two pine trees that grew in my front yard. While indigenous oak trees are fairly fire resistant, the high pitch content of pines usually burns down to nothing. But I could see the tops of the pines had not burned.
"I’m with the Union-Tribune," the firefighter said. "Can I take your picture?"
I looked him up and down. He wore the same fire-proof canvas coat, the same helmet of a firefighter. He wore goggles and a dust mask. A lot like a firefighter except he had a camera.
I stared at him. Although we were standing next to a fire station and next to what would become the worst disaster of the Paradise Fire, this man was not a firefighter. Death by fire had come to Valley Center about one hundred yards from the fire station. A girl whom we often waved to as she walked toward the fire station where she brought the firefighters cookies and played board games was dead. Later, the firefighters would mourn her as one of their own. The girl’s sister, who is the same age as my oldest son in college, suffered burns over 85 percent of her body and lost part of her fingers.
I looked at the burned-out car. I looked at the fire station, its fence still burning. Then I looked at the photographer who looked like a firefighter. Something really awful was happening inside. It had something to do with the fact that a neighbor died within a stone’s throw—a neighborly walk—of the fire station, and not one of us could undo it. No one speaks of it. At the initial community meetings when people began to yell at whatever low-level bureaucrat was on hand, no one spoke it out loud: we’ve built neighborhoods where someone can burn to death on the street beside a fire station.
"Are you okay?" the photographer asked. I told him the smoke was getting to me. I wished I had some goggles like his.
"How’d your house do?"
As I squinted through the smoke, I told him I believed it had burned, but now that I could see the tops of the pines in the front yard, I wasn’t too sure. I guess I’d have to wait for the deputies to lift the police line.
"Look," he said, "I’m not telling you how to live your life, but legally they can’t keep you from returning to your home."
I ran. Cutting behind one neighbor’s house that hadn’t burned, I moved back onto Ahern Ranch Road where another house was burning. By the time I got through the bowed gate, I still couldn’t see my house through the smoke. My lungs hurt, so I slowed to a walk. Three more houses nearby burned out of control. It had been about an hour since the fire front passed, and the Santa Ana was still blowing hard. Consequently, the sky behind the front was clearing except along the ground where whatever fuel was left still burned. The closer I got to our house, the more of it I saw. Finally, I could hear all the smoke alarms buzzing. The front looked okay and I began to run around back. The fence and the deck attached to the west side of the house were burning. I turned on the garden hose. The pressure was low, but it was enough to put them out. My nearest neighbor’s home had flames forty or fifty feet tall; our shed between the two houses burned without a chance of stopping. I was spraying the shed when the fire at the neighbor’s exploded, followed by a loud whoosh.
I dropped the hose and ran around the side of the house and crouched. Of the all the explosions I was to hear that day, it was the loudest. For some reason, the propane tank had bubbled and split. I calmed down and picked up the hose. The smoke was so thick and the noise from the burning houses was so loud that Rafe didn’t see or hear me when he came running back up the road with some friends to save our house.
My oldest son could not get past the roadblocks for several days, nor could my middle son who stayed with a friend in Escondido the night of the fire. For some reason, they only let Rafe through. Perhaps that had something to do with Rafe seeing the fire. The sight of the flames still burns in our dreams, and even lighting the barbeque for Thanksgiving has taken on a new respect and solemnity. The fire apparently left something in Rafe the Highway Patrol took seriously when he told them he needed to get back to his home, something they didn’t see in our other two sons.
I handed the hose to one of Rafe’s friends and held onto our son. I’ve heard it said we don’t really possess our children. The fire showed me how little the things we can possess are worth. And to be honest, embraces don’t last. I held onto Rafe not to have him back but to celebrate that we were both still here.
Scorched rabbits and squirrels ran dazed around our feet. On one side of the canyon lay two dead horses that had been freed from their pasture only to run into a ravine, the hottest part of the fire. Had they been trying to reach two other horses in a corral on the other side of the ravine, one dead on the ground, the other standing, no hair, its hooves shriveled from the flames? The surviving horse painfully shifted its weight from hoof to hoof, all the while exhaling blood. I understood then about the swinging doors on the trailer. Someone went for a rifle.
It had been around two or three hours since we’d been told to evacuate.
Over the next week, my wife and I continued to move in and out of the evacuated area over the back roads. The first day we had several wounded animals. A cat with burned paws finally let my wife catch her. Pigs, goats and chickens wandered through. We couldn’t corner the pigs, but someone’s cat caught a chicken. On the nights before power was restored, we looked at more stars than we’d ever seen over Valley Center and thought that the sky was the only thing healed in the tragedy. Then I remembered something the old man had said.
We’d been talking about a broken water treaty. Essentially, two of the sprawling municipalities in North San Diego County received the rights to water belonging to the indigenous people. In a deal, the tribes agreed to accept fines paid by the federal government in return for allowing the two towns to consume the water.
"I’d rather have the water," the old man said.
"I’m really sorry," I said.
The old man shrugged. "It’s good for white people to understand what’s been done to Indian people." When talking he had a comfortable way of not staring but taking in everything around him. "If the invaders can understand what’s been done to Indian people, then maybe someday they can understand what they’ve done to themselves."
Two days after the fire, I found an aviary in a canyon. One side had been burned away, and the skeleton of a peacock could be seen in the ashes. The two surviving peacocks would not leave the cage though they had no food or water. Their plumes had burned away. They would not let anyone catch them. They would not leave the cage.