It’s 11 o’clock at night and, nose buried in the New Yorker, I am thinking it’s time to switch the light off and call it a day. Abruptly, the bed jolts assertively, the wooden blinds smash noisily against the windows. Earthquake. I wait 10 minutes and I log on the US Government Earthquake website, a web address that comes in handy if you live in California and, sure enough, there it is, already uploaded: 3.2, epicenter a scant 20 miles from my bed.
I switch off the light and go to sleep. Not far from the epicenter, the first wildfire of the season is raging. The dry Santa Ana winds, that turn your skin into sandpaper and your nasal passages in a Sahara tunnel, are stoking the flames at 50 miles per hour. A thousand firefighters have been working all day and the fire is 0% contained. Two more fires are active in Southern California at this very moment, a full month before fire season usually starts. Heck, my local firemen haven’t even come round yet to see if we have cleared out our brush. In the meantime, in the Midwest, they had a snow storm. On May 2. (All those Republican congressmen and senators who keep on repeating that global warming is a figment of our imagination, need to rethink their stance or shut up).
People flock to California to find work, to chase a dream, to escape dreary winters and they are quickly seduced by the natural bounty and an intagible sense of ease. I scarcely remember what it’s like to wear heavy winter clothes and snow boots, and the few times the temperature dips to 0, I go into a tailspin. Rain has become so scarce that when it falls, I climb on the couch with a blanket and a cup of tea and enjoy the depth of my “winter”, as if it were a novelty. We are starting to look at the economic recession in the rearview mirror – Governor Brown has managed to balance the budget and even create a surplus – and, if we are by no means out of the weeds, California is once again springing forward with the same allure that first seduced each and every one of us who came to stay for a while and then pitched permanent tents. If gridlock traffic is the only price I have to pay for easy living, so be it.
But such ease is making us complacent. It’s certainly making me complacent. Every year the authorities drill into our heads that the Big One is coming: it could be tomorrow or it could be in 30 years – in geological terms, time stretches beyond our little lives – yet we all behave as if 30 years is more likely. Like millions of Scarlets, we will worry about it tomorrow. I used to keep emergency rations, blankets and torch in the trunk of my car. Enough water and canned food for a week, candles and batteries at home, and folded clothes and shoes at the foot of my bed in case a quick middle of the night escape was called for. No more. Now I will have to rush out naked, with enough food and water for only a couple of days.
Fire, I take a little more seriously because I have lived through it once already. And it’s not pretty. It’s fast and scary and whether your house survives it’s a total crapshoot, based on the winds and the whimsy of the flames. Yes, I can help by keeping the brush cleared, by hosing down my roof and removing flammable trees from the property but the rest surfs on a wing and a prayer. I compiled different lists of things to take based on whether I have 30 minutes, 2 hours or a full day to prepare for evacuation, and plans in place in case I am not home and someone else needs to deal with my animals. Neighbours help each other, we have each other’s keys, cell phone numbers and maps of where gas tanks are located on each property for fast shut off. But nothing prepares you for seeing flames on the ridge by your house, or for the blanket of ashes that covers everything, for the acrid smell and the windows shut to be able to breathe. For sleepless nights, taking turns to walk up the road and monitor the flames, to gauge when to start evacuating; for that brick in the pit of your stomach, waiting to find out what’s happening, and knowing you can’t trust the news because what you are seeing bares no resemblance to what they are broadcasting.
It’s the price we pay for living here. It can be steep, and could even cost us our lives but, as time goes by and the house doesn’t fall nor does it burn, we tend to forget our dues. And what do we do? We put down the New Yorker, switch off the lights and go to sleep. We’ll think about it tomorrow. After all, this is Hollywood.