October in Southern California

Before pumpkin spice everything became mainstay and before I lived a place cold enough to be able to appreciate what real sweater weather is, I could never understand why anyone anywhere enjoyed autumn. Growing up, October meant a very busy time in school, hot weather without the many perks of summer, shorter days, and brush fires. I realize now how isolated this notion is, particularly to the chaparral areas of California; regardless, I’ll never be able to shake these associations, even if I move to New York, or someplace that experiences what I always thought fall should be.

Several weeks ago, there was a fairly sizable brush fire several miles from my house. This statement would alarm a great many people, particularly homeowners, but it disheartens me to say that this was just another fire in a long line of fires I have endured growing up and living in the hills of Orange County. In other words: no biggie. Unfortunately, my family and I fell into a trap of sorts, thinking that we were officially out of the woods, and that was *our fire* of the season. How wrong we were, especially considering the sizable amount of rain we enjoyed this past spring.

I was an absolute basket case at work all day Monday this week, after catching word that there was yet another fire in Anaheim Hills, this time west of the 241 freeway (even closer to my house), which has helped us out in the past by acting as a fire break. Confusion set in as I raced back through my morning, remembering that there was absolutely no wind when I left my house earlier that day; but if anyone knows how quickly conditions can change, it’s me and all the other residents of my neighborhood.

The news was reporting wind gusts up to 70 mph, which, combined with that unmistakable dry October heat, meant perfect conditions for turning palm trees into swaying torches, capable of spewing embers that could ignite houses miles away. Recall Yorba Linda (“Freeway Complex Fire”), circa 2008. You can certainly understand my nerves, especially after how this fire shook out.

We have been very fortunate with past fires, in that no Anaheim Hills homes have been damaged by brush fire in nearly a decade. Our community was not so lucky this time, ultimately losing 12 homes to the flames, with smoke damaging another 22. Fortunately, mine was not one of them, but I feel like it just as easily could have been mine.

There’s nothing like spending an extended commute time wondering if your house was one of the ones that was lost, only to pull up and see it still standing. The firefighters and first responders are phenomenal, and should take a great deal of the credit for saving my neighborhood — I certainly heard their helicopters chop-chop-chopping through the night several nights this week. When it comes down to it though, there is a great deal of luck involved: we got lucky that the wind didn’t continue on through the night, or kick up again the next day; we got lucky that one of those embers didn’t float a mile or so and land on my roof; we got lucky that temperatures dropped at night, and a cool offshore breeze came in, bringing with it some much needed moisture. It just as easily could have turned out much differently.

This is the risk we all understand and take by living where we do. Many of the people who lost their homes in this fire plan to rebuild in this area, because it’s a wonderful place to live, and the benefits (usually) significantly outweigh the risks. But I look at the devastation in Northern California after they didn’t get so lucky, and I definitely think twice about it. Even now, the faint scent of charred still lingers, kicked up with the 4 o’clock afternoon breeze, as the firefighters continue to work toward 100% containment (we’re sitting right around 75% right now). The photos of the aftermath are haunting, but it’s that smell that gets me every time, and will forever be the marker of October in my head, no matter how much pumpkin-spice-whatever you push under my nose.


Photos from the OC Register.