Los Angeles is burning

As national coverage of the wildfire lagged behind, my family huddled in the bedroom watching ash fall like snow


Los Angeles is burningIn this Saturday Aug. 29, 2009 photo, smoke from the Station Fire billowing up from behind the famous Hollywood sign in the Hollywood Hills in Los Angeles. Wildfire threatened 12,000 suburban homes and rained ash on cars as far away as downtown Los Angeles on Sunday, spreading in all directions in hot, dry conditions.

Los Angeles is a smoky, apocalyptic hellhole today.

National coverage of the Station Fire has been sparse since it started raging through acres of dry brush north of Los Angeles on Wednesday, probably because the public’s favorite spectacle — million-dollar homes going up in flames — has been kept to a minimum, thanks to the tireless efforts of the Los Angeles Fire Department. But for the residents of L.A. — those whose homes were threatened by the encroaching flames, those whose eyes, noses and throats have been running and burning since last Friday, and those who’ve gasped at the gigantic plumes of white and gray smoke billowing north of the city — the fire has been affecting our lives dramatically.

I first spotted the smoke from the Station Fire last Wednesday afternoon at 4:30, just about an hour and a half after it started, as I was picking my daughter up from her daycare in La Crescenta, a town a few miles northwest of where I live that butts up against the Angeles National Forest. The fire covered 30 acres of forest and was barely mentioned on the local news, thanks to the Morris Fire, burning out of control 15 miles away.

On Thursday morning, I considered turning around and coming home when I saw the huge column of billowing smoke in the same spot, but my daughter’s teachers reassured me that the kids wouldn’t be going outside. All day I scanned the local news, but the coverage was spotty. Five hundred acres had burned, a few homes threatened but nothing dramatic yet.

By Friday morning, the air smelled like a barbecue. Daycare was closed, and our nanny called in sick with a sore throat and runny nose from the smoke outside, so we camped out with our two kids in our bedroom, the only room with air conditioning, and ran both air filters on high (purchasing an air filter is like a rite of passage for permanent residents of L.A., particularly on the east side).

Saturday morning the temperature was set to go up to 103 degrees and the fire had quadrupled from 5,000 acres to 20,000, spreading in three directions with thousands of homes threatened. On our way to the Toys R Us in Monrovia, a treat for our stir-crazy 3-year old, we gasped at the flames from the Station Fire, visible in a jagged line above Altadena, several miles from where I’d originally seen smoke. When you see a fire raging out of control so close to your own house, your mind naturally goes to the worst-case scenario.

“Is there any way that thing could get to us?” I asked my husband when my 3-year-old wasn’t listening. “Could it sweep across miles of houses and just burn through half of L.A.?”

“Only if it could find a way to jump over the 210.” It’s true, eight lanes of freeway would probably slow it down a little.

Even so, by Monday the Station Fire had ballooned to 85,000 acres, three homes had burned, and two firefighters had died when their fire truck plunged down a steep ravine as they were trying to reposition it. U.S. Forest Service Cmdr. Mike Dietrich, visibly exhausted from days with no sleep and constant press conferences, was starting to refer to the fire not just as “very dangerous” but also “angry” and “vindictive.” We’d been watching the news all week, but the spectacle from the freeway was more dramatic than most of the coverage: a DC-10 dumping bright red fire retardant on vulnerable areas; flames creeping toward La Canada and Altadena; smoke forming towering clouds over the mountains just above the Rose Bowl where we run with the dogs when it’s not chokingly hot and smoky outside. (The L.A. Times photos and those submitted by viewers online are more dramatic than anything on the local or national news.)

Our daycare was closed due to poor air quality, so after a morning at an air-conditioned museum, we spent the afternoon crowded in our bedroom watching the local news with our two kids and two big dogs. The kids were antsy, the dogs haven’t gone on a walk in a week and are starting to look vaguely suicidal, but what could we do? It was 100 degrees in the rest of the house, and we couldn’t put fans in the windows under these conditions.

Like many other residents, I’ve been nervously checking the air quality map online each day, wondering if I should walk the dogs or take the baby outside for a few minutes here and there. At first the map was green — healthy — even though a gigantic smoke cloud billowed over La Canada and La Crescenta. Then over the weekend, it switched to yellow (moderate), with some areas of orange (unhealthy for sensitive groups). Today, after stepping outside to water my plants and returning with a sore throat, I checked the maps online again. Most of L.A. was red — unhealthy.

Now, after close to six days and 125,000 acres burned, it looks like sunset outside, the air smells like a campfire, and little flecks of white ash are floating from the sky like toxic snow. Even as the firefighters on the local news are talking about increased moisture in the air and improving conditions for finally getting the fire under control, this is the worst day yet in terms of air quality. Until the temperatures drop and we stop seeing ashes falling outside, this is where we’ll be: huddled in the bedroom, taking lots of cold showers, and hoping that the firefighters will finally get the upper hand on this devastating fire.

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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