Before I left the house that day last year in early November, the Santa Ana winds were blowing hard, bending tree tops and separating tree limbs from their trunks. Not only was there fire danger, falling limbs flying through the streets were also dangerous if you happened to be in their way.
Generally felt during the fall and early winter, Santa Ana winds are those that blow from the desert to the ocean. Coming from the Southeast, they are very dry and very fierce; if there is a rogue spark from a cigarette or fireplace, those winds will spread that spark from a tiny red ember to a forest fire in little short of an hour or two. That day, the sky was already gray from the smoke of some fires in the distance and the air was heavy with their smell. How far away the fires were from where I was standing, I couldn’t tell; it would all depend upon the direction the winds chose to blow. Over the many years I have lived in Malibu, along its coast and through its canyons, I have come to know the smell of fires. Stepping outside and smelling fire always makes my arm hairs stand straight up.
I have a friend who grew up in Malibu and, as an adult has chosen to live in the city, away from the fires and mudslides that she remembers from her childhood. I understand. Those powerful, unstoppable drifts of wind have controlled my life each year; moreover, my fearful dread of the windy season has grown from just a few months in the fall to most of the year. It forces the question in my mind whether any place or time is safe from the dangers of the weather.
In my view, the terrors of global warming affect all of us, everywhere; there are no boundaries, no divisions and no walls that can separate us from warm oceans that direct air currents and create dangerous weather patterns no matter where you happen to live. Hurricanes, volcanos, earthquakes, fires, tornadoes, freezing snow storms and heavy rains that seem as though they will never stop have become commonplace. The warm El Niño air, named for the baby Jesus because of rising ocean temperatures that occur during the Christmas season, send frightening images of the North Pole ice packs melting and polar bears balancing on glaciers that are shrinking more and more each year. Unlike the soft, sensual trade winds of Hawaii that kissed my cheeks as a teenager during family vacations, these are gut punching gusts - ominous and dangerous - that could lift a man off the ground. Depending upon the wind’s direction, it’s impossible to know where they will take a fire, if one starts, and how long they will last.
I left the house that late afternoon to go to the Getty Museum where I teach a weekly yoga class, not knowing if the winds would be kind or whether their fierce power would continue to grow. I was relieved when I returned home that evening to my home and community still standing. Although the smell of smoke was even heavier and more ominous in the dark, I could see the flames in the distant mountains and thought they might be moving away from us. I went to bed wearing my street clothes. Although I generally turn my cellphone off at night and use a windup clock that just needs a AA battery to avoid the electromagnetic frequencies near my head when I sleep, this night I left my cellphone on.
At 2:00 AM, I heard banging on my wall from the tenant that lived in an apartment in the front of my home. We shared a kitchen wall and after she first moved into the apartment, we discussed banging on the wall if one of us was ever in danger. After hearing her fists thumping on the wall, I called her and she told me we needed to evacuate; the fires that swept through the western end of Malibu had crossed over the mountain into our valley and was coming our way quickly.
When I was in my late teens, my father cornered me in the car one day to discuss my future. “We’re a family of planners,” he told me. Before then and since, I haven’t planned for anything; my life has moved forward from shear instinct - kinesthetic feelings. I studied things that “felt right”, following my gut. Unlike some neighbors who had all their important papers gathered in a lock box - Passports, birth certificates, deeds, bank information, cash, check books and insurance declaration pages, I had none of those things in one easy to grab place. Since then, friends have told me that my experience has motivated them to put together papers for just such an emergency, when one has to leave quickly, not knowing if the house will be there when you return.
My yard before the fire
My grandmothers flowerpot
My mothers silverware