Tuesday, October 30, 2007


Just last night, the fires closest to my house were 100 percent contained, but people are still discussing The Fires. It's slowing down somewhat, like the plitta-plitta of sprinkling rain after a nasty thunderstorm, but you still see it mentioned at the back-end of the news. I pulled off the freeway on my way to work yesterday and thought I'd drive through a neighborhood where one of my old customers lives. I'd heard the street was hit pretty hard and thought maybe I could offer some help or just see what I could see.

Incredible. On TV you see the flames on a house or on a hillside, firefighters running every which way, water streaming through the air, helicopters overhead -but it's like witnessing a murder through a cardboard toilet paper tube. In real life, it floors you. This is a neighborhood. It's not ranch homes built up against some brush-filled tinder box in a gully. This is suburban sprawl, and the fires took it.

The neighborhood had police tape at every entrance and a sign that read sternly STREET CLOSED - RESIDENTS ONLY - BY ORDER OF THE POLICE DEPARTMENT and cops were patrolling up and down, looking for looters, gougers and lookyloos I presume. I even saw a large tan hummer with helmeted National guard in it. I drove in anyway, and later felt guilty about it.

It made me feel sick to drive through. At first, I thought I had made a wrong turn, as I was just driving down a street with houses on both sides of me, and then I came around a turn and BLAM no house there -BLAM -BLAM no house there or there. And then BLAMBLAMBLAMBLAMBLAM -all just wiped off their slabs, only ashes left behind. It was shocking.

In the picture above is the one house on that street that survived. This street was like any street in the suburbs, your street. It was house after house after house. They weren't wealthy mansions, they weren't new homes, and they weren't out in the countryside or near the beach. They were a mile or two from the freeway off-ramp. There's a church on the corner and a grocery store near that. The one home standing in the picture, that's my customer's home. The house to the right of them burned to the ground.

The house to the left of them burned to the ground. The trees behind them caught fire. The fire was unapologetically indiscriminate. There is no sanity in it. All they lost was their fence.

Most of the fences caught fire and burned. I could wax on this metaphor all day long. You're driving around and you don't notice it at first, something seems amiss, then you see half of one and you realize no fences. It was just the thing between us that caught fire and then was gone, as everyone pulled together to kill the animal that came to destroy their homes.

Seeing these people milling through what was left of their everything was a violation, and they looked vulnerable. That "vulnerability" defines the neighborhood for the time being, but there was hope to be seen. On street-corner after street-corner there were hand-painted signs that read "Thank You San Diego!" and "We love you!" and "God Bless the SDFD!" -it was a stirring sight, but a burned out car in a driveway with no house behind it is an entirely demoralizing sight, and there was one after another. Some cars lost it in the street, and you had to drive around them. I saw more than a couple families sitting on their concrete foundations, just doing normal stuff -chatting, reading. One family had set up a burned table and brought a few patio chairs. They sat there in the middle of it all, having lunch. For a second, I thought, What are these people doing? And then it occurred to me: they have nowhere else to go.

That's when I felt like throwing up.

I couldn't help but think about the old wood patio cover that I had torn down from this house. It's possible that it saved the place, though no one can say for sure. We replaced it with a shiny white aluminum one. It's still standing.

I never considered the seriousness of the "fireproof" concept before. We mention it all the time when we're selling the things. A wood patio cover up against your home is beautiful, useful, and convenient, until the day the fire comes through, and then it's as good as a stack of firewood on your patio -fuel, leaning against the house. Like this guy:

He was lucky.

Perhaps the business I'm in really is a good service. Perhaps. Perhaps there will be more business in the coming spring. I think of all the contractors that will come streaming into this town in the coming months, and it makes me sick again. It's not fair. Little in this life is fair, and there's only one thing you can do about it: be fair.

There's no room for survivor's guilt, but there's plenty of room for fairness.