Sunday, October 4, 2020

Fire or Flood: Which Would You Choose?

We're in the middle of hurricane and fire season. If given the fiendish choice between flood or fire, which would you choose?

Below is one winemaker's choice and the consequences. Excerpted with the publisher's permission from the forthcoming novel About That Wine I Gave You.

F

ire or flood?

When waters rise onto your lawn, up the steps, and knock at the front door, it’s time to go. The body is waterproof and human nature is resilient so you wade through the water to bring your family and pets to safety and to check on neighbors. Flood waters aren’t going to kill you unless your backyard suddenly becomes whitewater rapids that pull you under. At least water isn’t going to burn you.

Even with doors and windows locked, the unwelcome guests enter and when they recede, leave a calling card of mud, debris, sewage, and hazardous waste. The house, sorely wounded, develops gangrene. The scourge of mildew spoils anything left standing. Spores of freeze-dried black mold rehydrate and rot everything. When you return to assess the damage, at first, you’re relieved to see your house standing, but cancer has invaded, metastasized, drywall sucking it from the floor up into the epidermis and house’s lymph nodes – only invasive, radical surgery can save it. You have your house, but you don’t. You need to rip out everything, furniture, carpet, floorboards. If water covers tile for a day, it’s beyond repair. And then the walls. Perhaps some framing can be kept, but it must be treated with strong disinfectant.  

When I was a curious toddler, mom left an iron on the ironing board I learned to respect and after that a hot stove, as my fingertips turned white from second-degree burns. Did you ever touch an iron? Can you imagine how much more it hurts to place an iron on your forearm or thigh? Makes me cringe.

“Y’all have your hurricanes,” Karianne told Jenny Lea in Texas over the phone, “And we have our fires. I’ll take fire.”

“Be careful what you wish for, sugar,” cautioned Jenny Lea. “I still say the good thing about having your house flooded is you can go back and pick up your photos, silverware, and mementos. When your house burns down, you lose everything.”

The time to be on alert was when temperatures rose, humidity dropped, and winds blew from the east, reminding Paul of Mongolian winds that blew across China carrying dust from the Gobi Desert to Beijing. Sheila was reminded of the Mistral winds of Provence in southern France.

Estephanie teased Karianne Santa Anas are the revenge of the Mexican generalissimo who screams across the land to reclaim the Texas territory his army lost to Sam Houston at the battle of San Jacinto thanks to the Yellow Rose, her namesake. Miguel called them Santana or “devil” winds that brought fire from hell. After Karianne heard that, in October when temperatures rose and winds picked up, she turned on the music of Carlos Santana, took off her clothes, and salsa-ed and cha-cha-cha-ed to the rhythms and riffs while absorbing vitamin D and having her hair naturally blown-out on the privacy of her back porch.

When people asked Karianne where her winery is located, she answered, “Out in the countryside where cougars roam free and fires burn.” Fire is a fact of life in the back of your mind until you see billowing smoke clouds and the apocalypse suddenly becomes real.

Wildfire destroys almost everything in its path, converting slumbering stored carbon into dancing flames, light, and heat – oh the heat, an inferno, turning glaze on pots to glass, melting metal, carbonizing cars, breaking bonds binding materials and molecules together, releasing energy, sucking in oxygen with the force of a black hole and exhaling smoke, smoke, and smoke. Fire keeps moving – fanned, whipped, accelerated by the wind – like a shark that must keep swimming or perish searching for fuel to feed the beast, an earthly incarnation of evil and destruction. Fire is fickle and without explanation might passover your house, or if you cleared your property with defensible space, might turn towards an unfortunate neighbor. Then again, fire may throw grenades of embers at your fortified home from afar, singling you out, yours, the best-prepared yet only house on the block to burn.

A massive wildfire in San Diego County or anywhere in California could consume a thousand or more homes. On the other hand, the one-two combination punch of stalled hurricane and wind surge could damage 100,000 Texas homes.

The body is waterproof. Waters that turn roads into rivers are repelled by the skin and dirt can be rinsed away with soap. Yet, that same skin is not fireproof. The smell of burned flesh, a macabre barbeque for the fiend of fire, the blistering painful peeling of raw, melted skin, is excruciating agony. And that’s just the beginning. Weeks, months, even years later, countless operations, skin grafts, suffering.

Fire or Flood?

“I’ll take fire,” said Paul, regretting his remarks the second after he spoke not wishing to bring it on, recalling God’s promise to Noah after the Biblical Flood, “Never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth,” to which Paul added the postscript, “Next time, I’ll get you with fire.”

During the Great Recession, Paul did everything in his power to save their house from foreclosure, using ends to justify the means, with continuing consequences to his domestic tranquility. Yet, when Sheila began dropping hints about moving to an apartment in the city with closer access to medical care, not once did she mention selling the home she intended to keep for Kate and Alex, although they showed no interest. Everything she and Paul had worked for, dug and posted, ripped and replaced, planted and grown, harvested and vinted, could be consumed by flames fueled by the Devil’s wind with a satanic wave of the pitchfork. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, blessed be the name of the Lord. Did the wannabe-monk-on-the-hill honestly not care about losing all his possessions? Would he, Sheila, and Bluey evacuate in the face of fire? Or, if Paul stood his ground to defend their property, would his heirs save the cremation expense?

Paul knew a fire was coming as surely as the sun would rise – the only question was when. “I’ll worry about it when I see it,” and from his perch on a mountain top, he and Bluey were in a good position to see one coming.

If it comes from the west, it’s going to race up the valley, he imagined, plotting a battle plan, follow coyote trails up the canyon to our property and find the land cleared except for grapevines. Fanned by ocean breezes, humidity will be higher, temperatures lower, and fire-fighters will establish a defensive perimeter behind the vines protecting the house. If it comes from the south, the fire needs to burn through the City of Escondido before reaching here. That’s a good barrier and not going to happen. But if it comes from the east powered by Santa Anas, all bets are off. At least we’ll see it coming, right Bluey?

The Devil and Grim Reaper love a good bet and got to work, conspiring to get that dog.

Everyone in Southern California knows the warm dry conditions of the Santa Ana as temperatures rise, sometimes to triple digits, while humidity drops to single digits. If there were truth in the saying, “But it’s dry heat,” that’s true of the Santa Ana, for living along the coast of San Diego, usually relatively cool with ocean induced humidity, the Santa Ana is a burst of summer in fall. Up at Blue Merle Winery, it was a vacation escape, a time to enjoy warmth outside and inside before winter turned their cozy home into a frigid rabbit hole since their heater didn’t work. It was the best possible weather in the world, if it didn’t kill you.

Santa Ana is synonymous with desert heat that travels from Aridzona carried by winds that blow leaves off grapevines and branches from trees; the trees sway, palm fronds hang on horizontally in the wind tunnel, tumble weeds roll, with gusts causing vines and branches to dance with abandon, a reminder why fire in these conditions is unstoppable.

At the end of October, the Santa Ana returned and the fire department placed red flags at the one and only entrance and exit of the Hidden Hills as a warning not to burn fires outdoors, to abstain from outside work that could accidentally start a fire, and to be vigilant, a “red flag warning.”

Still, a man’s gotta make a livin’ even with the wind blowin’ and two of Miguel’s crew went to work with a long blade chainsaw and a high-powered weed whacker with metal blade to clear land for a homeowner, a good idea to create defensible space, but not during a Santa Ana when the weed whacker or chainsaw hits a rock, sets off a spark, and the next thing you know you’ve got a little fire on your hands and what started small as a match becomes a wildfire that can’t be put back in the bottle. If you think Miguel is the villain of this story and he started it, that’s a good guess. I heard the chainsaw buzzing, so got in my jeep and drove over to ask the guys to stop.

“Hey amigo, there’s a red flag warning. No chainsaw today.”

“No problem – it’s OK.”

Si there is a problem – it’s not OK. You can work by hand, but not with the machine.  No machina. It can start a fire.”

“No problem – no fire,” he said and continued to cut down tree limbs and bushes aspiring to be trees while the other guy attacked overgrown scrub.

There was no need get into a Mexican Standoff with these hombres and not seeing the owner, I stepped away and called our friend the Fire Chief who immediately dispatched a Fire Marshal over to speak with the guys. Turns out, as I figured, the owner didn’t know what a red flag warning was because he was new. All was good in our area and in hindsight, maybe it would have been better if we had been ground zero, because the brave, efficient, quick-reacting women and men of the Deer Springs Fire Department could extinguish a blaze quickly, at least under normal conditions.

Out in the back country, conditions were anything but normal as gusts topping 100 miles per hour pushed powerlines like kids on swings then kids jumping rope and with electric lines swinging like that, one arced, and with humidity that low, grass in the area was tinder that caught, and what in normal conditions would have been a campfire was fanned by the Devil. Winegrowers on Ramona’s edges were the first to be hit and fled for their lives. Bellows stoked the flames and soon towering smoke clouds could be seen from downtown San Diego skyscrapers and forty miles north at the top of Blue-Merle Mountain. When Paul returned from his visit to Marcie, he told Sheila it would be prudent to pack, just in case, and he texted Karianne, Steph, and Merlot Mac pictures of the blooming mushroom.

Evacuation orders were issued and the exodus began with two main routes out of Ramona towards the coast – fleeing up to wooded Julian was the equivalent of jumping out of the pan into the broiler – so the main route to safety was down. As fire spread, cautious residents in high risk areas prepared to evacuate.

What would Sheila and Paul pack? What would you pack? She had already thrown out his photos, so that didn’t matter.

Passports? Check.

Birth certificates? Check.

Marriage certificate? Paul wasn’t sure if it was in their closet or Sheila had shredded it. He found it rolled up in a scroll. If I let it burn, would we be divorced? He wisely kept his humor to himself.

“Don’t forget Bluey’s papers,” Sheila reminded him. American Kennel Club Australian Shepherd. The real McCoy. Check.

Winery license?  Check.

TTB records?  Check.

Corporate tax records? Check.

Personal tax records? Check.

Sheila’s medication? Check.

Mortgage documentation? How do you burn a house underwater? Buy a home in San Diego’s countryside during the boom and wait.

Medical insurance cards? Check.

Cell phone charger? Check. “Sheila, be sure to charge your phone,” Paul reminded her.

Case of water? Check.

Dog food? Check.

“Don’t forget Bluey’s Louis Vuitton leash,” Sheila yelled over the noise of the vacuum, “And his toothbrush.”

“Why are you vacuuming?”

“When firemen enter our house, I want it clean.” Paul shook his head and bit his tongue, but her words reminded him to unlock the garage and the doors so firemen could get in.

Homeowner’s insurance policy? Check.

“Don’t forget the toilet paper,” Sheila yelled from her closet.

Since they didn’t have TV, Paul turned on the radio for updates. As thousands then tens of thousands willfully or mandatorily evacuated, a call had gone out for donations of children’s toys, diapers, and blankets needed at shelters. A shelter was set up at Escondido High School, and since all was calm in his neighborhood, the least Paul could do was gather items to donate, besides wine.

Diapers were one thing he and Sheila didn’t have although they were one coital-oops away from grandparenthood. He opened a hallway closet grabbing blankets from one drawer then pulled another drawer revealing a world inhabited by Beanie Babies, dozens of them, living a parallel life to the humans outside. There was a farmer, princess, and unicorn, who together ruled a Noah’s Ark of animals Alex and Kate played with as children. Paul reached for the unicorn saying, “I’d love to give you to Jayne, but a child needs you now.” He reached for Nuts the squirrel. “You’re just a rat with a bushy tail – time for you to go,” and put Nuts into the large plastic bag with all the stuffed animals, having no need for them here. He grabbed as many towels as he could carry and he and Bluey drove down the mountain.

The normally bustling 15 was empty and eerie, drifting smoke currents all he could see, the smell, darkness, and stillness reminding him of Beijing in heavy evening smog.

Bluey enjoyed the role of comfort dog herding kids at the shelter and they loved chasing and petting him. Paul enjoyed playing Santa Claus carrying a bag of toys over his back and giving them away.

Back at the house, Paul observed orange flames dancing in distant darkness – he slept with one eye open on the floor of the living room with a picture window view of the valleys for miles around. What he couldn’t see was the fire storm racing down Highland Valley Road through vineyards, avocado, and citrus groves.

Most residents of San Diego proper didn’t worry about wildfires. Except for a little smoke, fire was only a problem for those in the back country. Instead of snow days, school children had smoke days. Paul had the vantage to see it coming – for those asleep in their beds around Highland Valley and Rancho Bernardo, their only alarm was the smell of smoke as the fire unexpectedly shifted their way.

Imagine waking at midnight in a house full of smoke. Startled, you rouse your family, pull on clothes, scramble to get everyone and dog and cat into the car. Now!

Imagine driving though the thickest fog – you can’t see three feet in front of you. Driving in smoke at night is worse, and smoke chokes you, because you don’t have a gas mask. You can’t see, you’re dangerously driving blind, you slow to a crawl, crack the door open to see if you’re crossing the line, or pull off to the side to wait for a break, or you crash. Then you feel the heat – it becomes so hot, the plastic of your car starts to melt, the car ignites and you’re trapped and there’s nothing you can do except leap into the flames.

Fire leapt into Escondido’s Wild Animal Park, an extension of our famous San Diego Zoo, that resembles an African savannah with roaming animals now reenacting an African bushfire. If there’s one thing that rips open the hearts and pocketbooks of the public, that’s images of suffering animals, be they singed Koalas in Australia, or pets lost in the conflagration who miraculously emerge and are reunited with their owners.

As fire penetrated the park, elephants, giraffes, and rhinos instinctively moved away staying safe. Fortunately, the land was cleared and with little fuel for the beast, it moved in another direction. Although the zebras were spared; the thoroughbred racehorses of Bonsall were not as lucky. The horror, the horror.

The fire didn’t jog, it raced down the winding road, jumped the 15 (or to use Joe the Wino’s words, snuck under the bridge crossing the interstate like illegals flooding into San Diego through Tijuana’s underground tunnels) and attacked populated neighborhoods within San Diego’s proper city limits, then moved into Escondido’s scenic community along Del Dios Highway and continued the route into prestigious communities of Rancho Santa Fe.

Paul’s father telephoned, reporting calmly, “Son, I wanted to let y’all know we’re surrounded by fire.”

“Dad, stay there. Don’t try to out-drive it. Your home is new. Stay and you’ll be fine.”

“We’ll be fine as shake and bake chicken. We love you son.”

After the call, Paul pressed coffee and sat with Bluey looking out the window and spotted flames to the east where there had been none before, noticeably closer than the glows on the horizon. This doesn’t look good.

At daybreak, there was no sign of fire in Hidden Hills. As Paul folded his blanket, he heard the crackling of static electricity and felt he had poked his finger in the socket, the humidity that low. He and Bluey walked up the hill for a better look and observed white smoke from the new front in the fire wars he spotted the night before in Valley Center, with waxing Santa Ana winds nudging it their way. He and Bluey walked down to the house, pressed fresh coffee for Sheila, and woke her.

“It’s time to load the car.”

If the winds continued, their time was coming and later that morning, the reverse 911 call came with mandatory orders to leave and the volunteer became an evacuee.

Joe the Wino reserved a suite at the Grand Del Mar, a luxury hotel by the coast where dinner could cost $1,000 and rooms started at $400 per night. Karianne, who sold wine by the truckload at Temecula’s annual wine and hot air balloon festival, was contacted by a winemaker she knew who, in the spirit of generosity that brings people together in a crisis, offered her, her neighbors, and their pets a place to stay. That sounded good to Steph and John, Merlot Mac and family, and Sheila and Paul, whose plan to shelter with his parents was impossible since roads were closed in that direction.

Everyone put on a brave face and decided to make the best of it. Karianne packed an assorted case of her best wines (not the ones she made, but the ones she and Steph purchased). To save time, she threw a pile of dirty clothes into her SUV, reasoning since she wore them recently, they must be good and she didn’t lose any time choosing clean clothes from her closet. Paul grabbed a can of pâté de foie gras he was saving for a special occasion – what could be more memorable than eating the best food in the world and drinking the best wine with best friends as your houses burned? Karianne posted a photo: “With my BFFs #BestFireFriends.”

John, always prepared for everything, was determined to stay and defend his house, ignoring the warnings of authorities and pleas from Steph, who relented knowing she couldn’t change the mind of her strong-willed husband. Though Steph and the others were concerned, they knew he was equipped as well as most firemen and mentally prepared to fight. While John respected the fire department, he had the most motivation to save their house with firefighters spread thin, unable to protect every home.

Paul loaded the car while Sheila finished packing clean underwear, toilet paper, and sanitary wipes. Into a plastic Ziplock baggie, she placed a sapphire ring (a gift from Paul she admired), a necklace of pearls (symbols of her tears), and pearl earrings (symbols of her elegance). She left her wedding ring behind to burn in hell.

Time was of the essence with only one exit and everyone leaving at once; there was a traffic jam and you didn’t want to be stuck in a car when a wave of flames passed through. They checked their neighbors to make sure they were able to get out and with both cars stuffed like students starting a new year at college, Sheila entered her black car and Paul the matching white with Bluey, they descended the driveway then down the road where Paul saw a neighbor struggling to load horses into a trailer by herself. Paul stopped to help and as he took the reins, Bluey jumped through an open car window and talked with the horse calming him, so he peacefully stepped inside. While Paul helped load the filly, Bluey started trotting up the steep road home.

“There goes Bluey,” said the neighbor.

“Bluey!” called Paul. “Bluey, come back!” The dog with a mind of his own kept trotting up the hill with the dignity of an Arabian stallion. Why did he return to the house? To protect it? Check on the neighbors’ dogs to make sure they got out? Or, did the Devil make him do it?

Paul called Sheila on her mobile phone telling her to go ahead; he would join her and the others in Temecula, she, in a line of cars on the normally sparsely populated road, edged down the steep pavement, and not a moment too soon as embers carried by winds singed the sides of the 15 all the way to Fallbrook. Paul, unaware the first flurries of ember snowflakes were falling, drove up the hill to fetch Bluey after the horses were safely in the trailer.

He found Bluey on the French Terrace and as he approached, Paul noticed the large wisteria by the side door that bloomed magnificent white and purple perfumed blossoms in spring had wrapped itself around a pole, the railing, and up into the house’s wooden eaves. “That’s not going to be good if it catches fire,” he told Bluey. He gave the wisteria a haircut with loppers.  “Sheila’s gonna kill me, but it’s either the wisteria or the house, so the vine’s gotta go, right?”

“Woof!”

Paul looked at the wooden barrels on the terrace he had turned into tables and rolled those into the vineyard and removed other flammable objects adjacent to the house. He noticed garden hoses attached to outdoor faucets without nozzles; Sheila had cut them off. What good is that going to do when firemen arrive and need a hose to douse embers? He went inside to fetch three nozzles, three hose repair kits, and a screwdriver, and lost another fifteen minutes attaching nozzles.

Paul peered towards the threatening east and witnessed the Devil incarnate riding a chariot of fire down Palomar mountain, his wake fanning flames with wind gusts above 100 miles per hour. Paul heard a voice, “Take that, scarecrow,” as the Wicked Witch of the West threw a fireball at the strawman without a brain whose house was made of wood and the flaming sphere flew across the sky landing in the thick, dry, chaparral in the Valley of Death, the riparian wilderness below his property, creating a new threat.

 

Red on yellow, kill a fellow.

Red on black, OK Jack.

Fire from east, kill the beast.

Fire from west, take a rest.

 

If only that were true, Paul thought as the first solitary ember fell like the first shoot of budbreak, pop, followed soon by a second isolated pop, and then an acceleration of pops like popcorn. So it was with the ember drizzle that started small patches of fire that grew and merged and as winds whisked leaves into the sky like sparklers, he opened the door for Bluey to enter the house. He wondered if his death would be from asphyxiation or a thousand ember burns, remembering what Karianne told him about the Apaches who started with a scratch as insignificant as a paper cut, but killed you with a thousand. The first ember was not so bad, no worse than a pin prick. But a thousand embers? As for the house, all it took was one ember to enter one of three dozen air vents that cooled the attic, which Paul futilely tried to cover, but it was too late for construction projects for a scarecrow in a firestorm.

He called 911 to report the new threat to Hidden Hills from the western flank in a Hail Mary move with hope there were some firefighters, somewhere, available.

A towering row of poplar trees planted by the first owner blocked embers from reaching their targets in the property’s interior but like any missile defense system, it became overwhelmed by the number of incoming warheads and some penetrated and did their work. Poplars became Roman Candles firing mini rockets into the sky. It only takes one nuclear bomb and a single ember to ruin your day, Paul thought, grateful he was still standing and not yet seriously burned. This isn’t so bad until he observed a nuclear Armageddon of mushroom clouds on the horizon.

The fight was on and he was all in and instinctively acted to save his home with the same foolishness and innocence he decided to plant a vineyard and make wine. Ignorance was bliss, if he survived, because he truly didn’t know what he was in for. Paul saved his house from the repo-man during the Great Whoops on Wall Street, but could he save it and himself from the Great San Diego Fire?

He changed into a makeshift uniform, using goggles and respirator for vineyard spraying, so he could breathe (maybe) when immersed in choking smoke. He found a long winter jacket to protect him from flying embers (hoping the wool wouldn’t ignite), and a pair of goggles for Bluey (which would have been comic in other circumstances). He covered the dog’s snout with a bandana and pulled doggie booties over each paw should he step on any embers outside when the time came for Bluey to abandon house. Scarecrow covered his head with a wide-brimmed vineyardisto’s straw hat and rejoined the battle outside.

Paul had created defensible space around the house – but had ignored the palm trees next to the side, figuring there was no flammable material in the trunk. He was right about that, but when dried fronds caught fire, igniting the green ones, they brushed wooden eaves with flames.

“To the roof!” Paul cried and Bluey cheered him from inside, the safest place at the moment. Paul carried a hose with him onto the roof, careful not to step on yellow algae made super slick from water he sprayed on the flaming palms.

An ember hit its bullseye, a bird’s nest hidden in a crevice between the eaves Paul didn’t clean out. Did I trade a bird for my house? He doused it before it ignited.

Embers fell in the dried-out ivy patch behind the home causing leaves to smoke then catch. Paul sprayed the spot fires closest to the house, then slipped on a tile, accelerating feet first down the roof. Fuck! – this is no way to die was his final thought as he sped towards broken bones at best, grabbing an exhaust pipe that stopped his fall. Thank God! He took a deep breath, composed his thoughts, pulled himself to his feet, then dismounted the roof into the ivy with the hose, sprayed, then shoveled dirt to smoother the hot spots. He saw flames licking eaves under the section of roof closest to the ivy and doused those.

As winds blew east to west, the fledgling fire in the valley to the west of Paul’s house was like a salmon swimming upriver against the current, for its instinct was to climb from the valley up the ravine, as surely as Newton’s apple fell to the ground. When there were lulls in the wind, the fire took a step forward up the ridge with the confidence and persistence of a Sherpa, one step at a time, and from Paul’s panoramic rooftop view he observed a marshalling of Noah’s Ark, a Ringling Brother’s parade of animals and unlike the circus march and Noah’s census, animals fled in panic for their lives, surprising Paul with the numbers of species with whom he shared the land and never saw. Frogs, skunks, deer – he had never seen deer in the vineyard. No wonder they named the road Deer Springs! Following Bambi was a pack of hopping Thumpers who jumped ahead of a caravan of ants, stink bugs, Jerusalem crickets climbing up the valley and spilling into the open space of the vineyard. Then a pack of coyotes emerged, trotting up the paths of the vineyard. With the coyotes gone, a covey of quail scurried along the ground and Road Runner strode up the hill and away. When Paul saw a mother mountain lion leading her cubs from the flames, he became a believer in Karianne’s tall tale and wished he had his camera but had left the phone in the house and remembered his charger was in Sheila’s car.

Rows of lavender became lit fuses that raced towards the house. Where the lavender field ended, a fat opossum with fur on fire dashed into the vineyard bumping into vine after vine. Is that a suicide bomber? No, these aren’t gopher wars. Paul carried the hose to the critter and saw its eyes singed white – a face of fire’s horror branded on his brain. He sprayed water, extinguished the flames, and smelled the stench of seared, soaked opossum flesh realizing it was a mistake to have stayed and that he’d die at best or worse be seriously burned. Not owning a rifle, he swung his shovel to end the opossum’s misery.

He dug a shallow grave, covered it with dirt and sighed deeply in a pocket of smokeless air. He went inside to text Sheila he and Bluey were stuck and safe at home; he texted Alex he was proud of his service and that dad was getting a taste of battle; his text to Kate was, “I’m fine, but if something happens, please help your mother take care of the vineyard, LOL (Lots Of Love), Dad.” And then he texted Jayne, “I once wrote you we’d be together in our next life. Looks like I’m on the way. Yours forever. Til we meet again!”  Paul filled a bowl with water and another bowl with food for Bluey, gave him a hug, and went outside to face his fate.

Winds shifted, now flowing from the Pacific, and the drizzle of embers from the west increased to a rain. Paul returned to the roof to douse embers and keep creeping flames away from fascia boards of eaves. He turned on an irrigation valve that rained on the ivy to make the area less hospitable to fire.

A neighbor below had invested thousands of dollars fireproofing their home, encasing eaves with fire-proof material and replacing old roof tiles. They had evacuated safely and Paul noticed smoke rising from their house. With the ivy irrigation running, Paul left his post, headed down the driveway, and climbed over their fence. He saw they had left a hose outside with a nozzle and when he went to the back, he saw the flames and found himself engaged in a losing battle he had no chance of winning with a garden hose and walked briskly back up the hill to his house. Why would their house burn and Paul’s old, vulnerable house, survive? That’s what one ember could do. Fire is fickler than love.

Meantime, less than a mile away, John maintained vigilance over his property, while the USAA insurance company sent a rapid deployment force of commandos to Karianne’s hacienda, covering it with protective fire-retardant foam and clearing away combustible materials.

Back on the roof, the smoke became thicker, and Paul coughed up black spittle reminding him of his trip to India, the foul smoke clogging his lungs worse than streets of Beijing during super smog.

Paul looked out over Camp Pendleton – where are the airplanes and helicopters? Be careful what you wish for, because at that moment, a converted commercial plane flew over and dumped a thousand gallons of water, followed shortly by a dive bomber that released a payload of red fire retardant down the valley. Thank goodness they missed the vines – how would I ever clean that up?

The fire slowed like a snake wounded by a shovel and a crew arrived on the scene to cut off the head and mop up. Paul and the community of Hidden Hills were lucky. The winds had shifted and the threat from the east turned and consumed itself. It turns out a vineyard is a pretty good firebreak and the winemakers’ homes were spared as was most of the community, this time. 

“We have to stop meeting like this,” Paul shouted at Joe the Paramedic, who gave CPR to Sheila the last time they met.

“How’s the young lady?”

“As good as ever and evacuated.”

“We’ll take it over from here.”

“Come on over when all this is finished for some steak and a glass of wine. Meantime, I’ll mop up around the house.”

“Check your attic for embers.”

Cell phone batteries were not as good then as they are now and by the time Paul finished mopping up and checking the attic his phone was dead. He spent the night next to Bluey by the window – in case winds picked up and the cease fire was broken.

In the morning, Paul attached booties to Bluey’s feet and they emerged from the house into the smell of burnt wood, that’s the aroma of an overly toasted barrel, and surveyed the property finding charred skeletons of bushes and trees in the valley below in one dimensional black with soft streams of rising gray smoke. On the altar of Golgotha Rock, they found the charcoal corpse of a squirrel Paul scooped up with his shovel and instead of throwing it into the entrance of Squirrel City, he dug a grave, because even your enemies deserve proper burial. A helicopter circled the area with an eye out for flare ups. Chateau Bluey had burned and Paul, numb to all he had seen, felt nothing, only his breathing. He stirred the ashes, curious what he might find, and uncovered a singed photo of a woman with shoulder length black hair, dark almond eyes, pearl complexion, a small nose, pink lips, filling a full-length embroidered silk dress with a slit up the leg, posing on a bench by a lake rimmed with green trees. Paul felt a loss, not for the photos, elementary school art projects, or for memories, which he would always keep in his mind and heart. “Christine, I’ll never forget you,” he said, burying the photo under his favorite vine.

“Bluey, come,” and they walked down the hill to check on John’s and Karianne’s house.

With the fire in retreat, evacuated residents of Hidden Hills were anxious to return, and as they exited the 15 or Center City Parkway to head up the hill, they confronted a roadblock, not to catch illegals, but to keep everyone from entering. Joe the Wino, who supported law and order, was absolutely livid when stopped by the National Guard and threatened to call the Minute Men militia he funded to keep illegals out to help him break in.

“Fuck this,” Karianne said to Steph when they arrived. “I gotta get in there and take care of the wine or it’s gonna get wasted in this heat.”

“Would you mind checking on John after we’ve saved your wine?” Steph asked.

Since the front entrance to their community was blocked, Karianne tried a back door the National Guard didn’t know about. Steph drove her to Lawrence Welk, where Karianne traversed through the scrub up to a fence near the top and scaled over. As she dusted herself from the jump, a uniformed officer confronted her.

“Mam, stop right there please. You’re not allowed to enter.”

“I’ve already entered. I’m here.”

“Mam, you don’t understand. No one’s allowed in here.”

“You’re here.”

“Mam, I’m sorry. You need to go back or I’ll have to arrest you.”

“You don’t understand. I live here.”

“Mam, it’s you who don’t understand. I’ll have to arrest you. No one except authorized personnel are allowed in here. We’re protecting homes from looters.”

“I’m not a looter. I live here,” she pulled out her driver’s license and pointed to her address. “This is America and you can’t keep me from going to my home. If you don’t let me go to my house, all my wine will spoil and it’s gonna be on you. By the way, the Fire Chief is my friend. He’s in my winemaking group, and when I tell him you ruined my wine, you’ll wish you hadn’t stopped me.”

“Mam, he’s gonna commend me for following orders and keeping the area secure.”

Karianne, who was usually adept at applying sugar and charm, kept up her assertive approach. “May I please speak with your commanding officer?” The guard called the duty commander who arrived. Karianne pleaded her case, and the commander relented.

“We’ll escort you to your house and give you five minutes to gather your things then escort you out. Five minutes, got it?”

The guard couldn’t believe the commander gave in to her and asked why?

“She can’t be making this up.”

They escorted her to Cougar Winery where Karianne was surprised to find the air conditioning on and the punch down tool covered with moist grape skins. Someone had been there, who didn’t clean the tools as thoroughly as she. Karianne went inside, grabbed a change of clothes, a couple of bottles of wine and the officer, after making a quick stop at Steph’s to check on John, drove her to the back gate of the Rim Rock community that connected to Lawrence Welk where Steph was waiting, fearing the worst.

“John’s fine.”

“How’s your house?”

“Messier than the clubhouse after the Padres won the world series with corks popped everywhere and a river of wine flowin’ into the ocean.”

“Oh Karianne, I’m so sorry.”

 “Just messin’ with you.”

“What do you mean?”

“The house is fine. Somebody was there and took care of the wine.”

“I bet it was John,” said Steph.

“Power’s on at my place and the air conditioning too.” Just then Steph’s phone rang and it was John. He said he was fine and that Paul and Bluey were alright, too.

“Karianne says thanks for saving her wine.”

“Wasn’t me – she should thank Paul.”

They made plans to meet that night in Temecula to give thanks for their blessings and to their hosts and to mourn those who had lost their homes, or worse.

The bulk of San Diego was largely spared this time – a thousand homes were lost and a dozen people perished, bless their hearts, as fires continued to rage in wooded hills around Southern California, causing disruption to daily lives, deletion of a lifetime of memories for those who lost their houses, gut wrenching burns, and death.

In Temecula, where the refugee winemakers gathered for a reunion, flames celebrating at the summit of a mountain range were visible. It was a miniature version of the gourmands’ winemakers’ dinner a la camping with somberness, the main course grilled hamburgers (cooked by John), accompanied with store-bought potato salad and coleslaw (purchased by Merlot Mac), and baked beans from a can (heated by Sheila in a chef’s copper sauce pan), while their hosts set the table with paper plates and plastic cutlery. Karianne opened a bottle she rescued, dividing the thousand-dollar wine into nine cups. As Bluey lay down with the other dogs and the cats, Karianne told Paul, “I wanted to share this with you.”

He touched his paper cup to hers and thanks to his rehabilitation from the Scent Sommelier, he smelled, he sipped, he swirled, inhaled and slowly tasted, noticing nuanced aromas and flavors he had never before experienced.

“This wine is new world, the grapes are Cab, the region is Napa, it’s not too young and not overly aged,” said Paul.  “Hmmm…. I’ll guess six years old.”

“Close. Seven, actually.”

“I’ve never tasted anything like it. It’s good. Very good. In fact, amazing. I could never make a wine like this.”

“Nor should you try – not with your grapes.”

“What is it? Screaming Eagle or something?”

“How did you know?”

“Because I know you,” Paul said, thinking to himself, but really, I don’t.

“Thank you,” she said.

“For what?”

“Looking after my wine.”

“You’d do the same for me, and, you’re welcome.” Paul felt an urge for more wine and walked to the kitchen where he found John by a bottle.

“We were lucky,” Paul said.

“Just another day in Nam.”

“If the winds hadn’t died, we would have.”

“You saved your house.”

“I only went back to get Bluey. Next time there’s a fire, I’m gettin’ the hell out.”

“Or you could prepare and fight it with the right equipment.”

Paul filled his cup and reclaimed the empty seat across from Karianne. “To life,” he proposed, raising his paper cup.

“Life’s too short.”

“Then here’s to a long life.” Their cups touched and they sipped in silence.

Glancing over the cougar tattoo on her breastplate, Paul looked into her aptly made-up smoky eye and saw the reflection of the flaming mountain range as mysterious and out of this world as the light of a solar eclipse during totality. For a period lasting as long as it takes the moon obscuring the sun to pass, he felt a surge of electricity race from his gut to his chest signaling the totality of his admiration, his longing, his love for the woman facing him, causing him to forget for a moment in time his earthly possessions, his surroundings, his wife, and the fires ravaging the state.


(c) Copyright 2020, Craig Justice, All Rights Reserved

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