THE ACCIDENTAL FIREFIGHTERS
Few things in this world will forever change you like the terror of thinking you’re about to be burned alive in front of your kid. But at 11:44 on the morning of Friday, November 9, as the flames of the Woolsey Fire barreled across our yard, I was gutted by the possibility. The fire had been burning since the day before, but all at once it crashed down into my Malibu Park neighborhood, and somehow there were more children fighting the blaze than there were firefighters. My sixteen-year-old, Davis, was one of them. Garden hoses in hand, legs braced against the searing winds, he and I were pushing the very edge of judgment and safety in our desperation to protect our home. As fireballs pelted the yard around us, it hit me that I’d made a horrific mistake.
Teaching risk assessment was one of the most important jobs of a parent, and I was imparting this lesson to my son in the worst possible way.
My wife Gardia jumped into her car and ripped out of the driveway. She’d known from the beginning. She’d sensed the danger in a way I hadn’t. That morning, she was up at six o’clock, tracking the fires on the other side of the Santa Monica Mountains as well as the extreme Santa Ana winds in the forecast. Known as “devil winds,” Santa Anas blow in hot and dry from the desert and pick up speed in the canyons and arroyos of Southern California until they hit Malibu with hurricane force. At best, these winds are an annoyance, creating itchy skin and short tempers. In fire season, however, they are life-threatening.
By the time Gardia received confirmation that the fire had hopped the 101 Freeway, the last major firebreak before it would plow into western Malibu, where we live, she’d woken up Davis and put him to work packing family photos and videos.
I was still asleepwhen the mandatory evacuation order came by phone call, text, and email at 7:30 a.m. I’d popped up, thrown on a pair of jeans, and hustled to the toolshed that served as my home office to get the only possession that mattered to me: my laptop. By the time I came back out into the sun, the smoke was already throwing a low scrim across the sky. I could smell it, feel it on my skin.
I grabbed Davis and a couple of garden hoses, and we started watering down the foliage in front of our all-wood Victorian home. Davis had spent his whole life there. We’d bought it in 2000 during a rare lull in the housing market. The height notches on the kitchen wall. The swing set and sliding board in the backyard. My late father’s piano in the living room. We damn sure were going to give the place a fighting chance.
Within half an hour, the sky had gone from grayish to black, though over the ocean to the south I could still see a stretch of blue. The severity of these signs convinced me that more serious measures were required. So I jogged into the garage and dragged out the fire pump.
A surfer buddy, Tim, once told me what gear to buy for the inevitable wildfire. A lifelong local, Tim had also warned me that there would be no firefighters when the time came, that if I wanted to save my place I would need to stay and fight for it myself. Being from Philadelphia, I couldn’t imagine firefighters not showing up. I wasn’t sure I believed him, but it couldn’t hurt to be prepared. He explained that the hydrant water would run out, so it was essential that I have a pump and my own water source. I glanced toward our hot tub and hoped it would be enough.
I wheeled the pump down toward it and attached the fire hose while Davis drenched the house. He was in tenth grade, just turning the corner into manhood. He’d recently come out as gay—to us, to his friends, to his school—with such honesty and bravery that I was left examining the way I confront hard truths in my own life.
I risked a glance around. Manyof our neighbors had highly flammable eucalyptus and pine trees on their properties. Some had entire groves, with individual trunks extending more than a hundred feet high. Everywhere around me, the brush was dry and brittle. California had been in drought conditions regularly since 2012, and suddenly everything looked like kindling.
I yanked the cord and the pump’s engine sputtered on. When Davis was little, testing the pump was the highlight of summer. Blasting water hundreds of feet in the air from a fire hose was, to us, the definition of a good time. As much fun as it was, I could never get out of my mind that one day we might have to use the pump for its true purpose. And that my only child might be operating that hose.
I increased the idle and braced for the water pressure. But there was none. The engine ran, but the pump wasn’t pulling water out of the spa. I shut it off and started it again. Still nothing.
My wife is the repair person in the family, so I ran to the house to get her. But she couldn’t figure out the problem, either. Frustrated, we stood in the yard and looked skyward. The dark, smudgy air seemed to have lightened, as if the sun had come out after a rainstorm. On the ridge above us, an orange glow pulsed.
“Get the Phos-Chek,” Gardia said, pointing to the garage. “Take the hose up to the hydrant.”
Over the years I’d acquired other gear: masks, nozzles, a specialized wrench to access the hydrant at the top of our driveway, and a flame-retardant chemical called Phos-Chek. But I’d never used any of it. And as I grabbed the wrench and chugged to the hydrant I realized I didn’t know what to do with it.
“Unscrew the cap,” Gardia said, arriving seconds behind me. “Then attach the hose.”
I followed her instructions but still had no idea how the thing turned on.
“Use the wrench now.” She pointed at a bolt I’d missed. “Lefty loosey,” she added before I went too far in the wrong direction. I yanked the wrench the other way and immediately the hose flushed with water.
“Where’d you learn that?” I asked.
“YouTube,” she said. “Last night.”
I wanted to hug her, but a change in the ridgeline drew our attention. Fire was pouring over it the way water was flowing out of the hose. It was no more than a third of a mile from our house.
“Come on, get the Phos-Chek,” she shouted.
In the garage, I grabbed the giant blue jug that had sat untouched for years. I poured a bunch of the liquid into the canister that we’d attached to the fire hose. Gardia turned on the nozzle and blasted our house with foamy water while I rejoined Davis to keep wetting down the grounds with garden hoses. In that moment, the three of us moving in sync—Gardia sweeping the fluming spray back and forth across the siding and windows, Davis arcing water onto the plants, my own spray attacking the trees—I felt a surge of pride and exhilaration. We were doing it. Together. We were going to beat this thing. My family was kicking ass.
That’s when the fire left the ridgeline and lunged at us. It didn’t crawl or creep down the hillside, didn’t roll forward in a fluid motion. It flew, the flames accelerated by the super-heated Santa Ana winds. One moment it was up there, the next it was right fucking next to us. It may as well have teleported.
“We gotta go,” Gardia shouted. She dragged the heavy hose down the driveway behind her, dousing every last inch of the house as she ran. She dropped it and jumped into her car. Go go go go go, I yelled to her in my head.
I threw my hose down next to Davis, and fire exploded onto the ground between us as if it had been thrown. In seconds, we were in my car ready to follow Gardia. Through the windshield, I saw that I’d left the garden hose on. A sprinkler once broke on our property, and the water bill was astronomical. Only later would I be able to take the full measure of my stupidity. But in the moment, Davis mute with confusion beside me, I jumped out of the car and started toward the driveway to turn off the water.
Embers and debris bombarded me before I could go ten feet. The blistering force of the wind nearly knocked me over, and I could feel my balance slip, the hairs on my forearm crackling along my skin. I bent to turn off the water and in a whoosh, like a blazing genie materializing from a giant lamp, a tornado made of fire appeared in front of me. At the far edge of the burning world, I heard my son scream, “Dad!”
And that was when I knew he was going to watch me die.
Tucking instinctively, I felt the flames whisk above me without touching down. I only avoided catching fire because I happened to be so low to the ground. In a half-crawl, I made my way toward Davis without looking back.
I was in the car and about to drive off when something cracked above us. We looked up to see a power pole falling. It missed the car by mere feet. I pulled forward and carefully maneuvered around the wires dangling overhead.
Even in my stunned daze I knew we were doing the worst thing you could do in a wildfire, which was to evacuate in the midst of the firestorm. We should have taken shelter inside our house until it passed, then knocked down the spot fires on the property. We’d also gotten into a car. If we got trapped, we would burn to death. But I knew if we could make it to Zuma Beach, only minutes away, we’d be safe—the water wasn’t going to burn, or the sand, or the asphalt parking lot.
And anyway, that’s where Gardia was. My wife. I had to bring her son to her, unscathed.
I drove down the hill in shock and pulled into the parking lot at Zuma, just on the other side of the Pacific Coast Highway. Davis and I slowly emerged from the car to survey the scene. The lot was packed with the vehicles of those who’d fled the fire. Horses and other large animals stood among the cars. Llamas were tied to lifeguard towers. An elderly man stumbled by, moaning. His face seemed to have been melted by the flames. People wandered around looking lost, as if they’d forgotten where they parked their cars. It was a waking nightmare, humans processing disaster in real time.
Tim turned out to have been right. No firefighters had showed up at my home. Or on my street. Or in my neighborhood.
I found Gardia and told her and Davis to wait in the cars while I went looking for firefighters. But as I moved west across the lot, the smoke grew thicker. I’d left my mask in the car and thought about going back but figured I could handle the discomfort. I was wrong. My eyes began to water, and I started to cough. The air itself burned. Soon I was hacking and couldn’t breathe. Eventually, it was too much and I turned back, stumbling, then running, to the relative safety of the car.
Through the haze, I finally caught my first glimpse of those officially tasked with fighting the fire. Gathered on the blacktop was a group of firefighters standing by a quintet of idling engines, seemingly waiting to be told where to go. If only they had turned to the mountains over their shoulders they would’ve seen what the rest of us had already fought to survive: Beneath a thick, drifting black cloak of ash as long as the sky, the hillsides and canyons of Malibu were being eaten alive by fire.