Lightning strobes the gray sky and thunder booms like artillery over parts of North Carolina as I write this, but my gratitude for the rare morning storm is tempered by the thought that friends in Southern California need straight-down rain as much as those of us in the Southeast do.
You will have heard of the wind-whipped wildfires in the Golden State, and the apparent futility of betting on firefighting resources that have to contend annually with low humidity and fierce desert winds named, like a handful of other topographical features in California, for a nineteenth-century Mexican dictator. One of many ironies in those Santa Ana winds is that they build in the Great Basin flanked by the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada, rather than in Mexico, Texas, or any part of the region where people since 1836 have had reason to curse Santa Ana and the horse he rode in on.
Once unleashed, Santa Ana winds howl toward the coast in a kind of autumnal fit. They always seem to calm themselves enough to permit the Blue Angels to put on a stunning show of precision flying over Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in October. But when the Blue Angels leave town and the California Department of Forestry lays off its seasonal help, the winds pick up where they left off. In good years, they scrub the sky into a crystalline purity that lets you see fifty miles. In bad years, they raise hell. A downed power line, an errant lawnmower spark, or a careless (often illegal) camper in the wrong place can then trigger fires of epic proportions, leaving the national news media flummoxed.
When Mel Gibson flees Malibu or members of the San Diego Chargers football team evacuate their suburban homes, you hear about it. When palm trees explode behind begrimed fire engines, you see it. But when the town of 36,000 where I lived until early this year is evacuated, you get only one more sentence in a wildfire story, because driving there from Lindbergh Field or Los Angeles is a chore, and the only Starbucks coffee you can find if you do make it up the hill is in the corner of a grocery store. Want free Wi-Fi for browsing the Internet on your laptop computer? Fuhgedaboutit.
Well, Ramona rates better than that. I still have friends there, which is why I wanted to tell you that when an MSNBC news report headlined “We Can’t Stop It” has a San Diego dateline but quotes a fire captain from Rocklin, then that is big deal. Rocklin is a Sacramento suburb, two-thirds and five hundred miles of the way up a long state from where that captain and his team are working now. Los Angeles-based stringers for national news organizations will not be the ones to tell them or you that anyone trying to enter or exit Ramona must do so on winding two-lane highways. Nor will they mention that the intersection of San Vicente Road and Highway 67 is backed up every weekday morning, fire or no fire. I once read a chapter in Louis L’Amour’s The Sackett Brand while waiting in a string of cars at that light on a beautiful Fall day.
Local news outlets like the Ramona Sentinel have done a yeoman job of keeping people informed of Witch Fire developments, but the overworked staff there does not have the time to note that Wayne at the misnamed City Barbershop has a snapshot on his wall of gray smoke from the Cedar Fire (2003) looming over Main Street in what looks eerily like the face of Satan. Wayne owns his shop and charges only five dollars for a haircut, but were he inclined to sell that Halloweenish photo tacked to his wall, the Weekly World News might have paid a him a tidy sum, back in the day.
Ramona to me means Kim, mucking out horse stalls in tee shirts with slogans like “so not a princess,” and Steve, who tutored me on the finer points of kipping pullups. I think too of Cyndi, recovering from shoulder surgery and recently grateful that she was bench pressing more than twenty-five pounds again. Cyndi had written a newsletter article on coping with childhood asthma, which in retrospect seems not all that different from the challenge now posed by smoke inhalation.
Ramona also means Carl and Mary. He runs the chemistry department at a university down the hill, and she homeschools their youngest daughter. They live off a dirt road and make do with dial-up Internet access because the cable company has not seen fit to run high speed lines out to where they are. I remember the Wednesday night faith sharing meetings for which they were hosts, every meeting enlivened by good conversation and casseroles that even Food Network chefs might envy.
Not that those casseroles had a lot of competition. Apart from a steak house, an Italian place, several franchise outlets, and a defiantly inland sushi bar frequented by leather-clad women who ride motorcycles, the Ramona restaurant scene is almost laughably moribund. Nevertheless, you can find banana shakes in at least one Mexican restaurant there.
The town has three feed stores and a bankrupt movie theater. Its crown jewel, I think, is a gym run by a husband and wife committed to building a better world, one workout at a time. Jeff and Mikki are laconic, observant, and deeply compassionate, except when scrawling take-no-prisoners CrossFit workouts on the White Board of Dread that hangs near an American flag on one wall of their gym.
They were forced to flee town, together with everyone else mentioned here, and 36,000 of their neighbors in Ramona alone. The Witch Fire has burned more than 196,000 acres throughout San Diego County at this writing, and suspended water service in Ramona for hours at a time.
My hope is that by the time you read this, the wind and flames will have died down, and these folks and others will have had a chance to start in on cleanup. I am not the one driving down Highway 67 in front of flames 100 feet high, with my wife, children, and pets wedged in a car around a box of bills, a sleeping bag, and a photo album or two. From a continent away, all I have to offer by way of help are prayers and stories. Prayer trumps, but perhaps storytelling can add to it.