A Piece of My Mind: California under fire

A few weeks ago I drove down to Ojai to visit a cousin and some friends. East of Los Alamos, I took the Cachuma Highway (CA-154) to avoid the dogleg south on 101 through Buellton, Solvang, Goleta and along the coast.

My notes describe the cutoff as “a two-lane road with two stop signs and one traffic circle in 40 miles, snaking through beautiful high country along the Cachuma Reservoir, which was looking still a bit underfilled despite one year of hefty rain after California’s five years of drought.” This road is a playground for sports cars, and I had to pull over several times in my sedate four-cylinder Camry to let a Mustang or Camaro roar by. I was looking forward to a return trip on the same road, planning to check out the vista points overlooking the reservoir and maybe take a rest stop at the little nature center near the Boy Scout camp.

The evening before my departure, my cousin warned me, “Better check your route tomorrow. The news says a wildfire broke out and Highway 154 is closed.”

Google Maps confirmed the closure the next morning, and I took the dogleg through Goleta. Beyond the hills behind Santa Barbara, I could see the smoke roiling up like a dirty brown thunderhead. From Santa Barbara to Pismo Beach, the valley winds carried the soot from the fire thick enough to make the sky brown from the Coast Range to the ocean. I aborted my plan of eating lunch on a balcony overlooking the Pacific, settling for a grab-and-go shopping center sandwich.

All along 101, the fire scars from old and recent burns seemed to jump out of the landscape – blackened hills and leafless trees from summer after summer of drought and burns. We had had a record-setting wet winter, but I had been warned by a park ranger earlier that the spring growth, now crisped by summer heat in the 100s, would make any fire even more dangerous.

A day later the headlines in the Mercury News shouted, “Blazes Rage across West; Thousands Evacuated in State.” The fire that still closed Highway 154, now dubbed the “Whittier Fire,” had consumed 17,000 acres and was only 5 percent contained. The Boy Scout camp had been evacuated in a bulldozer-led convoy, but the nature center was a total loss; all of the resident animals had died in their cages.

Two weeks later the Whittier Fire had disappeared from the headlines. I did a quick Google search; it was still burning but 85 percent contained, with a number of structures destroyed but no loss of human life.

I thought of the miles of sun-crisped golden hillsides that line our local freeways, and the thousands of discarded cigarette butts and backfiring cars that threaten to send a spark in the wrong place. I remember the Oakland firestorm of 1991, which raged up the canyons of the East Bay hills killing 23 people, and I cross my fingers. We still have a long fire season left.

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