Friday, September 17, 2010

Brain Fire

by Maggie Mayall

Last week, we watched devastation in San Bruno, when a gas line exploded, wiping out a section of a quiet neighborhood in suburban San Francisco.

I know what it’s like to be in a firestorm.  I have seen a wall of flames up close and personal.

A couple of years ago during another of our Southern California fire seasons, the ash and soot filled the air and fell on us like snow. We cleaned it up, again, hosing down the driveway and the cars. The pool sweep worked overtime sucking up the grainy black dust that settled on the bottom. We restricted our outdoor activities for a few days, the air a thick smoky haze from a fire that burned 20 miles away. The sunsets turned burnt-orange with grey streaks—colorful, but ominous. The news programs provided round-the-clock, unrelenting coverage, bombarding us with countless images of destruction, heroism, broken hearts and satellite images of huge plumes of smoke stretching hundreds of miles over the Pacific Ocean—until we heard “10% contained” or better, breaking finally for commercials and other news.

Every fire season brings out my “Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome,” from when the Laurel Canyon Fire surprised my husband and I on a hot and lazy Sunday afternoon, September 16, 1979. When we lost it all. When we escaped with our lives and nothing but the clothes on our backs. When John dropped the garden hose and we ran like hell, driving through flames in our friend’s Chevy Suburban.

That day is still with me, in the recesses of my heart and my mind and in the cells of my body. This week, it is 31 years later. And yet, when the anniversary comes or the Santa Ana winds show up again, I can enter my own “high pressure zone.” I get brain fire. I have a heightened state of alert. I keep an eye on the horizon and listen for the thump-thump-thump of the helicopters. I can smell smoke sooner than others. I get sad. I smell destruction. I feel the pain that the new victims must be feeling.

I go back there like a soldier in combat mode.
I know what it’s like to sift through hot ashes looking for possessions—any little thing that’s left: a twisted shard of metal, a broken pot, a piece of melted glass. I know what it’s like to see the material evidence of a life vaporized. I have that tattoo branded with charcoal on my soul. The ink of it has faded, but it will always be there. I have a smell of burn that lingers in the lining of my nose. Forever.

Though we've had a reasonably mild summer and a comparatively slower fire season here in SoCal, fires nowadays are far superior, major monster home-eaters, a sign that urban over-development and global-warming drought have made conditions ripe for more devastating firestorms today. And they are not just limited to SoCal--case in point: Colorado this year.

I used to hear that a burn is a natural occurrence in the life cycle of brush and undergrowth of California chaparral. We don't hear that anymore. Maybe because these fires are not natural.

At the time of our fire, our section of Laurel Canyon had not experienced a burn in recorded history. Those were the days, too, just preceding strict brush-clearance laws in Southern California. On the day of our fire, Los Angeles’ giant fire trucks were unrehearsed in negotiating our narrow canyon roads, compounding the problem.  It took them over an hour to get to our street, Grandview Drive, but by then it was too late. Twenty-four houses burned to the ground that day.

Our Laurel Canyon Fire was small in contrast to today’s fires. It burned hot and fast, but the LAFD ended up knocking ours out comparatively quickly. Even though the trucks didn’t make it in time, they were testing a new fire-fighting plane that day called the “Super Scooper.” From our vantage-point on Mount Olympus, where we escaped, we watched them drop a whole plane-full of ocean water, like a small lake, keeping the firestorm from advancing too far.  It was awesome—but too late for us and twenty-three other homes.

After our fire, we spent three years rebuilding. We got married and started our family, rising from the ashes like the Phoenix.

We changed after that, though, eventually moving away to flatter land in the San Fernando Valley, with sidewalks and green lawns and no chaparral to burn.

Still, every year, when the fires kick up again, I relive it all. I still do.

When the Santa Ana winds start to blow and the air is hot and the brush is tinder-dry, I scan the sky. I am on alert. I smell the smoke before anyone else can, even when the windows are closed. I wake up in the middle of the night and wonder why.

And then I remember.

(this essay has been slightly edited from the original that was published in my former column, "The Tour Bus is on Fire.")


  1. Love this maggie - keep it going!!

  2. I remember John standing on the street with a water hose trying to save the house and you were screaming "John, just get in the car!!!" then loads of flames just shot up the side of the hill out of nowhere....we got of the canynon as fast as we could. Who was driving, was that you Maggie? who saved my life?

  3. Terry Smith. We were in his car, that's why John's car got burnt to a crisp.