Recent wildfires in Southern California burned about 100,000 acres of the Santa Monica mountains surrounding Kongo’s home west of Los Angeles. It was a scary time. Naturally Kongo was not at home when the fires started, leaving Mrs. Kongo alone with the grand daughters. (He was also away when lightening struck their home near Washington DC several years ago resulting in fireman traipsing through the attic putting out smoldering wires but that’s another story.) The phones started beeping with emergency alerts and when Mrs. Kongo got the message EVACUATE IMMEDIATELY that’s exactly what she did.
She grabbed the granddaughter, her purse, and headed for the mall. Like this wasn’t exactly a fire sale but it’s a place she thought would be away from danger. It was a good choice. Kongo met up with her later after a hectic dash back from Santa Monica with the freeways closing and smoke billowing above the mountains. They rendezvoused in the mall parking lot while the grand girls practiced kart wheels and wondered when they could go home. Nobody knew.
“Did you get any papers?”
“Did you get a computer?”
“Did you get my camera?”
Mrs. Kongo was starting to get testy.
“No, I got your granddaughter. Be happy.”
Kongo was happy.
Kongo’s oldest was also in a mandatory evacuation zone but the fires had passed behind their house on the way to Kongo’s so it was fairly safe and after getting dinner that’s where they headed. The fire had jumped the freeway behind the girls’ dance studio and was heading toward the Pacific Ocean. Kongo’s neighborhood was in the way but so were hundreds of firefighters so all you could do was hope for the best.
Overhead helicopters and tanker planes flew non-stop. Smoke billowed from the east and flames covered the surrounding hills. As night fell it was eerie and distances were deceiving. Sometimes the fire looked like it might be only a few blocks away but was actually a couple of miles off. The flames were so high it made it seem closer.
About 11 PM on the first night of the fire there were more emergency alerts telling you to EVACUATE IMMEDIATELY and Mrs. Kongo was getting antsy again. We spent the night in an evacuation shelter parking lot a few block from our son’s house and watched fire trucks stream by all night heading into the hills.
The next day things seemed better but there were still evacuation orders out. Police cars from Santa Barbara blocked the entrance to Kongo’s neighborhood. In the afternoon, Kongo knew of secret back way into the neighborhood (on a fire road no less) and was able to make it home to get a few things. When Mrs. Kongo had said she’d grabbed the granddaughter and ran that’s exactly what she did. The back patio doors were wide open. Kongo checked to make sure a pack of coyotes hadn’t moved in and grabbed the usual emergency stock: a laptop, camera, some underwear, makeup for Mrs. Kongo, some clothes, and wine. On the way back he figured maybe he needed more wine so he stopped at the store which was still open and not evacuated and stocked up. You have to have priorities.
When we were finally able to return there were several days of sitting glued to the TV watching the fires swirl around us and move in different directions. Malibu burned. Calabassas burned. Agoura Hills burned. Malibu is south of Kongo but Calabassas and Agoura Hills are to the east. The worst had passed for Kongo but not for others who were still in danger. Hundreds of thousands of people in the area were evacuated.
Kongo drove through the hills today to see what was left. Actually most was left. While many homes were lost, most were saved. The firefighters did an amazing job. You can see a blackened moonscape with pockets of homes that survived. Fires burned right to the edge of the property. Two friends Kongo works with at the Getty Villa lost their homes in Malibu. Everybody knows someone who lost everything.
Now that the rains have started everyone worries about the mud and slides. The hills are naked with no vegetation at all. Just burned remnants.
We were very thankful at Thanksgiving. Thankful that our homes had been spared, that we had all survived intact, and that it wasn’t worse. We supported those in Northern California who lost much more than we did here in the south. And we shook our heads at a president that said we needed to do a better job raking leaves in our forest.
Road crews are out repairing down lines and burned infrastructure. It will be going on for months. Then the rebuilding will start. This is paradise after all.