Healing the Fire


By way of acknowledging April as Poetry Month, the Messenger Mountain News is celebrating the poets among us who, on Saturday, Feb. 23, 2019, sought to heal the effects of the November fires through Healing the Fire: A Reading of Poems and Dispatches, curated and presented by Loose Lips founders, Jean Colonomos and Millicent Borges Accardi, at the Topanga Public Library.

Twenty-one poets were selected and invited to participate in the presentation that was anchored around real-time dispatches that alternated with authors reading their poems. The event was additionally graced by the presence of three poet laureates: Phil Taggart of Ventura, Ricardo Means Ybarra, and Ellen Reich, the first and second Malibu poet laureates, respectively. Dispatches were culled from various sources released during and after the fires and read by Malibu poet Ann Buxie. Healing the Fire begins on page 15 and continues in the order presented at the reading. © 2019 All rights reserved by authors.

The poems are divided into Dispatches. Click on the red squares at the bottom to go to the next Dispatch

Photo by Suzanne Guldimann

DISPATCH FROM CALFIRES.CA.GOV:  In 2018 wildfire agencies responded to 6,284 fires, in 2017 6,468 fires, in 2016, 6,954 fires and in 2015 8,283 fires.  According to the LA Times, since 2015 there’s been a fire every month.

FIRE SEASON by Phil Taggart


The tap of an air horn   at 1 am woke us that distinctive      fire engine horn klaxon lolling softly    deeply a couple blocks away red sky fills   our bedroom window

The hills were ablaze    great plumes of smoke   towered our neighbors   awake eyes intent on    the hills not far away     flames whipped to frenzy by the Santa Ana winds  

our        electricity     was off the power garage door    was closed I disconnected opened it     drove the car out we drove to Bristol Road     a panoramic view of flames topping our hills from Santa Paula       through Ventura

the winds drove the flames     13/14 miles an hour the fire     blazed its way to Ojai / Oak View / The Rincon / palm trees   explode on the beach/ Carpenteria / Santa Barbara

back home    two kids were   up on their roof      the flames their silhouettes dark against the bright orange red


not quite      a year later  I’ve stopped my car     on Bristol again to watch   the newest fire roll over the hills     whipped again by the Santa Anas

fear    adrenaline       awe

this time     around Camarillo   close to where it burned      just a few years ago

the New York Times says     this is a late season fire     these days seems like there are no particular   seasons for fire it’s all fire season

In Thousand Oaks  / Oak Park / Simi  / Calabasas / Agoura  / Topanga

the fire      hops over closes    the 101 and flames all the way    

to the ocean

NIGHT WORK by Chris Spangenberger

Awakened in the chamber of a Glock 45,

what began as a small contraction

of muscle in the index finger,

became the flame that pushed the bullet,  

the flame we saw before the shock wave found us,

before the first one fell,

before the flame found eleven more,

before that flame, reflecting off broken glass,

escaped the killing room,  spinning out into the night,

joining a maniac wind, that would, within days,

complete the awful work begun that night. 

Second Evacuation  by Kathi Stafford

We’ve done this once before

The helicopters fly low with their loudspeakers blaring

Evacuate now          Evacuate now

The skies behind our Malibu home glow      orange and black

I don’t want to leave my garden     with its California poppies

in a neat row          and the jade in bloom for Christmas

But children are more important than poppies

We grab violins   sleeping bags     a cello      photo albums of baby pictures

The flames come down the hills next to our house

as the children begin screaming

Dan drives west on Pacific Coast Highway   but fire

jumps the road      so he makes a u-turn drives the Suburban

Over the median             The right choice—

Others don’t turn around and lives are lost 

We stay with friends in Conejo Valley for three nights      then

back to our home     Our little home still clinging to the cliff

My white stucco walls seared black      smell of burnt rattlesnakes

And coyotes         Nothing left in my garden and

Big black boot marks           where  firemen pulled

heavy hoses across the ecru carpet

We are fortunate        Garden a light loss compared to friends with burned

out homes         I have bad dreams for months         What comes back from

ashes?   I wonder if I still believe in the phoenix     in rising up from dust and tears—

although I see grace      friends taking in friends for months      people cooking meals

for the suffering     I wish I had taken my great grandmother’s biscuit barrel,

with its red roses and delicate china sides  for comfort     I worry about the next disaster 

next fire  next earthquake       

What we survive      next time

Photo by Suzanne Guldimann

DISPATCH FROM AGOURA:  As part of fire prevention in a public park, 300 goats were brought in to munch on the underbrush, which is most vulnerable to fires.  It took an hour for the goats to finish the job.  In that Agoura park, the fire line stopped where the goats had eaten.

MARAH by Marsha de la O

The East wind blows drought across our hill country,

our dry land.  Rain has not come.

For three hundred days, roots have plunged as far as they can,

suckled what moisture they find, drawing it up until they can’t.

The East wind stirs dry stalks.  Dry leaves twig off dry limbs.

The East wind blows in December.

This is unheard of, we cry, but we hear the wind.

We know what it means.

We speak to the sky.  We petition the wind.  Let if fall to others,

we whisper.  We ask this in secret.

And it falls on others.

After fire burns the hillsides, burns the ground to a glaze,

melts silica in the earth to glass, our hill country

is brittle as sugar cubes, as yielding as sand.

The March rains fall gently, finally a blessing, and the beings

who must be born after fire are born and bloom quickly.

We call them beautiful.  They are family; they survived like us.

They disappeared, they waited, now they come forth: canyon

sunflower, silver lupine, Queen Anne’s lace, milk thistle.

The vines crawl the slopes at night, spread their tentacles.

Coast morning glory – its other name is bindweed – found a way

to the Channel Islands, found a way to the burning grounds,

opens its thousand upturned faces, throats of pale lavender.


Old Agoura, where its downward slide begins

twelve miles due south to reach Pacific shores

winds up and down through ridges, canyons, hills

bedecked with twisted stumps, blackened brush

sad ghosts of former landmarks flank its path

Kanan Road’s steep plunge to PCH and sea

reveals a sharpened burn scar at its base

gaps where homes once stood, like missing teeth

stand side by side with mansions, now forlorn

prior lush green gardens only ashes

This monster fire retained no prisoners

a home was either lost or stayed

behind to tell the tale to those at last returning

a Capricorn of blazes, skipped about

pushed by wild winds, driving flames

Paramount Ranch, its western town façade

known from many films, destroyed

familiar site where Mash played out its war

now only piles of rubble and ash remain

Christy’s Roadhouse, rustic purveyor

of chicken, ribs and beer—swallowed whole

Survivors, too, exist and soldier on

Neptune’s Net, the Rock Store, escaped cremation

stood tall against encroaching flames

the Hindu Temple, east of Malibu Canyon Road

untouched, a white mirage, still rises

First responders held the line,

so many homes were spared the flames

red slashes of retardant dropped from planes

for every loss, ten remain, safe

and grateful families thankful, sing in praise

Our precious Mountain Pearl

southern California’s Shangri-La

reduced to naked, wind-burned hills

sad reminders of former vistas left behind

to stand in witness, signal nature’s ire.


One day I sense something isn’t right.

One day, I know, how wrong they are.

A confession pours out. One sentence to tell it.

Hope shatters. One day and another

My heart pebbling.

One day friendship falls upon me.

Yes, I will mortar my words with yours

two of us, puzzling, pounding our salt.

I’ve been sanctified.

One day, one drought, wind comes, and fire

licking through canyons.

Prepare to evacuate.

I offer the house to flame,

drywall, palms, birds of paradise,

but take my home with me.

Memories decaded on this spit of land,

rooted in the earth, swarming in the air.

You steeled me for a new beginning.

In this charred and holy hour,

I’ve been sanctified.

things like this happen.

R U OK by Ellen Cohen

Yes seems the most encompassing response,

emotionally, physically along with an

overwhelmingly sense of being blessed.

I have a door

I can open and shut behind me.

A mess to clean up.

A scorched hill outside bedroom and kitchen windows

now turning green.

Like a bear on its back playing in the snow

if the mud slides when it rains

I’ll just flow with it

or let it tuck me in.

So many have lost everything.

If they can cope, so can I.

Wishing you a little holiday magic

Like the three deer I spotted

grazing on the emerging vibrant green carpet.

Nature can be so bountiful.

Can being the operative word.

I can

Give voice to the full gamut of

throttled and swallowed feelings.

Breathe in a steady stream of oxygen.

Feed all cells within.

Break the cast I’ve fashioned and

lived with for so long.

Toss its constraining power into consuming flames.

Move on.

Photo by Suzanne Guldimann

DISPATCH FROM ELLEN REICH, MALIBU PARK LANE: Dec.21, “ This morning I took my usual three mile walk around my neighborhood and counted 94 houses down.  On my walk later in December: I am now up to 130 houses down.

FLUFFY by Fernando Salinas

she is wild, uncontrollable and screams

not for me–

oily skin drying out, sweating in our living room,

holding the flimsy green hose

seemingly capable of no more than a drool

as thick black creeps at me

so, I search with stinging eyes

the sun hides in blistering walls

heat plops in clumps from charred ceiling

trembles in puddles on the kitchen tile

the food stuffed cabinets cook,

cans pop, windows shatter, the clatter of silverware

escaping smoldering drawers…

I ignore it all, as though,

none of these things matter

and call for Fluffy in sore throat hisses

while curtains vanish like flash paper

and I can smell the hair on my arms

and the sofa, and plastic, and wood, and wall mounted TV

singed possessions, the bitter smell

of years of horded memories

yet, nothing is burning except my lungs

everything is meltinga Dali painting on fire

family photo faces slide from picture frames

to the floor

at her bedroom

I am reminded of the time

my dad told me not to pick

up the glowing charcoal, it hurt

the time he told me not to sip

hot cocoa through a straw…

I never listened, but I can hear

my mother’s sobs, hear her screaming more,

begging for me to save something

I can smell dead behind the door

HOLY FIRE by Elaine Alarcon-Totten

My cousin in Idaho thinks fire
is God’s punishment for California’s sins,
a purification of Paradise
incinerating houses, trees, people, and creatures,
PG&E its holy instrument
of retribution.
Do zealots rejoice
that there is no calendula
for burnt souls, for gutted prayers
wafting upward in ash
or for the scorched skin of earth
and its fried flesh and bone?
Are there no sinners in Idaho?

From space the globe seems to be leaking,
a blue balloon that spouts gusts of steam
and will soon shrivel and shoot off to infinity,
in red and blue, sacred colors.
If Revelation is to come, it is God’s secret tba.
Death, being democratic, who would wish it?

OF GOD AND INSURANCE by Florence Weinberger

After the fires, a strangeness set in.

As if the flames had unseated our souls.

The hillside spill of damaged household

goods had assumed their broken shapes;

hard to tell how once they were useful.

New plants were sprouting, and queer.

A lone mushroom next to the road,

unlike the common fungi you’d find

packaged up in market bins,

a mushroom I’d never seen before.

Further on, close to the dunes,

another, an unaccountable scatter.

I did not dare pick them, just stared,

as if to fathom a lethal intention.

The dunes banked to shore up the road

were sifting away, running back down

to the safety of the tides but the tides

were stunned, and incomprehensible.

Neighbors were tentative, afraid to ask.

Their dogs yanked at their leashes.

Cars slowed down. After the fires, thick

ropes of rain, and then there was sludge.

Black ash covered everything.  Shoved

by the wind under my door like junk mail.

Under my feet, stuck to my shoes.

People wore masks, even in church.

They called meetings, shouted and shook

their heads, spoke of blunder and blame,

of God and insurance, rain that came

too late to matter.

After the fires, it was as if I had moved

to a smaller country, to my new life.

Photo by Suzanne Guldimann

DISPATCH FROM PERLA LOVEJOY FROM A RURAL TOWN IN NORTHERN CALIFORNIA: “Since the Valley fire in 2015, there’s a level of PTSD that is inflamed.  Everyone needs attention. Some people are just rebuilding from all the previous fires.  In a rural area, every person counts for two; our resources are strained. One of the most intense outcomes is the higher number of homeless people who had no insurance and for whatever reason, no reliable support circle.”

DARK MATTER by Sandra Cannaday Knapp

Between raindrops we hold our collective breath,

Wondering if earth will stay or wash away

In post-fire rain. Hills stripped of brush and grass

By hungry fire fingers show drab blanket of char,

Suspended animation, film broken awaiting repair.

And scientists have proven a theory

Which Einstein had abandoned:  That “dark matter”,

Negative to our positive, exists in space so far away

We are not likely to meet.  Dark matter, balanced,

Unlike many of us, so dis-ordered we scramble

Back and forth, conflicted more than ants who

Know their own purpose while we struggle

For power, think we are alone,

That we choose our own fate — 

When the only matter that matters is whether

Or not we save room for each other, similar and

Different, sane and un-sane, but willing to look,

Acquire wonder in anthills, and, outside our sphere,

Such dancing of dark and light that we

Find our way, held together

Between ourselves

          In whirl of near and distant starlight.


Here in California

it is October, almost Halloween

to my Eastern eye, the colors are off

no orange no rust.

Even the pumpkin patch

of a seasonal entrepreneur

emits a yellow glow as

hundreds of helpless gourds

bake in the relentless sun

The grasses are dry

the heat intense

the nasty Santa Ana’s

bluster and plot

scrounging the arid earth

for one small spark,

the chance to let it fly.

And boom! the holiday arrives

rust and orange flames

whip through tinder brush,

armies of invading ghosts

whooshing and crackling

sucking gobs of oxygen

a child’s game gone mad

police cars and

shiny red fire trucks blast

screaming sirens

at bewildered people in

midnight garb

nightmares break free

as small children and

grandparents are

snatched out of warm beds

thrown into cars and

raced to safety wondering

is this the

Day of the Dead

or some kind of trick

with a treat to follow

RESET by Diogo Avancini Fernandez, high school student

(Read by Ricardo Means Ybarra)

Everything changed…

my house of 14 years

my first steps

my first words

my loved ones

my memories


Everything changed…

starting from scratch

everything over again.


Photo by Suzanne Guldimann

DISPATCH FROM THE MALIBU LIBRARY:  A middle-aged couple arrive to fill out their FEMA paperwork at the Malibu Library accompanied by a large dog. Their house has been completely destroyed, but they bravely state their lives are wonderful as long as they have their darling dog. When the man goes inside the library to fill out paperwork, his partner finds a seat on a bench, and the dog curls around her feet. Only then does she let her shoulders drop and her facade falls. She remains motionless, staring off into the distance like a shell-shocked soldier for an hour until his return.

ODE TO THE WIND by Jennifer Kelley


old dear friend,

who brought me love

and the feel of hands on my skin

long before it was my due.

Why now will you bring me fire,

homes lit with pain and loss?

Why now will you bring me the heartache

that you once were the one to soothe.

I once wrote,

Walking/against/ the wind/feels how I know it would/ to love you.

Once you were the hand of love,

now you whistle and whip sparks and flames

now you batter us into calling your name.

And I don’t have to wonder about your gender anymore.

Oh wind,

but I remember the good times,

when you carried me along,

when you sang to me softly

that good time song.

Oh wind,

as I hear the neighbors begin to scatter

their car doors slam, luggage wheels rattle,

I think you must be heartless after all.

But I can still remember when you made make-believe.


Title from Ceremony After a Fire Raid  by Dylan Thomas

    Summer turns dead-brown


            against a peopled tide

   shoulder olive-drab trees

holding on and reaching deep

            to find a buried stream

Phone lines

            hissing as they arc

   make a bridge of light

when desert winds flush the air away

            spark the dragon

that eats fields barren and mutilates

            the trembling long-eared hare

   the homeless coyote

       the jerking lizard

I’ve seen the barren-wasted hills

            after wild-fire wars

Their stubble-leavings black

   and tortured

Stumps knob out

        like awkward cactus flowers

on devil soil

   where ribbon snakes

            search for scorched meat

   on little skulls of rodents

Floods raise the coffins

            of our lost

and a mother tosses her infant girl

   from a second-story window

just before a burial of mud

            writhes its way

   to sea

IN MY DREAMS by Flavia Potenza

I dreamed I’m dancing airborne above flaming hillsides and canyons, impervious to fire.I am burning in ferocious freedom, hungry, grasping for everything in sight.

In my dream I  wouldn’t know the agony of breathless lungs reluctantly choosing to inhale Life or Death. 

In my dream, I’m floating above blackened hillsides and canyons garbed in flowing smoke joyously kicking up ashen dust devils that waft against a cloudless azure sky as if nothing bad had ever happened.

In my dream I’m the rain embracing scorched earth of hillsides and canyons, its incinerated shadows, its detritus that quicken and gather all in its path turning burn scars into rivulets, rivers, torrents, and carry the newborn into a chocolate sea.

I know someone who calls them nightmares. 

I call them dreams and return to her night after night until she’s strong again and asks me to leave.

Photo by Suzanne Guldimann

DISPATCH FROM LOCAL 69 FIREMEN: lunching across from Jean at the Bistro. They look exhausted after fighting fires for three weeks. I ask one fireman how they feel about their job. He points to a young fireman and says, “Four days on the job, he’s 25 and feels he has his dream job.”


Sunrise huddles under the covers

with Cynthia, curved beauties

reluctant to stretch

for the coffee

cup smudged

with a kiss

along one rim.

At 6 in the morning on the trail

above Zuma top of Busch drive

I hike straight up over ash

the homes of friends and neighbors

a stable, the loss of memory.

On the ridge lusty rays

remove my jacket, peel

an orange, stare down

the burned canyon walls.

We know there will be rain

obese gusts from the Northwest

sliding into town

drunk as sailors.

Before heading down I linger

search for the farthest islands

Nicolas, Santa Barbara, and Clemente

a gopher humps up dark red earth

cheeks flush with seeds-

touch my wife in the warm bed

find a slight reflection of a dream

rising in the sun.

GREENHOUSES by Nancy M. Morse

Framework of abandoned


the only structures

on the fallow field

near Malibu city hall.

Every Friday I drive past,

admire their beauty.

Straight sides and pointed roof.

Metal bars, upright and cross,

that once held panes of glass.

This Friday as I drive near

A voice speaks:

Photograph these today.

Can’t don’t have my camera.

Get it and come back.

It is a long distance, will be dark,

I’ll do it next week.

The voice reminds me:

You seldom use your camera,

you enjoyed photographing

structures like this.

Yes, it has been many years

since I felt the thrill of photography.

As though looking

through the camera lens

I see the close up of angles,

the pictures I will take.

Saturday the voice speaks.

Go to Malibu,

photograph the greenhouses.

I don’t want to drive that far,

I’ll do it next Friday.

Sunday a fire roars through Malibu.

ZUMA by Riley Jaret, Ninth-grade student

(Read by Ricardo Means Ybarra)

The displaced rancher

rests against the chain fence

watching his horse gallop in the sand.

The displaced mother

rocks her masked child

watching hillsides burn from the sand

The distraught surfer

re-enters the waves

watching the dark water draw from the sand.

      Wind changes

and the plume envelops the beach

       smoke spreads over the sand.

The displaced rancher

hurries his horse back into the truck.

The distressed mother

holds her masked child as she runs.

The distraught surfer

hurls his board in the flatbed.

       Watching as they drive away.

Photo by Kathie Gibboney

DISPATCH FROM NORTHERN CALIFORNIA’S BUTTE COUNTY:  The accelerated winds at 40 miles per hour caused the Camp Fire to spread at the speed of one football field a second.   


On scorched earth, last harvested by mother and sons,

a hand rake juts up from a bed of ash. The mother stands

and stares at its claw, paint bubbled and peeling.

No longer suited for her kneeling sons to scratch the earth’s skin,

poke fingers in the soil and plant seeds.

A gray blanket smothers their vegetable rows, fruit orchard,

flower garden. Father and sons join her to stare where blooms

once blazed, now absent of color, holding no light.

The younger boy reaches down, touches the rake, looks up.

Asks, “Can I keep it?” The mother clenches her teeth,

nods, ‘yes.’

The rake blackens his hand. It smells of fire. Fear roars into his blood.

He turns and wraps his arms around his mother’s legs. His brother wraps his arms

around her hips. Her husband pulls her to his chest, where she burrows.

They do not separate for a long time.

They are all that remains.

TARNISHED HEART by Kathie Gibboney

Cities on fire, places we know, suddenly so dear,

                                                                                        their smoke rising in the air.                                  

                     And what would it be like to lose a house, a pet, all precious things?

        I fear I would fall on the ground and kick and yell and grab the scorched earth,

                                            weeping over the loss

                                                                                    and never believe in angels anymore.

                In stark January, bleak with rain, in a house still standing,

                             I pack up my beloved Christmas treasures, folding tissue paper around,

          merry elves, golden pixies, china bells, snow globes, Santas, gnomes,

                                                      elegant reindeer stately and silent,

                                      and unidentifiable glue and glitter creations, made by children’s hands.

   But one obstinate angel will not fit anywhere. No box will hold her

                           and I wander about the living room with her in my hands

                                                                                                            until I am called                                                                                                                         to look at her.

  She is an Irish angel with shamrocks ‘round her skirt,

                                                                         but that skirt is charred and blackened.

   One careless Christmas Eve, she stood tall upon the shelf amongst the Christmas finery,

                                                      her wings spread wide over my old, adored collection,

                                                                                                         all set upon a cloth of silver sheen.

                          And the Angel Chimes spun ‘round, with their little tinkling sound,

                                                            An ancient machine propelled by candles.                   

How long the angel smoldered we do not know,

                                                                                busy with ribbons and bows.

                                    She burned slowly until we smelled the smoke,

                   Then grabbed her by the wings and ran her to the kitchen sink,

                                                                                               where she sizzled under water.

                           No other treasures were burnt, the angel took the hit.

                                                   She wears her tarnish proudly.

And I know, if but she could,

                    she would stand one-hundred feet tall and protect us all from the coming flame.

          But should come a day I fall on the ground,

                                      bereft with loss and grief, may I still then believe in angels,                                                                                                                         within my tarnished heart.

DISPATCH FROM A CANYON IN MALIBU:  A woman and man are in a car fleeing flames. They pass a home where the fire is creeping up the hill ready to ignite the house. Noticing a swimming pool, they race out of the car, find the pool pump and turn it on encroaching flames. They get back in the car and speed off, having saved a stranger’s home.

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