When the Power Died and the Fire Raged

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The power went off at 6 a.m. on Friday, November 9.

I remember because growling at my Alexa to wake up didn’t work. That woke me up. Thus the day, and those to follow, began. So had the Woolsey fire.

My neighbor and I walked her dog along Bonnell Drive and a strange jet with an orange belly flew overhead. That can’t be a water tanker, but it descended toward the smoke plume and we knew.

We decided to follow each other to Gelson’s to get WiFi and groceries. Once there, we went separate ways, she and her family evacuated and I stayed, contacted my son and found news of the fire. I ate breakfast, then decided to drive up to 69 Bravo and see what Simon T and the fire department were doing.

Up Mulholland Highway from Calabasas High School, I started taking photos from numerous viewpoints along the way. Others had the same idea. When I turned and started the climb up a winding Stunt Road, it was like driving into the fire and my heart beat a little faster until that next turn away and up to Saddle Peak Rd. By the time I turned onto Saddle Peak Road, there were groups gathered along the roadside watching the fire’s progress.

At 69 Bravo, the wind was gusting at 30 mph or so. Opening the heavy doors of the container that houses the operations center was daunting as a gust caught it and pushed it open to the end of a restraining chain that held it at bay like an angry dog. Simon pulled it closed and asked if I wanted water. Yes. Then I plugged my cell phone in.

Two TV monitors alternated fire updates among Channels 4, 5, Fox, and CNN. On another monitor, the new Scripps Oceanographic cameras panned the 360-degree vista from 69 Bravo overlooking Topanga to the ocean and north where the fires were burning in Malibu.

Around 3 p.m., TCEP (Topanga Coalition for Emergency Response) reported that a mandatory evacuation had been called for Topanga and they were evacuating EOC headquarters there. As volunteers, they are not required or asked to put their lives in danger. They would be back online after they looked after themselves and their families.

I left 69 Bravo soon after and went home to wrangle two cats, pack some more stuff in addition to what I had packed the night before, and leave. I forgot my cell phone at 69 Bravo, which I wouldn’t retrieve until later the next day.

My landlady, neighbor and friend, Geri Kenyon, 88, came over to ask if I was evacuating. Of course. She agreed to join me at my friend’s house in Woodland Hills for the night. I suggested items she should take—cell phone, wallet, important papers, change of clothes, medications—and waited while she pulled it all together.

A neighbor came down the street, frantic that she didn’t know where her neighbor, Joan, 93, was, and that she was evacuating to Taft High School.

We were refugees, yes, but with a warm, welcoming home to stay in and some sense that Topanga would be well protected. We felt the anticipation of possible loss, but not the reality of losing everything. That heightened my empathy for those who had, for what it was worth.

Our hosts fed us dinner and breakfast and the time was spent in lively conversation in between catatonic bouts watching horrendous news reports.

On Saturday, the winds were calm, the fire, while not burned out, was still alive with the threat of hot spots that could flare up with a gust of wind carrying flying embers miles away to live again. Fire officials declared ten percent containment, the power was back on in Topanga and Geri and I would go home.

The only cat I could catch was happy to be home, meowing in protest from her crate in the car all the way home as we waited in a long line to get back into the Canyon. It took an hour before my other cat decided it was safe enough to come out from her secret hiding place. Two of the three feral cats in the neighborhood simply wanted food.

I slept in my bed that night with two cats and my Papillon snuggling into the comforter with me. It was a great gift that I would wish for everyone.

On Sunday morning, Joan appeared with her benefactor who had housed her the night before. Joan wanted to stay in her home despite pleas not to. She has no phone there. Would I please walk up there before I evacuate? I said yes and took the number of her friend, who would later drive in to get her.

I had set up my computer at my hosts’ home and returned there on Sunday, after picking up my phone at 69 Bravo. At home I couldn’t shake a nagging anxiety that I would suddenly have to leave. I couldn’t focus and Bonnie [Morgan] and I had a newspaper to get out. She had also evacuated to her daughter’s house in the Valley and we were pulling things together remotely.

This account is my final assignment for the November 16, 2018 issue of the Messenger Mountain News. I can breathe a sigh of relief except for a bit of proofreading, then it’s off to the printer and in your mailboxes on Friday.

On Monday, we will start production for the next issue, November 30. We will have celebrated Thanksgiving, perhaps with more gratitude than before, and commitment to ourselves and to tasks that make our and our neighbors’ lives better, even in the face of extreme circumstances.

After all, the Season of Light is upon us once again. Maybe now, we can listen to and heed the advice of our better angels.


Flavia Potenza

Flavia Potenza is executive editor of the Messenger Mountain News. She is also a founding member of the 40-year old Topanga Messenger that closed its doors in 2016. She can be reached at editor@messengermountainnews.com

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