Happiness, fear and hope at Oakridge mobile home park in Sylmar

It's 90 degrees in November, the full glory and perennial curse of Southern California on fierce display. Devil winds, hill-hopping infernos, smoked mansions, torched trailers, barren freeways, and brilliant sunsets lingering in low-hanging canopies of burnt dreams.

Are we all crazy? Don't live here, says the wind, the trembling earth, the parched land whose natural inclination is to explode in flame every year about now.

But we do.

Don't build near the kindling, say the voices of common sense.

But we do, for all the wrong reasons and all the known glories. Our winter snowfall is flakes of ash and flame retardant falling on bougainvillea, so it could be worse.

At least the last big quake was a fake -- a Thursday run-through to test our preparedness. Followed immediately, of course, by a genuine, rip-roaring disaster, the kind of astonishing immolation that allows folks across the nation to feel smug despite their black ice and frozen rain.

I could have gone in any direction to find fire victims Sunday. With flames roaring through Montecito, Sylmar, Corona, Anaheim Hills, Yorba Linda, Diamond Bar and elsewhere, thousands of people had fled. Millionaires on the move, trailer park residents out the door in pajamas.

"It has been a harrowing last 2 days," said an e-mail from a Montecito woman named Katherine, sent to loved ones informing them the family had lost six of its seven homes in the Tea fire.

"The fire was so intense that there was no time for anyone to save belongings. My father and stepmother did not even have time to get their wallet -- let alone rescue the pets! It is literally starting over with nothing but the clothes on their backs."

My friend Mark Morocco, an ER doctor, forwarded me a message from one of his colleagues at Olive View Medical Center, which lost all power Saturday night and was partially evacuated.

"I saw . . . nurses rush into the ER with newborns carried in a kangaroo-like pouch for transport out. . . . It took a team of 8 to carry [one] patient on a stretcher down flights of stairs through 4 floors . . . with just our flashlights for visualization. She made it to Huntington hospital safely."

Across Southern California, tens of thousands made it out safely, helicopters buzzed, hundreds of firefighters risked their lives to protect what was left behind, the Red Cross mobilized like the civilian army that it is, gyms full of cots and blankets appearing out of nowhere.

Saturday night I drove to Sylmar, with firestorms at 11 o'clock and 3 o'clock, rolling over the hills like blazing comets. At the Sylmar High evacuation center, I found residents of the Oakridge trailer park, where more than 500 of the 600 homes were lost.

I saw a woman picking through clothes piled on the bleachers of the Sylmar High gymnasium. She was holding them up for size and then folding them neatly into a cardboard box.

Lee Chandler had her work credentials on a string around her neck. She's a Providence Hospital RN and was with her pal and roommate, Ray Bloss, a retired Army medic who now works as a physician's assistant out of West Hills hospital.

Did they live at Oakridge? I asked.

Bloss nodded.


He shook his head. Across the gym was a blackboard with several dozen addresses on it, the only known trailers that survived the fire. The one Bloss and Chandler rented was not on the list. When I asked what they were able to save, Bloss pointed to his shoes.


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