When people ask me where I live and I say, “Santa Barbara,” I wait for the inevitable reply, “Paradise,” and the quizzical look that says, how does one live there, rather than vacation. It’s as if I had replied, Disneyland.
People who visit from colder climates have been complaining lately. Last year, when it finally rained after six years of drought, and we were practically on our knees with gratitude, a woman from New England remarked, “I didn’t come here for the rain.” I almost said, “Well, then, why don’t you go back home?” Another pestered a friend: when was her club in Montecito going to open? My friend replied, “I think it’s under eight feet of mud.” She wanted to add, “And they’re still looking for the bodies.”
It’s always been a struggle here to have a normal life, to hold on to reality.
In December, we got a mega-dose of reality when the biggest fire in California’s history burned more than 270,000 acres. Seven cities were evacuated.
When the air was labeled “hazardous” for three days running, we made plans to leave. On Sunday morning, my phone pinged a mandatory evacuation for Montecito. I called a friend who lives there. “Packing,” she said. The fire was less than a mile away. I drove through the brown air and falling ash to a gas station and when I got there, my credit card wouldn’t work; the power was out. I stood in the zombie snow as others lined up behind me. Finally, we drove north to a hotel on the coast, where, with evacuated friends, we hiked and walked together along the shore.
After we’d been there a few days, I woke up at 3am and thought of a movie I’d watched years ago. Ava Gardener and Gregory Peck waiting for the fallout from a nuclear war in the northern hemisphere to float on the wind to them in Australia. They were going to die, and everyone and everything they cared about was already dead or was going to be. I remembered a lot of drinking and dancing, fruitless searching by submarine along the coasts of the United States for survivors and Fred Astaire fixing up his sports car so he could rev it up in his garage and commit suicide.
I thought, we are On the Beach.
Like them, we were hardly refugees. We hadn’t walked out of our houses not knowing where we were going or who would take us in. But still, hanging over our hikes, was dread.
And what was coming toward us? Immediately, it was the fire. The fire at that point was burning so hot it was basically gas. Because of the long drought, the lack of rain this season, and Santa Ana winds in December.
But we were waiting for something else, too.
And then, the firefighters, all 8,549 of them, stopped the fire and we went home for Christmas.
In early January, a tropical storm from the south hit the newly burned mountains above Montecito between two and three in the morning, and dropped a half-inch of rain in five minutes. A force of water and ash and soil no longer secured by plants picked up boulders on its way down the mountain and swept into the town. My friends in Montecito were just too tired to evacuate ahead of this storm. A firefighter told them the day before. “If you hear a sound like a freight train, get up on the second story or the roof.” They woke up at three under a red sky from houses exploding over severed gas lines and they heard it: “A terrible grinding roar.” It buried houses and cars and people. It buried the freeway and the train tracks. All the way to the ocean. A body of a man was found on the beach. Not far from him was the body of a bear.
Broken houses line mud-caked streets, and two people are still missing including a two-year-old. We are no longer a pretty backdrop, and our hearts aren’t pretty, either.
And we know now what the dread was we felt in December. Call it climate change or climate collapse, that was the Big Dread behind the smaller ones. Climate believers, climate deniers, deep in our hearts we think it will happen somewhere else. Or, in some other time, in 2025 or 2040 or next year. But we are here to tell you, in this postcard from the former paradise, that it won’t happen next year, or somewhere else. It will happen right where you live and it could happen today. No one will be spared.
So, if you are driving around and flying on airplanes and ordering things to be shipped by truck and making money off oil stock the way so many of us are – like there’s no tomorrow? We are here to tell you there is a tomorrow and we are living in it.
If you visit, talk to us as if our dose of mega-reality is not some singular string of bad luck or an inconvenience to you. Help tether us to the reality we are – all of us – living in now and that we in southern California don’t want to forget in the face of returning to “normal”. Give us the one gift that will help us: please, let’s not go back to business as usual.
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