The Fire This Time

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When I was in Cornwall, visiting what I like to call my cousins once removed by friendship (my best friend’s cousins), I missed my plane to London. The plane hadn’t taken off but they had given away my seat. Their marketing slogan should be “Ryan Air: Dirt Cheap and It Shows.”

I had tickets to see a big musical on the West End that night. It was the most money I had ever paid to see a show. The cousin’s best friends (I love every single one of these humans) were in charge of getting me to the airport and when we figured out they would have to drive me about an hour to the train station. The look of woe on their faces said it all. Unless you’re transporting livestock with four legs instead of two, the Englanders don’t drive much. They looked at me the way the way most people do when I eat chicken feet at Dim Sum.

The entire country of England is only 848 miles long and the state of California is 800 miles long. Some people in the countryside of England have never been to London. When you compare that to the fact that in college my friends in San Diego would make a Los Angeles Tommy’s run (chili burgers, six hour round trip) you begin to understand the cultural difference…oh yeah, and petrol in England costs around $6 a gallon.

I know I don’t speak for all Californians or even all Angelenos, but Los Angeles is definitely a car-centric place. People are in their cars not only for work but, because our state has every topography and microclimate you can imagine, it’s not unusual for people to take last minute drives to the mountains, coast, or desert for a quick weekend getaway…or even a day trip. And musicians, oh lord, many will make the round trip to San Diego for a good gig.

That’s just part of the deal here for musicians. We loathe the traffic but the driving we either don’t mind or come to accept. The byproducts of all this car time is a tweaked perception of proximity and a good idea of the different parts of the state. If we haven’t been to the exact spot we know a guy who knows a guy.

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It’s been hard to really absorb the devastation of the fires that have hit California. The Woolsey fire started in Simi Valley and then crossed into the very west end of the San Fernando Valley (where I grew up) jumped a huge freeway and after it crossed the Santa Monica Mountains it also jumped the Pacific Coast Highway. Two very large masses of concrete did not slow down this inferno. As massive as the damage this fire caused it’s not even close to what happened up north at the Camp Fire in Paradise, California. That fire is the biggest the state has ever seen. I don’t know this area but one of my favorite places in all of California is the Sierra Nevadas; this fire was in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas. The body count there is up to 87 with 600 still unaccounted for. That 87 number will grow.

The proximity to my current home and my childhood home made the Woolsey fire surreal. I think when things are especially hard to process, we don’t. We survive because humans keep going but there comes a point where the devastation is so great we can’t absorb any more. We see the images of the losses. We can’t begin to understand that kind of loss but we also recognize we have all lost something. We have lost part of our playground. There are parts of this fire in protected park areas that will probably not be back to normal in my lifetime.

The southern edge of Malibu is a bike ride away from me. Malibu for me is not an abstract place. I use to visit a school in Malibu for work and have had some very special times in that hamlet. My favorite beach is called Paradise Cove. When I was a child my grandmother loved being in the ocean more than anything but she had mobility issues.

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We would pack up and head to this beach. We’d make the hour-plus drive because the cove would allow easy access to the water and also cut down on the rip currents so she could get out of the water without breaking the other hip.

One of the most amazing stories on our local news was how the community in Paradise Cove was, with the help of resident retired fire fighters, able to band together to make sure the flames didn’t destroy the mobile home park located in the hills above the cove. They didn’t flee; they fought. When the destruction was over the devastation was just beginning. They had small private boats to bring in supplies from farther south nearer to where I live. They were not going to leave dogs without their kibble, and one doctor went to get her kit for minor injuries.

Malibu is an interesting place. The mention of the city brings to mind rich industry folk. Cher lives there, need I say more?…Yes, actually, I do. Malibu is not the Beverly Hills of the Pacific. It is so much more than that. Yes, it is a fortune now to buy anything there but it wasn’t always thus. There are people who live there who bought in when it was much cheaper, working class people who are not as affluent as those that live in the Malibu Colony. I would label the area “sophisticated country” because it is so very diverse. Hippies, surfers, horse people, non-profits, even a community theatre. It takes a special type of person to want to live there.

While there are conveniences on the PCH like restaurants and one supermarket, if you live there you are willing to go without choices, and must drive south for many things. You put up with the inconveniences and natural disasters because it’s worth it to you. The Pacific Coast Highway closes fairly regularly; if there is rain, there will be mud slides. (And this year, after the fires, those mudslides will be epic.) Fires aren’t new, so it’s a risk that people are willing to take. Living in Malibu takes more effort, and it seems the level of entitlement you find in some of the other affluent areas of Los Angeles is not as prevalent in Malibu.

Ten years ago, in an area of Malibu called Corral Canyon, there was a major fire that destroyed many homes. The community pitched in and bought their own fire engine, not wanting to rely solely on the fire department. The engine was commandeered during the fire and many homes were lost. (This tidbit sort of flies in the face of the mentality of “Well, they chose to live there”…they did, and they thought they had taken adaquate measures to protect themselves.) People stayed behind literally fighting the fire in Corral Canyon with a shovel. They did save some homes.

The Fire This Time
The guest home at the dog sanctuary in Agoura. (Photo Geraldine Gilliland)

An owner of one of the homes in that area whose house survived is a woman I had never met in person until this fire. She owns two restaurants a half block from my home. I became Facebook friends with her because I was hoping to play music in one of her restaurants. When she was evacuated she put out a call on Facebook: if anyone could come help walk the 20+ dogs she had with her that were part of her dog sanctuary. I responded and walked down to her restaurant and walked some dogs. I wanted to be of help and that was the only thing I could do. She is one of the lucky ones. Her home is still standing and she has the financial resources to replace things like beds and everything that is now ruined from smoke damage.

The Fire This Time
In the Pink: Geraldine Gilliland’s home in Malibu, saved by Phos-Chek air drop chemical fire retardant. (photo courtesy Geraldine Gilliland)

I didn’t know until doing this article that this woman, Geraldine Gilliland, is not only a renowned chef but runs a nonprofit for older and infirmed dogs who have nowhere to go; it’s called Chiquita’s Friends. (Visit on the web at ChiquitasFriends.org.) Sometimes they need a stay over to heal up and be adopted and sometimes they need a safe comfortable place to live out their lives. Her home was spared. Her dog sanctuary in Agoura lost the guest house. I couldn’t help notice when I helped walk there was one type of pup that was very well represented. Don’t tell the other breeds, but Geraldine has a soft spot for beagles. I can’t blame her.

My dear friend and manager Ann was forced to evacuate her townhouse in Agoura. She is a funny, wine lovin’ ex-New Yorker. She can at times make me look demure. She is a hopeful, positive-thinking smart ass. This was her status on Facebook a few days ago:

Every time I come back from having left the area, there’s the worst smoke smell…that’s not leaving. And what was once green, then brown, is now charred…it’s incredibly emotional. You know I’m not all that emotional…so that’s how incredibly emotional it is…hang in there neighbors!!

The Fire This Time
Randi Cee’s manager Ann’s House.

Ann was lucky: she didn’t lose her home. The fire has been put out but they haven’t made a rake big enough to clean up the residue. Mother Nature has always had her own timetable. And for those people up and down the state who have lost everything? Who have nothing?

It will cease to get into the national news cycle but the story and tragedy are far from over.


Randi Cee is a bandleader and vocalist based in Los Angeles who specializes in swing and hot jazz. Visit her online at www.randiceemusic.com.


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