I was checking out the interactive fire maps yesterday showing all the acreage burned up in the California fires. As you may know, I hail from the Golden State and thus have many family and friends strewn about the place. As far as I can tell, they are all okay though I suspect my cousin was evacuated for a spell. I haven't heard any bad news, so that's good news. But when I looked at the map of the fire near where I grew up, I was deeply saddened. It looks like half of Saddleback Mountain burned up and the last time I spoke to mom, she couldn't even see the mountain out her window due to the shroud of smoke. This mountain is 6000 feet high and is about 10 miles from home as the crow flies. Every day as a child, I looked out my bedroom window perfectly framing the mountain (an extinct volcano). You can see the darker colored forests at the top and each winter we'd get a storm or two that would leave her covered with snow. I was always fascinated by the snow line which is really an indication of the freezing temperature line. In my 18 years there, I only saw it snow down at my house once. In the summer, the desert thunderstorms butt up against the back of Saddleback mountain, and I remember driving up to the bluffs to listen to the muttering thunderheads behind her. I always felt this was her way of talking and I would crane my neck to try to catch her murmurings.
I remembered the time I took my stepdad's truck for a drive up the mountain where it had snowed the day before. "Hey Chris, do you want to go up to the top of Saddleback and see the snow?" I asked my 8 year old brother to go with me. We took the secret turnoff onto a dirt road to wind our way up her steep skirt of brush covered hills. Switchback after switchback to get to the top. The one lane dirt road had little turnouts along the way to let cars traveling in the opposite direction pass. At one point on a curve in the road, we came upon a car traveling down. I started to back up to get to a wider place in the road when CLUNK, one of my back wheels slipped over the cliff. If the car had gone over, I can honestly say I wouldn't be here today typing. It was straight down hundreds of feet. Being a teenager left me ill-equipped to deal with this situation, but I had to act like nothing was wrong since my little brother was with me. I don't remember how long we were stuck there, but some macho guys with a winch came along and rescued us. We continued to the top, threw a few snowballs around and made a pact never to tell what had happened. Here I am breaking that pact, but I figure the statute of limitations on such a thing has passed.
When I saw the map I felt like I had been kicked in the stomach. My old friend burned and scarred, no wait, burning still! I thought of the life she nurtured, the bobcats, deer and hawks, the tuft of alpine forest at her crest. Gone. They say this fire was caused by arson at a moment when other fires had taken up the available resources. And anyway, it was mostly wilderness, alas, one of the last untouched bits of Orange County.