I have good news to report: the friend of mine who lives near the Topanga fire west of Los Angeles reports everything is now okay. LAPDWife also has some great pictures of how close the blaze came to her neighborhood.
The Topanga blaze triggered memories of the two that danced north our house only to be brought under control just in time. While my wife and I turned the blaze of 2002 into our first date following the birth of Seth, the 2003 Grand Prix blaze turned into a nightmare.
It was the weekend before my 40th birthday, and we were going to celebrate at my mom’s home in Scottsdale, Arizona. The plan? To work from home on Friday and then drive six hours to Scottsdale. We had to leave before rush hour turned the freeway into a parking lot.
The Grand Prix Fire had been burning about 10-12 miles east of us for two days, but it seemed isolated and small – 3,500 acres. But Friday morning, I could see through Seth’s bedroom window flames dancing on the mountains. (Photo from Huntington Beach City website.)
The outdoor sky was filled with a thick, white-brown smoke. This Hot desert winds called the Santa Anas more than tripled the blaze overnight to 12,600 acres.
I called up my boss and told him we were getting out of there now. He understood and by noon we were driving out of town. So were a lot of other people.
One difficult decision was whether to take our cat, Nellie. We only had a Toyota Echo at the time, which had no room left over for a cat carrier once packed with mommy, daddy, baby and luggage. And Nellie did not travel well without drugs, which we didn’t have on hand.
My mom’s condo is even smaller than the Echo. Fortunately, our pet sitter promised to take Nellie home with her if the fire came too close.
The days in Scottsdale went quickly, though we kept an eye on the news. At one point, we learned the Grand Prix fire had merged with the Old fire in the east to create a conflagration reaching almost 100,000 acres.
We had difficulty reaching our pet sitters, who eventually told us Nellie was fine, though our neighborhood had been officially evacuated. Firefighters were letting pet sitters and other workers into the area. They did warn us everything inside and outside the house was covered in a fine layer of black soot. (Photo credit NASA.)
One irony: My wife had arranged a day at the spa as a 40th birthday present. Considering what was going on, it was good to have all the tensions rubbed out of my shoulders, back and legs.
We were pretty confident that by Monday night our house had been spared so I headed home alone Tuesday morning. I didn’t want Seth and Anne to breathe more soot that necessary.
It turned out to be a wise choice, because the smoke coming from the fires had turned the air gray and sometimes black. The “fog” lasted the 400 miles from the western edge of Phoenix until I reached Los Angeles. The smoke was so heavy in places I could only see 20-50 feet in from of me.
When I reached our home, I learned the fire had stayed north of our neighborhood and continued due west into Claremont. What I didn’t know until much later was that the fire sneaked down a wash and came much closer than I had thought. The X on the map illustrates the fire came within a quarter of a mile of our home.
Once in the house, I fed the Nellie – she was fine – and used the air blower to get the half inch-deep layer of soot off the sidewalk, patios and balcony. In the house, I had to sweep and mop the floors.
Because the house still smelled like a campfire, I drove down to Long Beach – the coastal town was far away from these fires – and stayed the night with my wife’s cousins. Amazingly, soot covered the cars in their neighborhood, too.
The next day, I borrowed a co-worker’s shampoo machine and took it home after work. I hoped that cleaning the carpets would reduce the smoky smell somewhat.
A few days later, Seth and the Empress flew back into town. They reported that the heavy smoke I drove through blanketed Phoenix for most of the days I was gone and forced them to stay indoors.
As it turns out, a house we nearly bought is now just a foundation. The Grand Prix Fire destroyed the beautifully wooded Palmer Canyon and left only two homes standing.
Thinking about it now, I am amazed how lucky we were. Had we bought the house in Palmer Canyon, we’d still be homeless or caught in bureaucratic hell. And if the winds had shifted just a tiny bit, our house in Upland might have burned.
One last thing: even two years later, we find black soot on the bottom of our shoes and the mountains looking starker than they did before the fires. It’s clear that it will be a long time for the wilderness to return to its former beauty.
- The Grand Prix Fire burned about 59,448 acres and the Old Fire burned about 91,281 acres.
- Overall, 14 fires burned 750,043 acres in Southern California.
- At least 40,000 residents were evacuated.
- It cost $1.3 billion to fight the Grand Prix, Old and nearby Padua fires.
- About 14,000 firefighters battled these blazes and others raging around Southern California.
- The Grand Prix and Old fires destroyed 325 homes.
- The combined fires in Southern California burned 3,710 homes in 2003.
- A total of 24 people died because of these fires, many of which were started by arsonists.