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At 17, My Childhood Home Burned to the Ground

Hazy reflections of a Los Angeles native

Illustration: HifuMiyo

At 17, I watched my childhood home burn.

That’s not true. I didn’t even get the morbid satisfaction of watching the flames dance and lick the barn-red wooden walls of our 1952 ranch-style house—with its asymmetric facade, brick fireplace, oak bar, and sliding glass doors out to the backyard pool. And I can’t say my childhood extinguished before my very eyes.

I arrived after the fact.

I was in second period econ when my teacher received a phone call for my rare summons to the principal’s office. And it was she who personally drove me to my house that was reportedly on fire. She may have been fulfilling her duty to her student body. Or maybe it was because her husband was the track and field coach and I was a league-champion sprinter. She stopped a block away from my house, at the fire department’s barrier. I got out and ran for my life, it seemed, for the first time.

What happens to you when your life burns? It’s not some symbolic born-again gesture.

I arrived before my mother, whose tears were audible over the phone as she drove from her Hollywood job at the Magic Castle. I arrived late, like most people arrive at the realization that their youth is gone; the past is always smoke and the future an ominous horizon.

My hometown isn’t even on the map. La Crescenta-Montrose is nestled in the foothills of Los Angeles. The town sign reads: “The Balcony of Southern California.” You may recognize the idyllic and quaint Honolulu Blvd. as the backdrop for Will Ferrell’s streaking scene in Old School, among other cameos ranging from Pleasantville, Frankie and Johnny, and Days of Our Lives to a ‘70s-era porno shot at the mothballed eight-lane bowling alley.

Our house was at the northern end of town, at the foot of dark and formidable Angeles National Forest, where the hills grow steep, the nights black, and the mountain lions bold, as they stalk into backyards. And 64 miles to the north, on the other side of the forest, lies Lancaster and endless desert mirage.

The Angeles Crest Highway in the Angeles National Forest. Photo: David McNew/Getty Images

It’s through the dark woods that the seasonal Santa Ana winds come crashing into our lives, the slow moaning of the oak trees as their branches bend and scratch at bedroom windows, the hair-raising gusts that howl like ancient ghosts roaming the empty streets, spilling trash cans and tripping car alarms.

California is isotropic. Anywhere and everywhere is the center. The wind knows this. The fire knows this. It has no regard for where it eats—or what.

The Santa Anas blew hard that fall, just a few days before Thanksgiving, knocking down a power line into our backyard and sparking the wall of ivy that led to our house.

It was the aftermath—and when I came upon my house, my short breaths hanging visible in the November air, I saw only its shadow, framed by lingering smoke and milling firefighters hacking the roof with axes.

After the fire, we never really got our home back.

My mother arrived shortly after me, her professional pantsuit attire clashing with her crumbling emotional state, completely leveled at the sight of our home—the only home on the block to burn that day. I couldn’t see her red, teary eyes behind those black sunglasses.

As soon as it was safe, we nervously lurked through the house like a pair of squatters. The smell was something I’ll never forget and haven’t experienced since. It punctuated the charred horror, assuring us it was real, that this was really happening. The oak bar with its gold vein mirror now bubbled black and still smoking. Among the ruins and traces lay the family portrait that once hung over the fireplace. An artifact the firefighters managed to spare, a two-dimensional simulacrum of a single mother and her two boys. A 12-year-old version of me I no longer recognized.

We walked out to the backyard, through the shattered sliding glass door where the firefighters made their entry and where our cat must have made his escape. The pool and the surrounding tropical flora were scorched and smoking like napalm wake. A few weeks earlier, in English class, we had watched Apocalypse Now. The parallels seemed uncanny. The cinematic images of tropical hellscapes raced through my mind. I looked up at the palm tree that had stood for a half century and saw instead a burnt, towering matchstick.

‘Apocalypse Now.’ Photo: Caterine Milinaire/Sygma via Getty Images

What happens to you when your life burns? It’s not some symbolic born-again gesture. It’s tangible. You’re changed. Cruel in the moment but transformative in retrospect. You are reminded that you and your life are not separate from the world.

It’s been 16 years since I was baptized into Fireland, and fire season has become a year-round backdrop of my life. Though these mountains have always burned, environmental factors like droughts, drier climates, and sporadic rainfall have upped the size and frequency.

When I was asked by Flaunt Magazine to write for their Fantasy issue, I turned the theme on its head and brought up the historically bad fire year of 2017, musing on the prospect of adopting a more nomadic culture, considering the regular refugees made by these fires. “Nightmares: On the Other Side of Heaven” proved prescient for the Camp, Carr, and Woolsey fires of 2018 that would burn tens of thousands of structures and displace hundreds of thousands of Californians.

Two LA writers come to mind when reckoning the West Coast inferno: Mike Davis and Joan Didion. Davis’ take is practical, whereas Didion’s is simply haunting. Mike Davis published Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster in 1998. In it, “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn” serves as a near-prophetic meditation on Angelenos’ denial that fires are not only intrinsic to LA’s DNA, but that building neighborhoods farther into canyons never meant for static habitation—and calling nature’s bluff—is not only willfully ignorant on the part of developers, but outright suicidal. It also becomes costly for the middle and lower classes once disaster inevitably strikes; vast public resources pour into saving mansions and estates as developers throw up their hands in feigned innocence.

LA bares your soul, for good or ill. Some stay. Some flee.

It’s long been the case LA’s wealthy can afford disaster, while more and more other people are rendered homeless. Davis writes: “megacities like Los Angeles will never simply collapse and disappear. Rather, they will stagger on, with higher body counts and greater distress, through a chain of more frequent and destructive encounters with disasters of all sorts; while vital parts of the region’s high-tech and tourist economies eventually emigrate to safer ground, together with hundreds of thousands of its more affluent residents.”

It’s a dystopia not quite at our door, but more and more developers have proven their loyalties lie more in transnational coffers of the absentee rich than in the issues and concerns of localization efforts.

Those hip to the local frequencies, of course, know there is no place in Los Angeles to hide. The abandoned streets at night. The winds pouring through the wild canyons. The enveloping silences even smack-dab in the middle of Hollywood. LA bares your soul, for good or ill. Some stay. Some flee.

Joan Didion knows well the natural madness that lingers over Los Angeles. Those who claim LA has “no weather” have never experienced the hot, grim stillness and yellow haze of “earthquake weather”—which isn’t supposed to exist. We don’t have seasons as much as we have ghosts. It starts with the Santa Ana winds.

“I recall being told, when I first moved to Los Angeles and was living on an isolated beach, that the Indians would throw themselves into the sea when the bad wind blew,” Didion writes.

“For a few days now we will see smoke back in the canyons and hear sirens in the night. I have neither heard nor read that a Santa Ana is due, but I know it, and almost everyone I have seen today knows it too. We know it because we feel it. The baby frets. The maid sulks […] ‘On nights like that,’ Raymond Chandler once wrote about the Santa Ana, ‘every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen.’”

Santa Ana winds on Santa Monica Beach. Photo: Ted Soqui/Corbis via Getty Images

Our brush with the winds showed us the malevolent symbiosis between wind and fire. In the months that followed our house fire, when the winds at night continued to howl, my mother would call me crying when I was at a friend’s house for the night. “The winds scare me,” she would say in a hushed panic, alone in our rental home with the power knocked out. They still do.

“It is hard for people who have not lived in Los Angeles to realize how radically the Santa Ana figures in the local imagination,” Didion writes. “The city burning is Los Angeles’s deepest image of itself… Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse, and, just as the reliably long and bitter winters of New England determine the way life is lived there, so the violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The wind shows us how close to the edge we are.”

Like a few years ago when I dropped acid with friends on their porch on Division Street, and we stretched out our arms and screamed ecstatically every time strong gusts of wind hit us like waves through the canyons of the San Rafael Hills of Northeast Los Angeles.

After the fire, we never really got our home back. Its original rustic design was remodeled haphazardly with a modern touch of glass and steel and cobalt counters by a shyster contractor who had every intention of shaking my mom down as delays and costs mounted. She lost the house some years later when the economy crashed in 2008 and the bank foreclosed. She now lives in the same 600-square-foot apartment in Glendale that her mother died in.

Ranch-style homes, like ours that burned, represented the frontier spirit in a modern era, their design and features evoking the Old West period of wide open spaces and casual living. Those souls whose forefathers traversed an unmapped and mystic continent, reaching for a golden coast, to finally settle in Fireland. More and more you see this style of home being remodeled into sterile white-glass facades, complete with digital doorbells and security cameras. A subtle nod to the wide-open dream now gripped in a vice. A not-so-warm welcome to those dreamers today, still reaching for the same golden coast, unknowing of their impending baptism in fire.

Photo: Camerique Archive/Getty Images

Writer 💀 Fiction/Nonfiction

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