My little creek-stone house in Modjeska Canyon is fine. Thanks for asking. I received scores of e-mails from worried readers after writing dispatches last week about returning from my East Coast wedding to find that our home stood in the path of the Santiago fire. I was lucky; eight of my neighbors weren't.
Now life is moving in the direction of normal. The roads are open, the army of firefighters is leaving and most of our neighbors are back at home in our beautiful little forest canyon.
Ten days ago, I was a passenger in a car driving through a wall of flames on Modjeska Grade Road. It wasn't much comfort that a senior Orange County fire chief, who doesn't want his name published, was at the wheel.
Seconds after passing into the fire, blessedly blue sky appeared. But just as quickly, it was replaced by a terrible sight: A long arm of flame reached across the two-lane road and hit Jim and Diane Carter's one-of-a-kind geodesic dome home. They'd often bragged that their house sat at one of the highest points in the county, with spectacular views in all directions. These were my neighbors and good friends.
"Oh my God," I said in a shaky voice.
We rounded the twisting road to Modjeska Canyon proper. The entire mountain flank to our right was engulfed in flames. I just couldn't comprehend that my canyon was burning. We sped to the canyon floor and drove under the graceful, arching olive trees planted by Helena Modjeska's husband, the Polish Count Bozenta, in the late 1800s. Smoke billowed everywhere.
Neighbors who had stayed through the mandatory evacuation the night before were now fleeing. Two told me that their homes were on fire, and no firefighters were in sight.
We raced to the intersection with Santiago Canyon Road, where the members of Modjeska's Fire Station 16 stood: Bruce Newell, his three sons, Bob and Vickie Scheibel, Eryk Stacy and others.
Their faces were etched with frustration and despair. In the decade I have known him, I have never seen Bruce look so helpless. His eyes filled with tears, and he held his hands open wide, unable to speak.
These volunteer firefighters, whom I know and love, had trained for decades for this day. They had missed birthday parties, holidays and family celebrations to train. They had awakened in the middle of the night to race to the aid of a neighbor or stranger to offer medical aid, to extinguish a kitchen fire or a condo blaze.
Now they were marooned by the side of the road, the canyon ruled too dangerous to enter. I gazed back at them as we traveled down Santiago Canyon Road toward a media briefing at Irvine Regional Park. A dark cloud of smoke mushroomed over Modjeska Canyon.
I learned the next day that not long after we had left the scene, Battalion Chief Mike Rohde sent a brigade of firefighters back into the canyon. His calculation was this: The local firefighter who would help lead the effort, Bruce Newell, was experienced, calm and rational. The other volunteer firefighters from Station 16 were well-trained, tenacious and knew every inch of the canyon. And Rohde himself had helped write the book on how to fight fires in Modjeska Canyon.
He ordered the engines back in to save the canyon.
"It was like the last scene in a cowboy western, when you're surrounded and at the last possible minute they send the 7th Cavalry in," said Leo Hetzel, who has served at Station 16 for 31 years, longer than anyone.
Bob Scheibel and Eryk Stacy fought to save Bob and Vickie's house. Bruce ended up fighting the fire that threatened his home. "I didn't feel good about it," he said. "It didn't seem right to fight to save my own house."
Classic Bruce. He first saved the Talbotts' home above him. Then he and two of his sons, along with Phil Buller and Dave Precup, set to work saving the hillside home and piano cottage that Bruce had built for his wife, Beth, years ago. Along with their fire hoses, they sprayed water from garden hoses strung on his chicken coops.
A few hours later, I returned to the canyon. The stone house on the left with the "Whoa" stop sign lay in smoldering ruins. I went past the charred remains of the little yellow house on the right where a blind woman lived several years ago. Was she safe? The house next door, where my dog sitter lives, was untouched.
Around the bend to the left, I found my house intact -- and I cried. A few minutes later, I learned that Phil McWilliams' home had burned to the ground, probably in that fire ball that blew up above the olive trees. It was a cruel loss.
He was the one who'd organized our canyon cleanups, reminding us to clear the brush from around our homes. Via computer, he kept us posted on other fires, power outages and canyon events. Now he had lost everything.
Every firefighter from Station 16 I've talked to since that day is convinced the canyon was lost before they were allowed back in. "Every time we heard a boom or saw a puff of gray smoke, we thought, 'There goes another house,' " said Edward Newell, the youngest of Bruce's sons.
I've heard that some paid firefighters complained that Rohde had put their lives at risk by sending them back in.
I asked Bruce about it. He was reminded of the fire chief who was told at the World Trade Center site that it was dangerous to be hiking around the rubble.
"Sir, everything I do is dangerous," the fire chief responded.
Wednesday night, Station 16 held its annual Halloween party. Jubilant residents hugged and laughed, teasing me about spending my honeymoon in a hot spot, then, with tears in their eyes, congratulating me and my new husband on our marriage.
Things are back to normal, kind of. I ran into Jim and Diane Carter sifting through the ruins of their home Monday. They're going to rebuild. Coming back. Wouldn't think of leaving the canyon.
I'm scared to go for my regular morning walk up the now chalky, ash-caked hills surrounding my home. The ridge that shields us from the rest of the world looks like an elephant's backside with a few hairs -- bits of tree stump -- sticking out. They say it will come back, that spring wildflowers will bloom like they have every year. But it's too painful to look at right now.