Life in fire zone carries on close to normal

It has been hard to escape the fires and windstorms this week. Turn on the radio or television -- or just step outside and breathe -- and it seems as if all of Southern California is in danger of burning up or being blown away.

At least 17 fires are burning through the region, their flames fanned so fiercely by gale-force winds, it's hard to know where one fire ends and another begins.

The three-day toll has been staggering, and the tally is rising: 250,000 displaced in San Diego, where the football stadium is taking in refugees. Elsewhere, more than 125,000 acres burned and hundreds of structures have been destroyed.

And yet in broad swaths of Los Angeles and its environs, life is going on as it always has. Roller skaters are gliding down the boardwalk at Venice Beach. Moms are stocking up on Halloween decorations at a Pasadena party store.

It's another windless morning for the newspaper readers on the patio of a Starbucks in Culver City. Soccer players at a Chatsworth park seem oblivious to the gusty winds their coach refers to as "a slight breeze."

But it's an uneasy sort of normalcy. It's hard to sit down to dinner with the family while the television on the kitchen counter displays a house swathed in flames.

For my family, the burning home is a powerful display of a fire's fury. But for one unknown and unfortunate family, it's a chronicle of a dissolving dream.

I'd had enough fire news on Monday. So I turned off the radio, muted the TV and wandered out to my backyard, to see if the winds that rocked our house all night had blown our gazebo into a neighbor's yard. The drone of helicopters overhead, heading north toward the Santa Clarita Valley, competed with the gentle tinkling of my wind chimes -- dissonant sounds from disconnected worlds.

I headed up the 5 Freeway toward the Buckweed fire in Saugus and found myself wondering what all the fuss was about. The skies seemed clear, the wind still for the moment, the freeway traffic lighter than usual. But I'd hardly left the freeway before I was struggling to breathe in the smoky air.

The day before, the fire had been called the most dangerous in the state. But it had been surpassed by the devastation in San Diego. Little consolation to the Santa Clarita Valley, I thought.

I expected to find frightened fire survivors, crowded shelters, a sense of panic at nature's wrath. Instead I found that life goes on even in the fire zone. The Mexican restaurant on Seco Canyon Road was packed. Painters were sprucing up a nearby apartment complex. The local Albertsons lot was filled.

But alongside the cars in the grocery store lot were motor homes, pleasure boats, trailers carrying jet skis, SUVs packed with blankets, boxes and doggy kennels -- owned by dozens of "mandatory evacuees" from nearby neighborhoods. They wore white paper masks as they debated whether to stay or leave.

Ken Lavelle had left for work in Culver City at 5 a.m. Monday, even though the fire had blown within a mile of his Saugus house. He had to get to his job on a production team for a television pilot -- fire or not.

But he called his wife and told her to start packing. He launched his crew and headed home. A few hours later, he and his family were docking their motor home in the grocery store lot.

"It's the third time in the eight years we've lived here that a fire's come within a mile of our house," he said, surveying the lot full of families like his. "But we love it out here too much to leave."

Neither was 83-year-old Betty Barris ready to concede. She had taken the time to pick a sweater that matched her pants, style her hair and apply lipstick before heeding the deputy's bullhorn call to leave. "She's a single mom who raised six kids," said daughter Kathy Barris. "It takes a lot to scare her."

A few rows way, Tricia Simich worried that her mother-in-law's visit would be ruined. Her husband's mom had flown in from Chicago on Monday morning and arrived in Saugus just in time to meet her in the parking lot. Simich had spent Sunday vacuuming a house her mother-in-law might never see.

Overnight, many of the evacuees had balanced the peril of a soot-filled room against the danger of missing a deputy's bullhorned order to leave. So they slept with their windows open. They crowded the gas station on Sunday night, waiting 40 minutes or more to fill their tanks, because they knew that Monday they might have to leave hurriedly. They packed kibble for their pets and loaded computer files on flash drives so Fido could eat and Junior could finish his homework, no matter where they spent the night.

By midafternoon, the market lot was so crowded it was hard to find a spot to park. It had become a makeshift evacuation center, alive with camaraderie among residents who faced the uncertain day with equanimity.

The skies might be dark, the encroaching flames threatening, but they craved a typical day's routine.

And while the rest of us -- passing our day in a blue-skied basin of gentle breezes -- are edgy, the "victims" I found in the fire zone are not giving up. They're going home.

"We are closed Monday due to the evacuations," read a neat hand-written sign taped to the door of the West Coast Cuts and Colors beauty salon, on a street blocked off by fire trucks.

Scrawled across the bottom was another message:

"Open Tuesday."
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