The combination of an unemployed Eagle Scout and fire is never a good one.

In the binoculars, black smoke turning to white, gray, green. Black from rosin rich wood, white from flash burning grasses, green from waxy succulents - iceplant and cactus.

I was standing in my living room window. I had only lived in LA for three months. I was trying to write a screenplay. I had been staring at the screen, counting the helicopters flying over my house. One. Two. Three.

Then the windows began to shake. The walls and floor started vibrating. I could feel the water in my guts begin oscillating. One of the kitchen windows flew open.

Out, over the freeway - a gigantic Sikorsky Skyhook. It was lumbering off to the northwest, a water siphon dangling from under its fuselage. It seemed like it took everything the big orange beast had to stay airborne. As one quickly learns in Los Angeles, the helicopters always know first. The day I see all the helicopters flying north out of the city is the day I drop what I'm doing and haul ass towards Point Gonesville before the freeways jam. This is beside the point, though. The big bird had dislodged me from my desk

There was fire on the mountain. Through my binoculars, you could see the faint orange fringe of fire at the bottom of a tall fan of smoke.

The news had been hyping the danger of this dry fall for weeks:
"The fire danger is Extreme!" said the weatherman in front a satellite projection.
"The Forest Service has upgraded the threat of fire to Extreme!" said the desk anchor.
"An EXTREME threat of fire today, threatening this peaceful neighborhood!" this spoken by a rookie, standing over a foothill subdivision of homes with terracotta roofs.

Extreme? What does that mean exactly?

The National Fire Danger Rating System, devised and operated by the USDA Forest Service looks at a number of factors when assessing the danger of wildfire on federal land. These analyses start with the obvious, like wind speeds, temperature, rain fall, humidity, and work their way up to exotic metrics with names like dead fuel moisture, live fuel moisture, the Keetch-Byram Drought Index, atmospheric stability, and lightning ignition efficiency. Local station managers take this data and judge it against four different fuel models, grass, timber, brush, and slash - categorized in one kilometer "pixels." Then, based on this data, leavened with personal experience and the on-site observation of rangers and firemen in the field, the station manager will arrive what is termed a Public Adjective Rating, categorizing the local fire risk as low, moderate, high, very high, and finally, extreme. This isn't an exact science. It's a gut feeling backed up by hard data and projected manpower needs.

The fire danger today was no longer "Extreme." It had potentiated right past "danger" into a real, live fire. Back East, in Virginia, we didn't really get this kind of fire. The ground was too wet, the mountains too green. The biggest fire I had ever seen was a flaming pile of brush about 10 feet wide, ignited in a power cut when some bored hunter turned his thirty-ought six on the insulators of a high tension powerline tower. The line fell, grounding out in the brushpile and setting it alight. That's what it takes to get a forest fire going Back East - a 64 kV power transmission line falling into a pile of "dry" brush.

In Boy Scouts, the trick was always "Can you start your fire with a single match?" It was about great care - finding the driest pine tinder, hanging dead from under the green boughs, rich in pitch. Then larger fuel, maybe from a dead fall, where some of the branches pointed skyward, spared from the perpetual damp of the leafmeal. Smash open an old stump with a hatchet, pull away the mold slimed exterior to get at the "punk wood" inside, dry as bone, a fine powder waiting to burn. The right fuel, carefully gathered. Correctly stacked. Light the most delicate kinder with your single match, and then carefully husband the flame with gentle breaths, while you bootstrap on the pencil sized tinder, the thumb sized kindling, the wrist sized fuel. If everything went right, fire. If not, things were just too damn wet, despite your best efforts. Pour on a cup of white gasoline and toss in the second match from a distance.

But here, in Southern California, I didn't even like the feeling of a pack of matches in my pocket. My "Poor Impulse Control Cortex" would continually broadcast the sensation of those phosphorus tipped sticks rattling in their cardboard box. The expression, "the forest was a tinderbox" was no exaggeration in this case. It wanted to burn. There were trees that looked like giant firestarters, so rich in pitch that you could smell it in the air. Just hold a single match to a single branch and set a mountain on fire.. It made me sick to my stomach, like the sensation of picking up a pistol and discovering that it is cocked and locked, the safety off. I still carry matches in my survival kit, but they are inside a waterproof container, inside a plastic bag, inside my backpack. Where I can't hear them.

Now, from my living room, the real thing! I pulled out my topo map of the San Gabriels and sighted up the fire with my compass. Eight miles away! Flames big enough to see eight miles away!

The screenplay was driving me batshit.

The car keys were on my desk.

There was a fire on the mountain. A fire I could see from eight miles away.

The combination of an unemployed Eagle Scout and fire is never a good one.

Five minutes later, I was on the freeway, headed north. The column of smoke was getting larger, close. I turned off, heading west along the base of the foothills. Lush green suburbs, homes built in the forties and fifties, big adobe haciendas with terracotta roofs.

Closer. Fire trucks are passing me. I can see the helicopters moving overhead, angling for the ridgeline. On the front lawn, housewives were meeting. Talk awhile, and then point. Someone new comes into the conversational circle. Everyone point again, towards the fire. These front yards are probably never used, showpieces. Except now - fire clause. In case of emergency, break glass on front yard. Further down the road, older men, white haired retirees, are spraying down their roofs and walls with garden hoses. Let's be proactive, get out in front of this thing.

Clusters of police cars are directing traffic, which has thickened to a near crawl. See, I'm not the only asshole with nothing to do in LA. On the contrary, LA is The City of People Who Have Nothing To Do. They are all here. Crazy dudes in their beater Impalas. Bored housewives who have brought their point and shoot cameras. News stringers in unmarked white vans, the scanner turned up so loud that you the bass is shaking the windows. The cops are in groups too. New cop pulls up in his cruiser and climbs out with an actual box of donuts. His brothers in blue are very glad to see him. All cops point at the fire. Every fire is a festival. Every suburban traffic event a parade.

Things are quickening. I must be getting close to the front line. I can see that I've come directly abreast of the fire, high above me on the ridgeline, maybe 800 feet in elevation over me. Just past me is a public library, through big adobe gates. I pull into the parking lot. There are some ambulances and a fire marshal vehicle using the far side of the lot as a command post. The helicopters are flaring over us, swinging out and then tracking right for the smoke.

The view from here sucks. I could see things better through my binoculars at home.

I'm wearing running shoes, shorts.

Eight hundred feet of elevation gain isn't chicken-feed, but I've run up worse. When will this chance come my way again?

It's National Forest. The Los Angeles National Forest. Public land, right? Not trespassing, but my birthright as an American.

I start running.

I jog behind the library, and find a fire road. I run up this for maybe a ½ mile, when I find a deer trail that seems to run right up to the spurline between me and the ridge. It's hot and dry, the Santa Ana conditions that made the fire possible, but the deer trail runs under good tree cover, which means shade. The trail cuts up the spur at an angle, and at a trot the running isn't bad, mostly soft dry grass underfoot.

I break out onto the spur. The run was worth it.

I'm on a bald spur that runs north to the ridgeline. I can look south over the entire Los Angeles basin. The ridge runs east-west. East of me, about 400 meters away, is the fire.

The ridge is loaded with yucca, grass, and wind-stunted Ponderosa Pine. And all of it is burning. Fire like I've never seen before, so big and hot that it's become a luminous, opaque gas. It is burning smoke - blood red, flames so dark they are almost black. The fire is like a dynamic cracking tower, the darkest heaviest flames at the bottom, flames with a physical weight, emitting their own dull light, so much of the radiant energy being converted into black infrared radiation. Then long arms of yellow whipping above in the strong wind, the smoke green and black and white. A chemical event, fifty feet high and 200 meters wide, dumb and uncontrolled, wild, totally unaware of me. Too close, and the radiant heat would flash burn the fat under my skin and turn me into a candle with legs and a nervous system. I'm scared. It's awe-inspiring, in the Old Testament "God speaks to Job out of the whirlwind" kind of way. The wind is coming from my back, from the north west. There is a lone tree, a twisted pine, about 250 meters away on the main ridge. I tell myself that the moment the fire reaches that tree it is time to make tracks. I tell myself that the moment the wind shifts towards me that I have to fall back immediately, no matter how gorgeous this is.

Helicopters are shooting past me, so low that the propwash fills me with the irrational urge to hug the ground, and I do. I get low and work myself into a cluster of grasses. The choppers, big Bell 412 SuperHueys sweep in from out in the basin, bank into their attack runs behind me, and then gun it for the fire. The belly doors open, the bird flares up, and out comes the red spill of 400 gallons of water and chemical flame retardant. Then it's pick and roll to the right, big speed from dropping down the face of the mountain, back out to the open airspace of the basin. They are precise. You can watch them pick their target area, drive for it, then nail it. I've never seen a big machine move so gracefully. And they do it over and over again, a long line of these yellow and white machines coming in from the white air over the basin: bank, accelerate, flare, roll out, dive away. They are all so close to me that I can see the mustaches on the pilots faces. Every one of them has a big walrus mustache.

They stop the fire cold. It can't come any further. It is trapped on the knoll, boxed in.

Another helicopter comes out of the east, from Downtown. This one is smaller and blue - a Bell JetRanger. It points into the wind, and slowly moves into a hover, some 100 feet away.

There are men inside. They have mustaches too. Their helicopter says LAPD. Now it is time for the cops to point at me instead of the fire. One of them picks up a pair of binoculars and I get the distinct impression of locking eyes with someone.

In Los Angeles, what kind of person climbs a mountain to look at a forest fire? Well, there are unemployed Eagle Scouts, and then there are arsonists. If you'll consult the pie chart in fig. 1-1, you can see that the great majority of that population is arsonists.

Better start running, you dumb hick motherfucker.

I am already stoked way up from the run, the fire, and the big machines. But the cold cold feeling of that metal bird hunting for me, filled with purposive men who wore mustaches, that feeling of my description going out over radios, cranked me right into hyperspace. And in hyperspace, I can run like a scalded dog.

The wind gusted up, and the police helicopter moved further away from the mountain. I low crawled back to the treeline, and then started running. It was more of a propelled fall, to be honest. Arms pinwheeling, long jumps down loose trail, the longest hardest strides I could muster. I needed to eat up as much terrain as I could while I was under tree canopy, to try and throw off their estimate of when I might make it off the hill. A few minutes latter, my thighs feeling like overcooked pasta and my hands shaking, I was back behind the library.

So I do a dumb spy trick that I remembered reading when I was a kid. I had been wearing a loose gray corduroy shirt. I took it off and rolled it up, tucking it into the cargo pocket of my shorts. Supposedly torso color - a jacket or shirt, is the main thing that people remember in an eyewitness situation. Now I look like a guy wearing a white t-shirt. At least, this is what I'm thinking. I wipe the dirt off my face and legs as best I can. I feel like I'm going to puke, loaded up with fatigue poisons.

I walk around the side of library, and fake like I've just walked outside from the main entrance. There are about ten cops in the parking lot, pointing up the hill of course. They are walking in a group towards the area behind the library. I am saying the Apache "Hide me from Enemies" prayer - Right here, in the middle of this place, I am becoming mirage. Let them not see me, because I am of the sun. I am the sun.

I walk right past them. The police are looking up into the park behind the library. The Subaru starts. I wave goodbye to the two officers at the gate and drive home.

Were they really looking for me? I don't know. They sure looked like they were looking for somebody.

The penalty for arson in California is life in prison. I hadn't done anything, sure, but why test the exactitude of the justice system?

Was the fire beautiful? One of the most beautiful things I've ever laid eyes on.

The combination of an unemployed Eagle Scout and fire is never a good one.

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