Former two-term Ventura County Poet Laureate (2016-2019) Phil Taggart has four collections of poetry.
Itâ€™s a spring afternoon, gentle and lithe. After a long year of pandemic, thereâ€™s a feeling of things finally opening up: flowers, schools, libraries, and perhaps, as W. C. Fields might deem most important, bars. Thereâ€™s a lightness in the atmosphere but then I notice something else. The hazy look of the sky. That musty yellow dusted look that screams out, â€śSmoke!â€ť Standing out on our deck, I could smell the scent carried through the air by an unseasonal Santa Ana, acrid and burning, somewhere, but where? How close?
â€śFire, thereâ€™s a fire!â€ť I call out to the beleaguered husband.
Finding no information online, I call a friend who stays connected to alerts because, in an emergency, she would need to evacuate five cats, hence she is ever vigilant.
â€śIâ€™ve got it for you,â€ť she reports as if anticipating my call. â€śLas Virgenes, near the 101â€¦.â€ť
We turn on the news and at that minute a special report comes on showing flames and smoke rising from the usual, combustible ground cover of dried chaparral. A reporter announces the fire was now contained and I saw a picture of the ground, pink with the retardant that had smothered the flames. I breathe easier but know it could have gone another way.
I am not pleased at my reaction to smoke-filled skies. Youâ€™d think by now, after more than 25 years of living in Topanga, Iâ€™d have it down, know the drill: remain calm, tune into emergency stations, have a list of items to pack, bring in the cat carrier, retrieve the bottle of expensive champagne from the refrigerator. But such is not the case. As I stood on the patio repeating, â€śFire, fire!â€ť I felt only panic, a hazy yellow trapped panic because I had no control over those torrid riders on the fire storm, and frankly, around here weâ€™re apt to panic when we canâ€™t find a pen.
During the Woolsey fire, we did manage an evacuation. Well, sort of an evacuation. It was rather after the fact and by that time the worst was over, firefighters were optimistic of containment, and there were rumors that access back into the Canyon, which had been closed, would open sometime soon. We left the cat under the watchful care of our neighbor, an intrepid woman of pioneering spirit, with admirable (?) vocal range, who refused to leave her home. â€śThe wind is blowing to the north!â€ť she barked assuredly. â€śThereâ€™s no danger here, see? The sky is clear.â€ť
After days of indecision, mixed evacuation orders, missing work, and the stress of deciding whether to stay or go amidst the sad, eerie silence of our deserted neighborhood, we finally got into one of the already packed cars and drove away, not knowing when we might be back, or if the winds would change. A friend in the valley invited us to shelter at her home. Lounging around her pool it could have been like a relaxing vacation but for the lingering ash in the air and the fact that I missed my cat. Two days later we were indeed allowed to return and were delighted to hear our neighbor taunt, â€śI told you so.â€ť Topanga was mercifully spared.
The recent April episode was a reminder of a fire season that has expanded itself, stretching out like a greedy potentate, sneaking across calendar borders when no one was looking, until coming to encompass and rule over all seasons, as if to say, â€śAh, Covid may be fading, but Iâ€™m still here!â€ť
I recall those fires of old when I was young and we had just moved to California. They began with something we had not yet heard of, the Santa Ana winds. Devil Winds they called them. They were strangely rumored to cause odd unease and erratic behavior among the populace. In the fourth grade we were shown a nature documentary with footage of winds wiping through palm trees. I remember the narratorâ€™s voice pronouncing in dramatic fashion, â€śThese winds, these Devil Winds known as the Santa Anas, are responsible for driving people crazy and when they blow with their hot disturbing devilâ€™s breath, it is known for a fact that the rate of suicides increase.â€ť
My friends and I sort of laughed at the idea of being driven crazy by some wind, but we were young and did not yet know the mythology of our landscape.
There was a desert wind blowing
that night. It was one of those hot
dry Santa Anas that come down
through the mountain passes and
curl your hair and make your nerves
jump and your skin itch. On nights
like these, every booze party ends
in a fight. Meek little wives feel
the carving knife and study their
husbandsâ€™ necks. Anything can
â€”Raymond Chandler, 1938
Look out, Michael.
Back in the â€™60s it seemed the Santa Anas knew their place and blew into town in the autumn. The fires they fanned came in October or November when the smell of smoke was appropriate in the Halloween air, even sort of exciting, the moon turned deep orange. Those fires seemed far away, safely distanced from the San Fernando Valley, not really a threat and soon to be extinguished by the capable Fire Department. By Christmas the fire season was ending, December stars bright with winter brilliance shone through clear skies.
Now it is always fire season. An eruption can come at any time, Easter, Fourth of July. Helicopters make us nervous, people have their bags packed and ready to go, cash stashed for emergencies. Yes, the Santa Anas carry calamity. Iâ€™ve seen our patio umbrella become airborne, flying off over our roof like something from a mad Mary Poppins. My summer dress cannot belie this new season of uncertainty.
Poet Phil Taggart writes in his poem, Fire Season, from the book, â€śPsalms of Cinder & Siltâ€ť (Solo Press):
these days seems like there are no
particular seasons for fire
itâ€™s all fire season in Thousand Oaks/
the fire hops over closes the 101
and flames all the way / to ocean / Malibu
I am grateful for each calm day.