© Chris Doolittle
Northeastern San Bernardino, California, as the wildfires light up the night sky.

Last Thursday, in the late afternoon, I stared up at the blood red sun, brown and soot gray clouds enveloping it, and watched ash fall in flurries. I suddenly flashed on the rejiggered city limits sign in "High Plains Drifter." It read: "Welcome to Hell."

Hell had come to California, once again, and, once again, it was in my backyard.

Perhaps our Guvunator Arnold Schwarzenegger summed up the past few weeks the best over the weekend. "I've been driving up and down the state of California going to all the various different fires, and you can imagine, this state is very prepared for fire, but when you wake up one morning and have 500 fires across the state, it was a real shock to me...only to find the next morning there were 1,000 fires, and the next morning 1,400 fires, and then 1,700 fires igniting over 14 days."

When you read a statement like that, it registers on a certain level. It becomes a lot more visceral when you're in or near a particular slice of Hell. A massive wildfire upends your sense of time. Your priorities are fragged. You realize that, in this uber-tech world we live in, very few of us are prepared for the ultimate challenge: survival.

You're facing an element of nature that doesn't care about what make or model your car is, how big or small your home, whether you have a dial-up or cable modem on your computer or who you intend to vote for. This force has but one intention: to consume everything in its path until it is stopped.

Our level of the inferno started last Tuesday in the late afternoon, in the hills above the neighboring town of Goleta. It was immediately identified as being "human caused." Great, I thought, we either have a pyromaniac or an asshole to thank for this. Still, it was small. It was just a blip on the local TV news..., which is about what you'd expect from our local news station.

For anyone who lives near a major metropolitan area, it's difficult to describe local newscasts. Imagine the old "Mary Tyler Moore" show done for real but with writers led by Barney Fyfe and Gomer Pyle. You tend to hear that a storm will bring "wet and rainy" weather (as opposed to those storms that just bring you the wetness without that pesky rain) and how a fatal car accident turned "deadly."

Late Tuesday night, the fire was about 35 acres. 227 firefighters were on the scene. I didn't sleep well. We live on the tip of Santa Barbara County, just north of the city and south of the mountains; mountains wrinkled with canyons chock-full of thirty and forty foot chaparral that hasn't burned in fifty of sixty years. I went to the Internet to find out some details. There were none. According to the fire sites, there was no fire. I did learn that, in the outside world, George Bush met with Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and said "I am reminded of the great talent of the - of our Phillipine-Americans when I eat dinner at the White House." He congratulated her country for providing him with a great chef. I was somewhat reassured to know that, even in dire times, there's always a constant flow of stupidity, somewhere, for amusement.

By Wednesday, the fire had grown to 300 acres. Sundowner winds were forecast for that evening. Everyone has heard of the Santa Ana winds of Southern California. The Central Coast gets Sundowners. As soon as the sun sets, these winds are sucked from the deserts through the mountains and towards the sea. They can exceed 40 mph and raise temperatures 20 degrees or more. I was not a happy camper. The TV news crews were on the scene with a list of cliches. I felt reassured...not.

The fire was heading down to the populated area of Goleta. Two things flashed through my mind, having tracked the three-month long local Zaca fire last year (the largest brushfire in California's history); should the fire creep east, it's going to make a beeline for the foothills of Santa Barbara. Where, with my wife and two critters, I live. Nobody much mentioned that, tho.

I also remembered the Painted Cave fire, which burned back in 1990 in a nearby spot. That fire did the impossible in two hours. It burned from a lofty hillside, down through neighborhoods, crossed a six-lane freeway and was stopped only two miles from the ocean. In its wake, 5,000 flattened acres; over 600 homes, countless vehicles and a young woman incinerated. The aftermath looked like an Iraqi neighborhood.

Citing the Painted Cave inferno, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said, "Just because you may not live in an area that is immediately adjacent to the fire, doesn't mean that you shouldn't be prepared."


Then, the electricity went out.

Having no electricity while a wildfire in going batshit less than seven miles from your home is not the best feeling. You have to rely on radio for information and, since most appliances are electric now (even our gas range is electrically timed), you really have to like lukewarm sandwiches for dinner.

Most folks, these days, don't have a lot of flashlights, batteries or battery-powered radios. We do. The radio, courtesy of my brother, even has a crank to use if and when the batteries go out. And cranky I was this fine night. Twirling through the AM dial, I got a lot of classic oldies, right-wing gas-bagging and alternative rock noodling while looking for news. Our local newspaper (oy!) has a radio station which broadcast BBC news and re-runs of that morning's gabfests. The station proved as useless as the newspaper itself. Finally, I tripped over the local Fox station, which was live for about a half-hour before lapsing into a re-run of Dennis Miller. Great. I had a real disaster in my backyard and another on the radio.

I have a small battery powered TV. I turned it to our local station and got a grainy image of a "Seinfeld" re-run. There'd be no news until 11. It occurred to me that, once the government snatches back the airwaves next year, these little TVs won't work. Another possible emergency link scotched.

We have landline phones, so we could call different numbers for info. A lot of people no longer do. In a situation like this, two tin cans connected by string don't cut it.

For an advanced society, we are notso hotso when it comes to emergency communication. I grew up in a New Jersey town precariously close to an oil refinery. When a tank would blow, usually in the middle of the night, the room I shared with my brother would light up like Hiroshima. Sirens would go off. Some church bells would ring. The whole town knew something was up. If a disaster strikes in Central California? A fat guy in a BMW farts and a couple of dolphins laugh. It's just not the same.

There's no designated radio station that's turned over to local officials to inform the public of what's going on. That would be too retro...also too impossible with radio conglomerates sucking the life out of the locals in favor of pre-fab programming.

Eventually, the Fox radio station went to live news, which was great. Nobody knew anything. My wife, my critters and I huddled around flashlights and the radio. I pulled a couple of solar lights from the garden and stuck them in houseplants, giving the two rooms we were in a really nice "Alien Autopsy" feel. The power came on about 11:30 PM, after the last TV newscasts so I listened to the radio until 1.

By Thursday, it became evident that the newly christened "Gap" fire was spreading faster than a Swift Boater's slur. It was over 1,400 acres and there were over 350 firefighters fighting it. And it was spreading out on all fronts, including in our direction. The firefighters, both local and imported, were doing the work of tenfold their numbers. Literally holding off flames some thirty feet away from homes. By day, the fire would move uphill. Once the Sundowners kicked in, the fire would slam downhill tsunami-style.

Evacuations were ordered. The City Council held an emergency meeting, declaring the county a disaster area, thus giving the governor a big head's up. More equipment would be sent into the fray. More firefighters. An evacuation center was already up. Facemasks would be given out for free because the air was beginning to waft around in extra-chunky style. Helicopters were dropping water. One person at the meeting wanted tourists to know that Santa Barbara's gala fireworks display at the pier would be held the following day as scheduled and that the town was "open for business." Yeah, so all you tourists who already have black lung, c'mon down! And if the fireworks aren't enough to satisfy you, just drive six miles up the road and see if a house implodes.

Shortly after the meeting, the shit hit the fan. The winds howled. The fire sprung to life, ready to pounce. The firefighters used their experience and their grit to counter every advance. Then, the power went out.

The fire was over 2,000 acres.

The Fourth of July proved a beaut. 800 firefighters were battling the now 5,400-acre fire. Twenty aircraft, both helicopters and fixed wing were dropping fire retardant chemicals and nearby reservoir water. 5,000 people from 1,600 homes had been evacuated. The fire was declared California's number one priority, which meant that more resources would be allocated. Soon, the firefighting team would mushroom to 1,072.

Another blackout.

The huge transformers and lines supplying power to the Central Coast are located in the middle of the maelstrom. Firefighters don't want to be caught underneath them. Aircraft don't want to soak them. By now, I had surgically implanted the radio to my hip. (Although, during the day, when reporting was sporadic the station actually aired "The Best of Rush Limbaugh." There's a best??? As I shut off the station, I had visions of Rush as Frankenstein's monster sitting with the blind old hermit, puffing on a stogie and growling "Liberallllz baaaaad. Whaaack jobz goooood.")

I'd gathered all our valuable papers and our photo albums together, just in case. Twenty years of marriage. Thirty-five years of canine companionship, past and present, captured in amber. The only time I lost it was when I put a U-haul box down in front of the ashes of our old dogs and their collars. That made it real, somehow. Sure, I was going to lose four decades of rare books and records but...those dogs. Man. They were the best teachers I ever had. Truly, best friends.

The gala fireworks went on as the fire raged in the next town and there was a gang stabbing, leaving one teenager dead. The mayor, a lovely gray-haired lady, said that this violence "had to stop." Gang members throughout the county shivered in fear, I'm sure.

During the periods of electricity, I discovered that the best way to find out how the fire was behaving was via the Internet. Our town's "free" newspaper, "The Independent" had some remarkable reporting and maps. A site called "EdHat Online Magazine," which culls articles from local papers as well as citizen news proved exceptional. It gave you a sense that we were all in this together. (Ironically, EdHat's creation was a direct result of the millionaire divorcee-owner of the local paper firing a hunk of its most respected staff two years ago. We've had less and less news as more and more staff has either gotten fired or quit in disgust since then. Now, it's a stretch to even call the rag a newspaper. This is a periodical a gerbil wouldn't find interesting enough to crap on.)

By the time Schwarzenegger arrived in town on the fifth of July, our fire was at 8,357 acres. The fire up north at Big Sur had burned 68,712 acres. As of July 5, a total of 526, 707 acres of California had burned. (By way of measurement, New York's famed Central Park is 843 acres. As of last Saturday, 822 square miles of California was gone. The entirety of New York City, including the boroughs, is 301 square miles.)

Sunday, three power outages. Some progress on the front lines as the winds subsided. Some evacuation orders dropped down to warnings.

As of this writing, our fire is nearly 10,000 acres and 35% contained. The Sundowners are on the wane. I've had to stop writing this screed several times because of a power outage. Next up? Starting tomorrow, a heat wave pushing temps up to nearly 100 degrees will make the fire fighting more dangerous. Cranked up air conditioners will cause more blackouts.

Also on tap: monsoonal moisture coming in to mix the wind up with a chance of either rain by late week or, more likely, dry lighting.

It was 6,000 unexpected heat lightning strikes in a single night that ignited Northern California a few weeks back.

What we're facing here, is not pretty. It's also not normal.

It used to be, in California, the fire season was from late summer to late fall. Now, it just IS. As Schwarzenegger put it: "There really is no fire season anymore."

A local chapter of the Optimist Club met last week in Gilbert, Arizona, shortly before the Fourth of July. They wanted to celebrate America's birthday. They wound up having a kind of wake, instead, bemoaning what's happened to this country, to this world.

Said Larue Lawson of Forest Park, Ill., "There are so many things you have to do to survive now. It used to be just clothes on your back, food on the table and a roof over your head. Now, it's everything. I wish it was just simpler."

Larue Lawson is 16 years old.

When he grows up, he's going to be a survivor.

He'll have to be.