The Haunt of Red October

It’s finally October, a time of year most of us in the Northern Hemisphere look forward to for its cool, crisp fall days, the turning leaves, familiar signs of harvest.  I do too.  But for us here in our Southern California idyll, October comes with trepidation.

This week it has been as hot here as other places experience in the height of the summer. One difference may be that we have exceedingly low humidity and storm-level winds.  This brings all kinds of conditions that I am not fond of, as much as I love the autumn in general.

pile of leaves

Friday, when I went out at my usual hour to sweep and keep my yard in line, as much as possible, with the relatively un-treed and vegetationless yards of the preferred homeowners here, I was greeted with a red carpet: all over my lawn, the walkways, the driveway, the cars, the street in front, my long curb.  My famed pepper tree (for which I bought the house) had shed all its peppercorns in the Santa Ana winds that swooped along our street like an angry zephyr. So, I spent four separate hours, dotted throughout my day, sweeping and raking to get the place ready for the watchful eye of Big H. By sundown, I had filled two giant trashcans with this stuff (which I think some people actually sell!).

And, of course, the way our street is contoured, our house is the main depository for showers of detritus that drop from all the other trees, some of it quite pretty (when they are not skewered by my bushes), like the flower of Lantern trees that someone planted early in Valencia-dom.  OK, I know that is part of the responsibility I accept by having landscaping and electing not to live in a concrete jungle.

pepper trees

But with this specific set of weather conditions comes our own special form of hell:  wildfires.  These are frequently accidental but can be deliberately set by depraved people.

In New York and New Jersey growing up I went through hurricanes and blizzards.  In fact, I often drove in them, when I went to school in upstate NY.  And, I went through some pretty wild monsoons when I traveled in Asia and endured insect plagues in South America and in Florida when my parents had a condo there.

When I first arrived in LA, that very first day, which I will be blogging about eventually, there was a small earthquake.  It was scary but I dealt.  Later, working in Century City (near Beverly Hills) on the 34th floor of their twin towers on Avenue of the Stars (isn’t that a cool name?), there was a much bigger earthquake that shook me up, literally. I was quaking and crouching next to my desk, since the buildings were built on ball bearings and swayed back and forth, feet in each direction.

Stevenson Ranch Wildfire

But trust me, nothing is half as frightening as the prospect of seeing all your life’s possessions go up in a puff of hot, red smoke and that is what October threatens every single year in the Santa Clarita Valley (and all over the southland).

In 2009 there was a wildfire that spread out of control within sight from our hilltop to the hilltop where it was raging.  It was well on the other side of the Interstate 5 Freeway that runs west of us, but we could see it, smell the smoke and  wipe off the ash that floated down on our entire neighborhood.  I think that fire was about 5 miles away but somehow we were nervous.  I know I was, at least.  I am high-strung in the best of conditions, let alone this.  I started running around the house grabbing all my special things.  Problem is, I have a lot of special things! So, within two hours of doing this, my entire foyer, which is the size of a room itself, was literally filled with all the things I needed to save, if the worst scenario materialized (as I became increasingly convinced it would).

I started loading up our vehicles.  At the time, one was a crossover that had seats that would dive under the floor.  So out I went, flattening the back and loading it up with boxes and furniture, as best I could.  The husband was at work, so naturally I had no one to really rein me in and bring me to my senses.  I must have amused the more seasoned neighbors — none of whom were doing this, I should add — as they watched me freighting enormous cartons of treasures and file boxes.  There I was struggling with the more movable antiques that were left to me by my great-grandmother.  Naturally I loaded up these (three) cars with the idea that I would drive them one at a time to some safe spot (where? our hill was the safest spot, actually) and then walk back to get the next one. What was I thinking?  Was I thinking, LOL.


All day the local CBS affiliate was looping the pictures of our fire, which was in a wild area of Stevenson Ranch, the next town over from Valencia.  The minute by minute reporting literally went on for over 24 hours.  That relentless drumbeat of doom was so unnerving that at some point that night — yup, I slept in the family room, on the floor, fully dressed, ready to run to vehicles (they were all loaded up by that point and still sitting in the driveway and garage, naturally since we had not come even close to being told to evacuate) — I just gave up and tuned out.

When I got up the next morning the whole day repeated itself — danger warnings, constant streaming predictions of the spreading menace, acres consumed, houses threatened, people evacuating over in Stevenson Ranch. I was unraveling with the tension.  Finally, a neighbor who had seen me loading up for my imagined dash to safety told me that a retired SCV fire chief lived across the street (I had not known that, some neighbor I am!) and that he had not done anything to indicate he was worried.  It was just my lack of experience with all this.

antiflame drop

After a few truly crazed days, the whole thing was over.  There were people who lived backed up against wilderness that had lost property.  I came to learn that we are in a completely established part of Valencia that to date has never had a problem; no part of Valencia has ever been damaged by fires.  I guess the only worry I have now is that with global warming the potential danger may only grow worse with time.

This is the kind of thing that devours my emotional capital.  Thus, as charmed as life in California, with almost perpetual sunny skies and tanned nubiles lolling on wave-licked beachs may seem, there is a downside to it as well.

Thunder, lightning, hurricanes, blizzards, earthquakes (well, to a point), these are things one can endure.  On the other hand tornadoes, floods, and wildfires can be utterly devastating.  So if you are in a place with none of these, stay put!  Don’t give up your safety for the allure of palms swaying over Martini-ville just yet.

red flag

This afternoon they sent up the Red Flag warning.  Yup, fires breaking out all over.  One of them was at the Newhall Pass, just three miles away.  I saw it, thought “Hmmmm”.  And headed out to sweep peppers.

Images:, Wikimedia Commons,,,


33 Comments on “The Haunt of Red October”

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  2. Oh, I remember the Santa Ana’s well but we called them the Santana winds or Devil winds and one of the worse earthquakes. Fall can be very different in Southern CA. It seems each place has something horrible. We have tornadoes, flooding, ice storms and snow drifts.,


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