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An East Wind Fans the Flames: The Thomas Fire from the Eye of the Storm MAG
“There’s an east wind coming, Watson … a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it’s God’s own wind none the less, and a cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared.”
–Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes to Dr. Watson on the eve of WWI
Since the dawn of civilization, the east wind has haunted the human psyche. In Native American mythology, the east wind comes from the breath of the moose and brings a gray mist. The Bible speaks of an east wind desiccating the ears of corn in the Pharaoh’s dream, portending famine, and later, it is the east wind that sweeps in the locust plague over all of Egypt.
Growing up in Southern California, like so many others, I carry the specter of our own east winds – the Santa Anas. Dry and fierce, these winds long have held a particular resonance of fear, wildness, and unease. Nearly a century ago, the iconic L.A. author Raymond Chandler mused, “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 … Anything can happen.”
The Thomas Fire that started last December – the largest in California’s history – was birthed by these winds. Instead of a chilling mist or a slow famine, for five weeks we fought a devastation that was quick and burning, yet plague-like in its scope and destruction. The whole world was fascinated by this fire, perhaps because famous stars like Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres had to evacuate their Montecito homes. Yet, beyond the headlines, the Thomas Fire also impacted the smaller realities of day-to-day high school students like me.
On December 4, the power went out at my house in Santa Barbara, and when I looked from my window, all I could see was dimness. Suddenly the only thing connecting us to the outside world was sluggish, intermittent cell reception, and I learned that the whole city was dark. The void lasted for hours. In these shadows, unbeknownst to me, the fire was rising in Santa Paula, 45 miles away.
A dry wind blew in from the east. The Santa Ana Winds had begun.
Two days after the fire’s birth, I watched a monster plume of smoke blot out the ocean. It was as though I could see the very air around me being choked. When I woke the next morning, there was a tightness in my chest, and the light filtering through my curtains was strange and weak. The east winds had born a ferocious creature, a demon swallowing entire coastal hills as the Santa Anas roared with it over the freeway and into the ocean. Quickly, so fast that it set me reeling, my grandmother’s neighborhood in Ventura burned. The ash from the fire drifted toward me, now just 15 miles away.
The emotions swirling within me drove me to pick up my flute and play “East Wind” by modern classical composer Shulamit Ran. Like the Santa Anas blowing from the mountains, the flute also channels wind, speaking only when breath is summoned from within the player. This dissonant and powerful piece was my answering call to the ferocity of the flaming winds along the coast, a way for me to express my horror and disbelief through my own east wind of a smaller scale.
I watched as friends and strangers were forced to leave their homes. I could walk up the hill near my house and see the flames rage on the not-so-distant mountain tops. I ultimately was not evacuated, but the fire line came within a mile of my home. For the first time since 1918, Santa Barbara schools closed for a week. I saw an exhausted firefighter holding flowers someone had given him, a symbol of the overwhelming gratitude we all feel but may never be able to express individually.
Finally the monstrous fire was brought under control. It continued to smolder for weeks, not willing to be defeated. Over 1,000 structures were lost, nearly a hundred thousand people were evacuated, and two people tragically died. Every family devastated by the fire was faced with the suddenly huge task of dealing with loss.
It is the winds, always the winds, that are the great fear. They are the invisible strength beyond the heat. Even now that the winds have subsided and we’ve faded out of the media, all that remains are the people, the ones no different than you or me, who must rebuild and bring renewal out of the flames. This is the mark that the fire left. Not just the fierce burning, haunted flames against a night sky flashing on CNN, but the quiet ruin it regurgitated indiscriminately.
I have witnessed it. I have listened to the deafening emptiness of the remains of my grandmother’s neighborhood. But I will also see the flowers bloom out of the ashes, the kind you only see after they’ve been awakened by flames. I will see life return to the Southern California hills once again.