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A Considerable Town

I Bought a House in Idyllwild. Two Months Later, a Fire Was Heading Right For It

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Thu, Aug 1, 2013 at 6:00 AM
click to enlarge The mountain fire as seen from the Shell Station on Highway 243, looking east towards Tahquitz Peak. - STEVEN LEIGH MORRIS
  • Steven Leigh Morris
  • The mountain fire as seen from the Shell Station on Highway 243, looking east towards Tahquitz Peak.

We had two cars in which to stow three dogs and a lifetime's worth of possessions. The emergency broadcast service at 1610 AM, or WINKI, kept repeating the mantra on Wednesday, July 17: "There is now a mandatory evacuation order in place for Idyllwild and Fern Valley, east of Highway 243." Our home fell smack in that zone. Three houses and eight structures had already been lost to the fire down in Bonita Vista. That was just the appetizer. The meal would come to more than 27,000 acres of pristine chaparral and forest.

We had closed escrow just two months before on our house in Idyllwild, our refuge from the gridlock and dust and danger of Los Angeles. This was to be our hideaway, perched in a breathtaking cedar and pine forest a mile above desert towns on all sides of Mount San Jacinto. They warned us that this was a fire zone, but a life worth living can be dangerous.

Now, from our front porch, we saw orange smoke billowing over the rocky peaks to the south. We had been as cavalier as our neighbors, who said that Idyllwild had never burned and never would. At 1 p.m. WINKI broadcast that the Mountain fire posed no immediate threat to Idyllwild. Three hours later, the winds shifted and the story changed. We all live at the mercy of shifting winds. Some 3,000 townsfolk scurried between their homes and their vehicles, carrying boxes to their cars and trucks.

My fiancee suggested I use a screwdriver to pry open a large, wooden trunk that I'd carted to Idyllwild in the move, something I hadn't looked inside for about 20 years. And there, in that vault, was a play I'd handwritten when I was 19 and Kodachrome slides of a return trip to Sonoma, where I grew up — faded outlines of distant friends and lovers, the redwood giants of Guerneville a quarter-century ago. That's part of why Idyllwild was so enticing: It reminded me of home — whatever and wherever that is.

All of these artifacts made their way, hurriedly, into a cardboard box to be stuffed amidst dog blankets and a laptop into the Prius and the Camry. Oh yes, the passports, the latest bills. Oh, my: a personal letter from Neil Simon on blue paper in a blue envelope that he'd typed on a typewriter. Every "r" jumped a millimeter above the rest of the words.

click to enlarge The view from Morris' front porch. - STEVEN LEIGH MORRIS
  • Steven Leigh Morris
  • The view from Morris' front porch.

It sent me into a reverie of the past, snapped only by the sudden realization that we were evacuating. Willy Loman's line from Death of a Salesman thrummed in my head: "I'm not interested in stories about the past or any crap of that kind because the woods are burning, boys, you understand? There's a big blaze going on all around."

I saturated the parched garden with water, knowing we might be gone for weeks. It was an act of faith that there would be something to return to. We taped our names and phone numbers to the windows, for the firefighters, as we'd been instructed.

How strange and weirdly liberating to be on the brink of losing all but what we'd stuffed into our cars. We were driving away from the apricot trees I'd planted from seed, from the Scotch-tape-coated paper suit made of old issues of the Weekly, which costume designer Ann Closs-Farley had designed for me, from my fiancee's spinet piano that she'd had in every house she'd owned, from a painting of an ancestor who was in her family for generations. None of these would fit in our cars.

We'd decided to move here only in the last year. My fiancee just couldn't abide the heat, the traffic, the tawdriness of L.A. She missed the East Coast, where she'd grown up. Between Christmas and New Year, we'd spent a few days in Idyllwild, at an inn. It had started to snow. By the end of our stay, the pines and rooftops were frosted in ice. By the end of the month, our offer on a home there was accepted.

The town reminded each of us of a place called home. So the plan was that I'd keep a small apartment in the city and spend three days a week in L.A. for my work — Union Station is a quick train ride from Riverside, itself a hop from Idyllwild. We sold our house in Highland Park and moved everything. It was a workable dream of living in a place of beauty, remote yet civilized.

We made it through one summer, until the fire.

We circled the village together in one car for a final look. Every street was deserted. Riverside County Sheriff cars and U.S. Forestry trucks lined the streets. One officer tried to guide us out of town. We explained that we needed to get gas, plus another car and three dogs.

"See that," she pointed to Tahquitz Peak to the east. Black-red smoke cascaded up in vicious plumes from behind Lily Rock. "We're pulling people off the mountain. I'll give you five minutes."

We raced back home, loaded up the dogs, got gas and wound our way in the caravan, off the mountain and into the craggy desert below.

From our refugee quarters in Hollywood, we learned from website the Town Crier that by Thursday, the fire had encroached to within two miles of the village; that by Friday, flames had crossed west of Highway 243, and that nearby Pine Cove on the high ground to the north was under voluntary evacuation. By Saturday, 3,300 firefighters were stationed in a "mobile town" in the Garner Valley, determined to protect Idyllwild and Pine Cove; the students from Idyllwild's Arts Academy were rehearsing Bruckner at their evacuation site, in the courtyard behind the Hemet High School cafeteria. At night, we read, they were doing rain dances.

That same Saturday, as burning embers threatened to drop from the plumes directly over Idyllwild's town center, storm clouds rolled in. And it started to rain, and rain, and rain. The evacuation order was lifted on Sunday.

On Monday, townsfolk waved and hugged beneath silver skies and the smell of wet cedar. Strawberry Creek was flowing briskly over stones adjoining berry bushes. A banner in the village center thanked the firefighters. Cafe Aroma featured a jazz band and a "welcome home" party that night.

They say that we in the West have no history. But they are wrong. We do. It's a history of earthquakes and fires and floods, of decimation and rebuilding. To live in the West is to live with that reality. You can't live in the West and be a control freak. You can't cling to the past too tightly; you can only do your best to prepare, and then to remember. In the West, you have to pray for mercy from the shifting winds, pray for rain.


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