Thursday, June 7, 2012

Just Another Big Hill Morning

Around 8 in the morning, yesterday, as I was writing my blog post, “Transiting Venus,” I suddenly heard sirens. Now you have to remember that this house is on Big Hill. It is not a city domicile, where sirens are part of the everyday background noise. Here, sirens basically mean one of three things: fire; ambulance-worthy illness or accident; or that one of our resident criminals is leading the police, Sheriff or California Highway Patrol--or sometimes all three--a merry chase.

If you’ve never seen a forest fire up close and personal, then it’s probably hard for you to comprehend the profound worry, not to mention primal terror, the very thought of fire arouses in those of us who live in the brush. Fires can get out of control so fast and devour so thoroughly, in this area, that thousands of acres can be gobbled up in a flash. When we hear sirens, therefore, or the fire spotter plane, we all run outside in a state of alarm and the neighborhood doesn’t settle down again until the plume of smoke is spotted, reported to all surrounding households, the tanker planes with fire retardant are in the air and the fire crews are on the ground. We all take to the road on foot or car, truck, 4-wheeler or motorcycle and place ourselves on whatever vantage point gives the best view of the conflagration and we watch. We cheer every heroic release of red retardant over the flames. We wait until the conflagration is reduced to smoking cinders. Then, we relax.

Or, in the case of ambulance sirens, we listen to their trajectory across the mountain. If the sound stops close by, we start calling around. Or drive up the road to check on neighbors. This is not nosiness. This is mutual aid.

Then there are the bad boys secreted about the mountain’s flanks and within its steep canyons. Periodically, they blow up a meth lab or lead the police on 90-mph chases up the mountain or beat up their girlfriends or get caught stealing copper wire or someone’s lawnmower to pay for drugs. Or, like the fellow who was apprehended not a quarter mile up the road, in front of my neighbor Mark’s house, they sometimes wander disoriented and fey. This fellow, whom my drive-by surveillance revealed standing handcuffed in Mark’s driveway, in the keeping of two Sheriff’s deputies, claimed, according to the Union Democrat News of Record the next day, to have been chased through the brush by people wielding guns, knives and chainsaws.

So I was more than mildly interested in yesterday’s sirens. I immediately left my desk and went next door to John’s house, he of the pallet palace/camera obscura, to inquire what he had seen on his morning drive up the mountain, coming home from work. This investigation yielded the news that he had, indeed, somehow gotten inserted into a convoy of fire trucks racing up the hill. Yet, I hadn’t heard the sirens continue eastward, across the top of the mountain. That, I surmised, could only mean one thing: they had taken the road into the narrow V-shaped canyon where my friend Marianne lives, she of the wonderful chicken eggs, artichokes and asparagus.

I raced to the house and called her. She answered, sounding stressed, saying, “Thank you for calling, Suzan.” No hello, first. A sure sign of trouble afoot. So this was the story: on the neighboring property there are two old mobile homes, clinging to the side of the canyon. The renter, a strange but apparently harmless fellow, was away, doing a stint in a VA hospital in the Valley. Yet, on the morning in question, she heard first what sounded like a car alarm, then gunshots, followed by an explosion, after which flames erupted on the site of the mobile homes. “It had to be arson,” she said. “No one is supposed to be up there.”

We theorized: a meth lab going critical? A revenge torching? A murder? Murder is not out of the question. Just a few months ago the remains of a man missing from the foot of the mountain were found within a couple of miles of our homes. Mercifully, the deluge of rain the day before kept the fire from becoming a mountain-consuming conflagration. Marianne promised to report further dealings with the situation. And I went back to writing “Transiting Venus.” Gunshots, explosions, fire: just another Big Hill morning.

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