Monday, March 19 , 2018, 7:32 pm | Overcast 57º


Susan Estrich: Smoke in the Air, Heroes on the Ground

My phone buzzed with the emergency alert at 6 a.m. Tuesday, the fires seemed far away, even though my house smelled the way it does when you forget a pot on the stove.

But there were no pots on the stove. Just fires across the mountain. So we did what we Californians do.

We live with earthquakes and mudslides, with drought and dust, and with fire.

Close the windows, check Google Maps, turn up the air purifiers. Sylmar — not so close. Ventura — not so close. You see the people who have lost their houses and you shake your head in sorrow... and a little puzzlement.

Fire country is beautiful, when it's not on fire. Me, I live on a regular street.

But that was Tuesday. Wednesday, the fire was practically in the backyard. It wasn't just a smell in the air. It was smoke and flames right across the freeway. 

I don't know that there is a busier highway in the country than the 405 — the San Diego Freeway. It's often a parking lot, but not like yesterday, when the flames turned the morning commute into a nightmare. 

For hours, I just stared at the TV and kept checking the Los Angeles Fire Department map, which detailed the mandatory evacuation zones, and the "ready, set, go" zones — one of which was blocks from where I live — where folks were told to be on standby to leave.

"Will you rebuild?" the television reporters kept asking the former homeowners whose homes had been reduced to rubble. A few hesitated, but almost everyone came to the same answer: Yes. This is my home. This is our home.

These are the days that break your heart, our mayor, Eric Garcetti, said: the 83-year-old woman who planned to die in her house, a house that no longer exists; the 76-year-old man who was alone, lost everything; the animals... the poor, frightened animals everywhere.

I stayed in the house with my dogs just in case. I wasn't about to leave them. We would be together.

These are the days that break your heart, but they are also the days that remind you of what matters. Not the big mouth, Donald Trump. 

The first responders, the brave men and women who have been fighting fires for days, risking their lives to save the multimillion-dollar houses they could never afford to live in. They are my heroes.

The kind people of my city, who flooded the television stations with calls to help that 76-year-old man, who have opened their homes and their hearts to people with only the clothes on their back: They are my heroes.

The friends who picked up the phone to call, knowing I was alone, to make sure I was OK. Oh, it's far away, I said, as I studied my map, to make sure the lines hadn't changed. Really, not so far away, looking at it again. 

What would I take? I watched the people packing up their cars. With my dogs, what would I have room for? What do I really need? 

I looked around my house, full of pictures and mementos, things you take for granted, presents my kids made at school 15 or 20 years ago: I would take those. But not much else. Everything else was just things. 

"I'm not sleeping very well," one of my friends said last night, in our check-in call. Who is? Another alert just came in, high winds expected, stay tuned.

I don't think anyone in Los Angeles will sleep well tonight. But what a city: not of angels but of heroes.

Susan Estrich is a best-selling author, the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the USC Law Center and was campaign manager for 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Click here to contact her or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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