October, 2017:

FIRES – A CALIFORNIA SCOURGE

Add fires to U.S. disasters! What a year 2017 has been for disasters in the US–hurricanes, floods and now fires. Climate change has not been holding back. In California we were grateful for our excessive rain this past winter, but we’re paying a price for more greenery with extreme fires in both Northern and Southern California. Every September and October, we have months of hot dry winds called Santa Ana’s that encourage fires.

Because I now live in residential area a few miles from our mountains, I am essentially safe from wildfires. Not from earthquakes, but that’s another subject. I’ve experienced many massive wildfires during over 50 years in SoCal. I remember several  fire disasters while living in the Conejo Valley area, northwest Los Angeles County.  The Simi Hills and the Santa Monica Mountains are considered prime fire territory. I learned a great deal about fires from direct experience and from being the Editor of the local Acorn newspaper in Agoura Hills.

A fire is an exciting topic when you write the news. Since I knew people all around the area, I could get a variety of personal stories when the October 1982 fire roared into town. Costs were estimated at $5 million then—probably a pittance compared to current fires. This fire started close to Bell Canyon, an exclusive area of homes to the east of Agoura, on a Saturday and burned 54,000 acres and 65 homes before it ended in Malibu on a Sunday. It followed a typical pattern: racing from one set of mountains and a valley before leaping the 101 Freeway, then burning through the Santa Monica Mountains before reaching the beach. Fires in the last few years in Southern California have been even more extensive and damaging.

My family home was spared; we lived in Hillrise, a housing development north of the freeway surrounded mostly by wild grass and some oak trees. Grass burns rapidly if the fire is close enough but it’s easier to control; the fire doesn’t stick around to really take hold, unlike the highly combustible chaparral in the mountainous areas (referred to as a bush fire). I climbed the hill behind my house to watch in horror and fascination as the smoke, propelled by strong winds, climbed into the skies and the fire got closer. How people fared depended on where they lived and if they’d cleared the brush around their property.

The photo below is the smoky view from my backyard hill.

 In Old Agoura, a nearby neighborhood north of the 101 Freeway full of small ranches and various animals, friend Rita was terrified in her home, still under construction. “We lost wood, paint, and the hen coop,” she said. “But the chickens lived. I don’t think they will ever lay again!”

Toni, who lived south of the freeway in the vegetation-rich mountains, struggled to keep control of her horses while she hosed down the hill behind her home. Just as the fire seemed to get out of control, a fire engine arrived. The noise spooked a horse, which lost its footing and rolled on top of Toni’s sister. Paramedics took the slightly injured sister to a nearby hospital, and she was fine.

“The wind strength was unreal and the smoke so dense you couldn’t see the flames,” said Fran Pavley, who also lived south of the freeway.  Pavley, who has been politically active for years and served many years in the California legislature, still lives in the area.

When fires consume the vegetation in the canyons prevalent throughout Southern California, there can be hell to pay for residents of these bucolic areas, and to those who fight the fires. A fire chief told me that one of the fires that had burned through steep and scenic Malibu Canyon was left to burn itself out. The energy generated was more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in WWII.

Nature always regenerates. After a fire, spring brings flowers that hadn’t been seen since the last fire, perhaps many years before.

 

Fire in Malibu in 2007

 

 

 

 

SUEZ CANAL CRISIS in 1950s

Crisis is an old word but it may never wear out its usefulness considering how often TV, the Internet, newspapers, radio, etc. use it. Just this week was another crisis, which took place in Las Vegas–so far 59 have died and  at least 500 injured. For a short word, crisis inspires the appropriate emotion.

My first knowledge of the word probably came in Tripoli, Libya, during the Suez Crisis of 1956. Although it affected Egypt more than Libya, it was a point of honor for a measure of self-rule for the Arab world.

Gamal Abdel Nasser, then President of Egypt, had taken control of the Suez Canal. Why should Britain and France control the canal that ran through Egypt, he reasoned? He wanted the tolls to help Egypt build the Aswan High Dam. It marked the spread of Arab nationalism, though Libya was late to that game, and Gadaffi didn’t seize power until 1969. According to some reports, the young Gadaffi took part in the riots in Libya. Good practice for his takeover later?

I’m going to share the comments from others who lived through the Crisis in Tripoli during those days. It was certainly nothing compared to Libya’s recent upheaval getting rid of Gadaffi’s government. Becky Rizek said: “I remember our house boy, Calipha, coming to work with bandages on his head and forehead. He said he was beaten because he was loyal to his American employers. He wanted to come to the States with us, which was impossible because he had at least one wife and three children. But for us, it was a day off from school. The kids on the base got to go to the Officers Club and wait on tables since the Arab waiters could not come in to work. I remember the MATS transports lined up on the runway at the base airport, ready to evacuate the American dependents should we have to go. I was all of thirteen and never forgot it.”

Elaine Frank recalled, “My dad’s car was stoned when he would come home from the base. We lived out on Homs Road and we lived in a duplex with a British family next door. They were shipped back (to the UK) and left in the middle of the night. We didn’t know what happened to them, but they eventually did return several months later. Like you said, this was just the way of life living in the military. We had to leave Morocco because of the French and Arab conflict in 1954/55, and we were in Japan during the Korean War. Kids just took it all with a grain of salt. People back in the States were scared for us but we were fine; it was just that the British and Americans looked alike, and that is why they would throw rocks at his car.”

“I recall the Suez Crisis, with machine guns on British and French embassies and King Idris’ guards beating heads with truncheons,” Mike Harris commented.

The Palace of King Idris long ago

 

Riots took place in front of the French and British embassies, and a couple of small bombs a day were set off in various areas of the city. It wasn’t a full-scale insurrection, but with the heat on, the British evacuated their women and children, flying them home to England.

Americans within Tripoli were put on a 6 p.m. nightly curfew and were told to have a bag with the barest necessities packed in case of evacuation. Gates and doors were to be locked and shades pulled down. We were all instructed not to venture into the old city. My mother got caught on the edges of a small demonstration near a friend’s house several blocks away. It scared her, but she was in our car and managed to leave without incident.

When you’re young, political situations don’t seem to matter. It was all just extra excitement and a chance to miss a couple of days of school. The curfew was moved to 9 p.m. within a week, and several weeks later, as things cooled off, life was back to normal. British families, however, did not return for several months.

Considering the turmoil in the Middle East since then, the Suez Crisis was a mild insurrection!

 

 

 

 

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