I knew things were bad in LA when Tuesday yoga got cancelled due to “bad air quality” and people in Santa Monica started donning gas masks to shop in Wholefoods.
Not many of us are up at 4am – LA is a city of early risers, yoga bunnies and (organic) almond milk latte drinkers, scorning the late night bar-hopping scene and 24-hour diners of other US cities. But I was up uncharacteristically late on Tuesday evening, lured over to North Hollywood to a love interest’s house, a night which lingered into the early hours of Wednesday… when I suddenly remembered the early class and three annoyed pets I had waiting back home.
I ran to my car and sped off on empty roads. The Santa Anas – those hot, dry, persistent winds which had created the conditions for the new fires bordering LA – had been blowing hard all day, but by 4am they’d stopped completely, and the city felt still – neither asleep nor awake, in a kind of twilight zone, holding its breath just for a second.
The ‘Skirball Fire’ takes hold in LA
I remember an uneasy orange glow in the sky: a sharp reminder of the “Creek fire” just a few miles north in Sylmar and Sun Valley. My throat felt thick and my chest hurt, but I figured it was because of the time – I’m an early riser, like all of us Angelenos, normally in bed by 10pm and up at 5:30am for my four times a week commute to Santa Monica College on the Westside.
But by the time I got home to my cottage in Downtown LA, I knew it wasn’t the late night. It was the air – thick, ashy and warm. I fell asleep, and woke up at 9am to find my phone had text after text from amber alerts (weather warnings sent to all mobile phone users), college alerts (telling me not to go in to class) and the emergency services.
Bleary, itchy-eyed and cold, I stumbled onto social media to check if my friends were OK, and found the now-famous iPhone video of the “Skirball fire” – the enormous wildfire threatening the Getty Center and lavish Bel Air homes (including, it was rumoured, a home belonging to Rupert Murdoch).
The video was shot from the 405 freeway – one of LA’s busiest motorways – just an hour after I’d driven home on empty freeways on the opposite side of town. It shows the morning commuters packed bumper to bumper, gazing up at the hillside bordering the freeway – a hillside…