By: Faith Twardzik
I woke up to the smell of burning flesh. Everyone was afraid. No one said so, but the air reeked of it.
What would we do if it crossed over the mountains? Where would we go? Were our families safe? Our homes? What would we have to go back to? Ash and dust and broken memories? We were all so very helpless. Even the air was our enemy.
My roommate coughed. Once, twice, thrice. She kept coughing. But the windows were shut and there was nothing more that could be done. She said she would go buy masks. I asked if she could pick one up for me as well. She agreed. But she never made it out the door that day.
I stepped out onto the balcony, beyond the boundaries of our suite. I had to put a face to the stench, a stench I find troublesome to describe. The moment I opened the door, it rushed in, as fog rushes into the dip of a valley in the dark of night. Musky, mesquite, sweet and sour all at once. It was some horrid mixture of a summer barbecue and torched flesh – sickly sweet. And if you sniffed with just enough intensity, there it was. A hint of … fear.
The sky was wrong.
It was a cloudless day, as is perpetually the case in Los Angeles, and yet the sun was invisible. It cowered above a dense, impenetrable layer of smoke. The ground was dark, obscured by a murky haze, crushed close to the earth as the sordid smoke bore down upon it.
Yet the color, the color! It was incredible.
The sky, that vast ocean, normally such a stark, endless blue, was anything but. Just as the earth was on fire, so too was the sky. The sky, buried beneath murk and ash, gray miasma and tepid, venomous smoke, a layered curtain composed of a thousand lethal little particles – particles that used to be homes, buildings, possessions, people, pets. There was flesh in the air, darkened and scorched. And the heavens, infuriated, had been set aflame. A mixture of pink and orange and all hues autumnal blazed across the sky. It was midday, and yet a perpetual sunset drew its claws from horizon to horizon. The sun burned somewhere above it, bright enough to torch the earth in somber flame, yet too weak to pierce through the mass of dank ash moving, alive, from the ground to the sky and everywhere in between.
It settled in my lungs, leaving my throat scratchy, sore from the strain of such noxious poison. I coughed.
The world was tilted, upside-down. The tree-branches were kindling, reaching above my head and into the blazing flame. As long as there was still food for the fire, it would persist, and all would suffer under the reign of the flame.
I bounded down the stairs, and found myself at the patio behind Saxon – the landing which overlooked Bel-Air and the Santa Monica mountains, stretching into the far distance. Yet today, Bel-Air had disappeared. The mountains had disappeared. It was as if a giant hand had, in the dead of night, dug up the mounds of earth and left only a murky haze in their wake.
The winds had shifted. The fire had jumped the highway. It was 0% contained.
But I had homework to do.
“My friend … her whole neighborhood burned down. Her house, everything,” a girl whispered in the common room. Her books were open before her, but she wasn’t reading them. Idle, her fingertips tapped against the table.
“That’s terrible. How do you even … where do you even go from there?”
“I don’t know. I can’t even imagine.”
It was all anyone spoke about. Their voices laced with fear, or worry, or anguish, yet always something.
“If the winds don’t shift, it’s going to make it over the mountains.”
“They wouldn’t let it. They’d move hell and earth to contain it before it got to Bel-Air or Beverly Hills.”
“Maybe, but it’s worse than last year. What do we do if they can’t?”
Perhaps we knew that we would be fine, in the end. We were safe, nestled snug between several of the most expensive neighborhoods in the nation. But it was the worry, the shear dread, that tore us up. The knowledge that a few miles away, a fire was ravaging the landscape. As we slept, it crept closer. As we went about our day, it crept closer. As we ate, as we worked, as we lived and breathed and laughed and existed, it drew ever closer. We couldn’t see the flames, but we could smell the fire. We breathed the remnants of its destruction. The very earth before us, at every turn, was a reminder of just how helpless we were, subject to the whims of the wind and the flames.
We were scared to breathe.
This, just days after the LA bar shooting that left a USC student dead. It was all too close to home. Then Trump tweeted, as he is wont to do … blaming the forest management and threatening their “gross mismanagement” with a withdrawal of funds. Where was the gratitude to a multitude of firefighters at that very moment risking their lives? Where were condolences to the families who had lost loved ones, the families who had lost their homes, their livelihoods? The families left with nothing, quaking in the wake of catastrophe, tasked with the immense struggle of rebuilding their lives? How could he turn such a horrid disaster into another round of politicized whining?
This followed by the Pepperdine fiasco – in which the university students were ordered to remain on the Malibu campus, despite the Woolsey fire looming ever-closer. 3,600 undergraduates, sheltered in the university’s library, spent a harrowing night cowering as the hillsides surrounding the campus burned closer and closer. Strike teams beat back the flames by the early hours of the morning, yet the fact remains: why were the students put in that position in the first place? Why were their lives endangered? My theory: the administration ordered the stay-in to protect the university’s infrastructure, knowing full well that if students were still on campus when the fire arrived, the fire department would have no choice but to unleash everything in its power to prevent the fire from reaching the campus. What a sly move, Pepperdine. Congrats on caring more about your precious infrastructure than the safety of your students.
The end of that day saw me at the top of the Janss steps, overlooking the entire campus. The sun was setting, and far in the distance, a black plume of smoke rose above the earth. A dark omen, it drew up and up and up, further toward oblivion, mushrooming about the horizon like the detonation of an onyx hydrogen bomb scouring the earth in darkness.
The sun set, the plume fading into the night sky until it was no longer distinguishable.
As I walked, I glanced up at the sky once more. The layered smoke had begun to clear as dusk had shifted the winds toward the ocean. Up above, bright and prideful, the moon shown pink in a drunken sky.