It was about 7:30 at night and cold for Los Angeles—must have been down to 50°F already. I started a fire from last year’s dwindling supply of wood, mostly pine logs and a few pieces of eucalyptus. Within minutes, the pine logs had ignited, and flames shot up the chimney flue. The roar of the blaze was deafening. I filled a pitcher with water and doused the pitch-pine logs until the conflagration was comfortably under control; then I turned on the television and settled onto the couch to watch a movie.
About 15 minutes later, someone pounded at my front door. “Fire,” a stranger on the porch yelled in my face. “You’re on fire!” I knew he didn’t mean me. I knew it was those roaring pitch-pine logs. He danced on the porch as I ran past him to the street and looked back at my roof. A stretch of my 20-year-old, tinder-dry wooden-shake ridge was ablaze, with flames leaping high in the air.
I screamed “Call 911” and ran for the back yard, where I kept a long hose on a high-pressure water line. I feared the house was lost; the flames seemed to come from within the attic just above my workroom, where I kept four file drawers filled with photographs and negatives for two new books, more than three years’ work.
In the darkness, I ran straight into a chaise longue, slammed my knee on the metal frame and fell fast toward the concrete patio. A nearby chair deflected my outstretched hand, and I landed flat on my face in the cold, muddy lawn with a black-plastic drip-irrigation valve buried in the center of my forehead. I crawled out of a tangle of chairs, through the mud, and found the hose bib, but I couldn’t find the end of the hose. I looked up at the roof and knew there wasn’t time to waste. I turned the valve on full, figuring I’d hear the water and find the hose. The hose jumped to life, whipped through the air and soaked me from head to foot. Then, just before I was able to grab ahold of the writhing hose, its metal nozzle caught me square on the cheek.
Running back toward the house, pointing the high-pressure blast toward the roof, I fell again—over the same chaise longue. A second chair broke my fall but nearly dislocated my shoulder. Still, I kept the hose pointed skyward, and some of the downpour must have missed me and landed on the roof. In seconds, numb from the freezing water, I climbed onto the small deck outside my workroom doors, finally able to direct a straight stream of water at the growing inferno. Lucky for me, I’d left my ladder lying on the deck the last time I’d trimmed the creeping wisteria above the trellis. I tripped on a ladder rung, almost regained my balance, then tripped on the next rung before losing the fight in a desperate fall. This time, my knees saved me: Both of them landed squarely on a ladder rung.
Through it all, I kept that hose pointed toward the fire even as I raised the ladder, climbed to the top, balanced precariously in my wet socks, thought once about breaking my neck or losing my house, then made the leap to the now slick shingles on the eave. Somehow, my sore knees and fingernails held me on the slippery slope.
I crawled up to the ridge and knew it was now or never. I fired that high-pressure spray like a machine gun, and before long, the flames signaled their surrender. Dense, dirty smoke filled the air, along with the scream of sirens.
As the firetrucks arrived, firefighters scrambled in all directions. Two or three yelled something about 3-in. hoses, and my stomach turned over twice: I may have escaped the fire, but the flood would surely ruin me. Five or ten firefighters joined me on the roof for a brief chat, then rescinded the 3-in. hose command. The firefighters advised me to use their extension ladder for the descent; then they started tearing up the charred shingles.
Surprisingly, by 9 p.m., everyone was gone. I was back on the couch, drinking tea, watching television, wondering what in the world had just happened—whether it was the flare-up in the fireplace or rogue sparks that ignited the roof—and why I hurt all over.
—Gary M. Katz, Reseda, CA
Drawing by: Jackie Rogers