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Fire Storm
by Gary Kennedy


I have myself stood in the mouth of this beast "The Forest Fire" as it devoured all that was in front of me, all that was around me and behind me. As it descended the canyon, the 20-foot wall of flame blackened the world, blocked out the sun, so the very hand in front of my face was not visible, until the orange wrath illuminated my trembling fist clutching a garden hose! It was at that point I realized I was seriously out gunned, in my attempt to do a good deed! 

My partner Gilbert was perched atop the roof of one house on the compound; I on the other! We were attempting to save the houses by preventing the hot falling embers from taking their hold of the roofs.

The Beast's breath whirled at 60 plus miles an hour and spat out a tornado like wind.  The searing heat cooked the hair off my face, arms and eyelids. I stood on the gable edge of the roof of a two-story house. My job was to save it! It became apparent to me that the job at that moment was to somehow survive this ordeal!

The monster marched down the steep chaparral wall towards me.  I turned to look over at Gilbert as we caught each other in a glazed disbelieving stare. We had not bargained for this!  They asked for help to save the homes.  Everybody ran away except us! We were just a couple of carpenters that didn't want to see our work ruined so we stayed. We were those kinds of guys, though we hadn't quite planned on dying like this!

We had joked 10 minutes before referencing some AA platitudes and comically saying some serenity prayers when the fire first appeared, on the top of the hill! We yelled jokes back and forth to ease the tension. We were a couple of newly sober alcoholics on a mission.   I could no longer see Gilbert in the fiery blackout, or hear him in the deafening roar the firestorm created! Prior to this I peered down to the deep end of a swimming pool 30 feet below, figuring out angle and trajectory to land directly over the drain, which is the deepest point of any pool. There was no diving board, and being only 6 or 8 feet deep, the question lingered in my mind, "Would the water absorb the shock of my cannonball to safety?"  Those calculations would be the difference between belly flop burns, a sore butt, or a pair of broken legs. It'll be escape plan "B" I thought. The pool could save me, injured or otherwise, I'd make it! Just hit the water and spread out slowing my descent to the bottom. It would be a crapshoot at best, but my entire life to that point, had been anyway! Newly sober alcoholics, as a rule, have that kind of track record.

The hoses we were using to extinguish the hot embers on the roof went dry, as the fire hydrants down the street were cracked open for the battle that would ensue below us.   They could not have known the effect it would have on us up here, no water pressure equals no water, as the formula goes.  The helicopters overhead could not see us in the firestorm. We began beating the falling embers out with our coats.

It kept coming at us and all of a sudden, smash! -- a huge water drop to the left of us, crushed an out building.  Then the heat rolled up and over the roof, forcing me to lie down on the opposite gable to avoid it and to try to breathe. So much for the swan dive into the pool below.   I believed I would have been air fried on the way down anyway.

I looked over the peak of the roof and watched the Beast in all its fury galloping toward me, for its final thrust at the house, with me on top.  It was about to dine, and I was the next course.

I was transfixed in the momentary spell, aware of my mortality in that instant.  My ever-present head "Muzak" played Hendrix's "Let Me Stand Next to Your Fire."  I was there with James Marshall Hendrix, and getting closer to him by the minute.  The spell broke in the form of a hot ember landing on my arm. "Yeow," I yelped, then sprang to my feet and continued to beat once more at the embers.  A blast of heat knocked me back down again.   I succumbed; I surrendered to my fate, to what seemed to be the obvious, an adversary too large for the insignificant individual to battle.  My eyes were being melted shut.  The next wave of heat would finish me, as the Beast loomed directly below, the house stood, poised, and ready to be devoured.  I took one last look at my blackened trembling hands, clutching the lifeless hose and remembered all the things I had built with them, the many cuts, skinned knuckles and hammered thumbs that it took to fine tune them into the instruments they had become.   All the beautiful hand hewn artistry we all had performed on this project, was now only moments from total devastation! "What Power," I thought! I took my last look over the top of the gable, to what would be the last thing I would see before being overcome by the heat and the inability to breathe.  The flames as tall as the house moved in for the kill.  I watched this grand spectacle while making my peace with God!

What happen next was nothing short of a miracle, or at least would have seemed that way, for at this moment one was needed! The 20-foot wall of flame parted mysteriously in two directions.  Its course miraculously altered, like a movie stampede of cattle on the charge, parting, around the camera.  As in some Spaghetti Western, the wall of fire began to part and stampede around me!  It sent up heat bursts as it passed, like a bear cuffing its prey a few times to make sure it was finished, after a good mauling.  I was surrounded by the orange glow on all four sides.  Stunned I asked myself, "Why was this house not ablaze and my fate sealed? Was it the fire crew, had they made it?  Had they surrounded the house and saved it and me as well?"

There was seemingly no smoke. I had been taught that the extinguishing of a fire always produces a smoke plume.  The heat was dissipating though, allowing me to raise my head and look down to see no people, no crews, just a wide berth around the house.   The path of the fire was inexplicably altered!

I saw everything happening in slow motion.  I believe some near death experiences have this strange phenomenon as a by-product. I immediately began cursing the flames and laughing hysterically!  "Hendrix had just made the Red Sea part in the color orange" I thought deliriously!  I was watching the walls of flame move by me! It was like sitting in a rowboat watching two oil tankers split the middle and go around me! The total sensation of powerlessness!

The heat lessened, as the vortex shot the air upward, the blinding orange glow of a front row seat to nature's big show was awe inspiring, "Better than Pink Floyd's 'Dark Side of The Moon' concert, on 'shrooms" I chuckled nervously to myself. All this and I was as sober as a Judge!

The deafening roar quieted as it moved down the hill, leaving me to think I had cheated it.  But how?  I was on top of a house with vegetation around it. How could this not have become fodder for the flames?  Had God's hands cupped me in that moment? Had they reached down, or across, and shielded me from the inferno?  I stood up a bit weak in the knees, a bit worse for wear, yet still breathing! As fast as it had darkened it became light again, with blue sky and shafts of light through the smoke trails.

I looked across at Gilbert sitting on the roof smiling! I shrugged and was mystified at what had just occurred.  He pointed down, for he knew the source of this miraculous occurrence!  I couldn't see what it was at first.  I just saw a perimeter where the fire had moved around the house, a sharp delineating line defining the moment the blaze relented.  On one side, charred remains black and burning; the other side green and seemingly unaffected! Being from the East I had never heard the word until he hollered across the 100 feet that separated us.  It was a word that probably most landscapers say daily when planting in fire country.  Ice plant.  A little custom built succulent, impervious to the Beast, that sought to destroy it, and
every thing in its path.  Thwarted by a little gnome like ground cover!
Standing in the mouth of this Beast of titanic proportions, little David the ice plant had once again razed the fiery Goliath, as it had for so many centuries! "Ice plant?" I queried, "Stopped that?"

He gave me a knowing nod, as we both dropped to the ground to squelch out the many ground fires that were left in the wake. We were both humbled by the experience.  With two blackened faces, we slapped each other high fives, lit a couple of Marlboro's to assist with our smoke inhalation, and moved down the hill back to the remainder of the fire abatement, and our lives, which we were grateful to have at that point. "All in a days work," we joked. The fire was still raging below us down the canyon; we were still left with no water, as they were probably in a battle to save Mick Fleetwood's estate. We used shovels and a tractor to smother the spot fires! We hoped that Mick's house was spared, as we were all fans of Fleetwood Mac!

I'm not sure to this day if Barbra Streisand herself actually knew she had so many incredible people working on her behalf.  Those were her homes we endeavored to save! But for her, as with most powerful people, who end up separated from the average ones by the circumstance of celebrity, they may miss out on life's occurrences, as experienced by the little "ice plants" that surround their lives. They insulate them from the little battles that are waged on their behalf. I'm sure if she had been on the roof that afternoon she may have discovered something about herself she hadn't known before.  Regardless, the lesson was mine for all eternity! Plant wisely, in all areas of one's being and be grateful for the little things that cover our butts in our day-to-day lives, without recognition or reward.

Be grateful for the waitress, the laborer, the guy who mows the lawn, the underpaid teacher who helps to mold the minds of our children, the insignificant ones who watch the so called "superiors," take credit for the work.

We received a token bonus for our efforts, and a lesson in landscaping I will never forget! Our work ended up in an architectural magazine, with no credit to the hands that had created or saved it. As I watched the Barbara Walters special, interviewing Ms. Streisand in front of the footbridge I had hewn from scratch without a blueprint, I remembered her standing at the end of it one day before the fire, gazing across the huge timbers with a satisfied look in her eye.   Her comment, "It's a beautiful piece of work. Thank you!"  That small gesture from her got me up on that roof that afternoon, to risk life and limb! If this is anything, it would be a thank you note to mother nature, for putting the respect for God in me and at the same moment sending us a little reprieve, in the form of a cleverly engineered, little succulent plant! That little plant, probably some where in the fire country of Ramirez Canyon in Malibu, is being upstaged by a bougainvillea trellis, as we speak!
                                                                  Thank you mother
                                                                        I am still listening


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