Encountering the wild fires of California
Yesterday – that’s Friday here – I was set to give a “Roman Laughter” lecture at the University of California campus at Santa Barbara. I got up to find an email, reassuring me that my lecture was “still on”. As I hadn’t yet seen the news it had never struck me that it might be “off”. But I soon saw why: hundreds of houses destroyed in wild-fires whipped up on Thursday night just outside the town, though far enough away from the campus for the university to be thought safe.
While I waited at the gate for the plane, it was clear that several passengers were going back to threatened homes to get out what stuff they could. My next door neighbour on the flight was one of those, and he explained to me just why it had been so devastating. Not only was the whole place very dry and the early evening winds very strong (the so-called ‘sundowners’) but the particular place where the fire had become established was an area of single track, twisty roads and cul-de-sacs – so it was very hard to get the fire equipment in the right place. The fire was, he explained, moving into the town, but it was much easier to contain there.
It was a low key, but rather moving account, particularly when told me that he (with his neighbours) had only recently invested in a herd of goats, which is still -- notwithstanding any advances is modern technology -- by far the most cost effective way of keeping the brush wood (and so the fire risk) down. But the goats had only been installed for a couple of weeks; hardly time to make an impact and heaven knows what had happened to them.
So was it business as usual when I arrived? And what was the mood?
As we landed, we could see the smoke, and on the tarmac – even though we were several miles away -- you could smell the burning, like an autumn bonfire. The mood in the university was brave and a little sombre. The campus itself was well away from the flames, but some students and faculty lived perilously close to the danger area. They risked losing everything, and the university authorities were obviously doing what they could -- with instant loans of cash etc.
So it wasn’t only celebrities and the rich whose homes were threatened or destroyed, but the epicentre was a very plush neighbourhood. And it was the fate of the palaces of Oprah, John Cleese and the rest that captured the media’s attention. Indeed the New York Times reported some ‘tragic’ tales of celebrity heroism. One elderly Oscar nominee had had dreadful trouble escaping from his estate because the electricity had failed so he couldn’t open his gates. I couldn’t help feeing that if he hadn’t barricaded himself and his riches into an electrically powered Alcatraz, he wouldn’t have had such trouble getting out.
Still the lecture went ahead to a good audience, and the only real difference for me was a change of hotel. I had been going to stay in a hotel downtown, but that now seemed too risky – not so much a risk of flames, but of the services being cut off. So I was moved to an luxurious and extremely expensive beach resort. And I mean expensive: hardly any change from $400 for my lovely, huge room, and balcony, but one that was clearly at the bottom of the accommodation pecking order (a premiere ocean view would set you back more than $1200 a night and there was plenty on offer much more expensive than that). Sadly, just flying in and flying out the next morning, I didn’t have a chance to take advantage of the various amusements and amenities – and I was especially sad to miss the “Perfect Pout” spa treatment:
“This incredible treatment was designed to create a “perfect pout” by immediately plumping and smoothing your lip contour through a unique two-step process that includes a rich, emollient moisturizing cream containing hyaluronic spheres that bind the body’s own water. A comfortable and flexible ergonomic patch delivers a gentle micro-current of energy via an invisible device that is both invigorating and relaxing. This allows for enhanced penetration of active ingredients. Results are immediate and your intensely plump and full lips can last 4-6 hours.”
But who were my fellow guests? It soon became clear, from what some of the staff said, that a large number of them were evacuees from the rich homes threatened or destroyed by the fires.
Now, I am sure that it is no less upsetting for the rich than for the poor to have their homes and possessions destroyed by fire. But temporary lodging in this five star plus resort must have had its compensations. A bit of a contrast with Hurricane Katrina, I thought (while hypocritically enjoying every minute of it myself, of course).