Forty-eight minutes up the peninsula, a neighborhood was incinerated last night when a gas main exploded. On television, a ball of flame licked the night sky as the broken pipe chugged natural gas into the air.
Four people are dead and many others missing and I don't know what happens to all of it when the fires come through. I don't know how you can find bodies or anything at all because it's all flattened. Gourmet kitchens with stainless steel appliances, staircases and Sleep Number beds and all of the rosebushes, everything except for the chimneys: Flat, melted, burned, obliterated.
A woman driving home from work last night saw the explosion about five doors down from her own home. She gathered her children and says as she left the heat was so intense that the vinyl on her home's windows was melting into the grass.
When you stand in the burned wreckage of a person's home, you might as well be standing on the moon, for all that your mind understands it. I stood one morning at the stone entrance to a hillside home and the entrance was all that remained. I turned and the owner stood a few feet away with his hands in his pockets. He smiled.
Fire victims are always grateful to be alive, at first.
Working in the Sierra foothills, we gained a new understanding of fire. It wasn't something that happened to other people. It was something that devastated neighborhoods, that killed people in the wrong spot at the wrong time. Half the town were volunteer fire fighters, and I vividly recall the day a woman -- a firefighter -- was killed after she was dropped by helicopter on a hillside and the fire overcame her.
Fire wasn't something you could stop, drop, and roll in the mountains. Fire was something where, when you saw it, you ran the other way. Unless you were a reporter.
Fire ripped across open fields and more than once I came across a barricaded highway where smoke poured over the asphalt from a nearby fire. When I was new there, I wished they would let me across so I wouldn't have to take the hour-long detour through winding, remote hills. But, of course, you couldn't go through because if you did, you would die. I gained a healthy respect for fire.
Following scenes like these, and others having little to do with fire aside from being similarly devastating, I have a low tolerance for human suffering. I think a lot of reporters do -- it just doesn't appear that way. Being there and reporting on the event is their way of helping, even if sometimes it looks like the opposite of help. Being here on my couch and watching the television, I am helpless.