Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Fire Next Time

I got a small taste of what Armageddon might look like yesterday.  About 3:30 PM, a brush fire broke out in the Sepulveda Pass, a canyon I travel every day to and from the office.  Almost at the same time, due east, a transformer exploded at the top of Coldwater Canyon at Mulholland, starting a second brush fire there.  Within the hour, a third fire broke out along Interstate 5 near Dodger Stadium, shortly before crowds were to arrive for one of the final home games of the season.  The ambient outside temperature during this event was between 102 and 106 degrees.

As I made my way toward the pass and home, I was confronted with gridlocked traffic and a huge and growing plume of smoke in the clear September sky.  There are two ways to travel through the Sepulveda Pass:  Sepulveda Boulevard, a winding, mostly two lane canyon road, and Interstate 405, which is currently undergoing a billion dollar widening project.  On the radio, I heard that the boulevard was closed in both directions, and that the freeway would soon be shut down as well.  The large number of fire trucks and LAPD cars screaming by me as I waited on Sunset Boulevard attested to the truth of the radio report.  In front of me, as if to add insult to injury, a large articulated MTA bus broke down.  I gingerly inched my way down to Sepulveda around the bus and coned off lanes, set my GPS for home, and turned south on Sepulveda, away from my destination.  Traveling south, I passed endless lines of cars simply parked in the northbound lanes; no one was moving.  Using my car GPS which simply gives a route, and my phone GPS which actually links to real-time traffic, I found myself at Wilshire Boulevard.  The left turn lane was backed up for more than a quarter mile; no way to turn east.

If Sepulveda and the 405 are shut down, the next best option is Beverly Glen about five miles east.  It, too, is a winding canyon road.  Further east is Coldwater Canyon, also closed, and beyond that, Laurel Canyon and the 101 freeway, but they were many miles away.  The only option was to find a way east to get to Beverly Glen.  I found myself wandering through Westwood on side streets, circling around the UCLA campus and eventually meeting up with Beverly Glen.  Traffic was inching up the canyon, but it was moving.  I made the turn and was finally heading north.

Now comes the existential part.  Why was I here?  I was driving home from work.  And what would happen if all northbound access points were blocked?  Today, only three were blocked, and evidently, Coldwater Canyon was not as serious as the pass fire.  It was clear that here in Los Angeles, we are not prepared for the kind of apocalyptic traffic nightmare that would occur if a major earthquake hit while we were all at work, or a major terrorist attack broke out at high noon on say a Wednesday.  There is a large range of smaller mountains—the Santa Monicas or the Hollywood Hills—that stand between L.A. proper, where millions make their money each day, and the San Fernando Valley, where millions of people live.  With the suddenness of a flash flood, I realized why experts say to keep water, food and a change of shoes in the car.  I could easily picture myself camped out along a street somewhere, waiting for debris or flames to be cleared so I could make it home.  Not a pleasant thought.

This time, I was lucky.  It took me two and a half hours to complete the drive to my home.  This same commute, without traffic, would normally take me twenty minutes.  The fact that I left work exactly when the fire started saved me, because I was able to make it out before traffic locked down completely.  Still, it is a little disconcerting that a commute to work takes as long as driving half the coast of California.  It is only two hours tops to San Diego, less than that to Santa Barbara, and three to four hours to San Luis Obispo.

But the real question is, how far is too far to make a buck?  What about all those minutes, even on a good day, that we spend in the car traveling to and from our jobs?  Maybe it is a question more imperative for people in Los Angeles, because we have a second-rate transit system, a group of buses and subways that people take only if they have no choice.  During the morning and evening commutes, I see almost every car with a single person inside.  If we can, traveling to work is a solo effort.  Yes, lots of people take transit buses, and there are vanpools and I am sure, some people who carpool, but there are too many of us on the roads these days, and our commutes for our precious jobs are just too far.  If someone commutes across town, he or she is lucky.  Some people drive 60 miles to work, like my brother-in-law, with a daily total of 120 miles five days a week.  Interestingly enough, he drives one of those MTA transit buses for a living.

As for the fire, it still smolders today, and L.A. city fire did an extraordinary job of keeping it from becoming a major disaster.  The water-dropping helicopters and Super Scoopers swept in and dumped their loads on the fire lines, and crews quickly cut away fuel and drew a circle around the flames.  They are mopping up today with the hope of reopening Sepulveda on Sunday.  The 405 freeway never in fact closed, however it did come to pretty much a standstill for most of Friday evening.

On Monday morning, I will be headed back that way for another day of work, as will millions of other people.  We will snake our way up canyon roads and up the onramps to the clogged freeways, hoping against hope that Armageddon will not come today, and that we will all make it home alive and within a reasonable amount of time once the day is done.

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