Viewpoint: Remembering the Grand Prix Fire

By Janice Hoffmann

When you gaze east at night, there is not supposed to be a glow on the horizon, looking like the sun is rising at 10 p.m. At least the damn arsonist started in San Bernardino County in some god-forsaken canyon they’d never heard of. Meth head or malcontent. Chemical imbalance or circumstances. Sick or sinister. They did not yet know these types of people would become news regulars, wreaking havoc would become de rigueur, and thus each atrocity would become less memorable.

You couldn’t smell it yet, so that meant the winds were in their favor. Unconcerned, bravado more from ignorance than wisdom, her husband finished packing for tomorrow’s road trip up the coast, put his valise by the door, and fell into an untroubled sleep, not noticing that the Canary Palms that lined Mountain Avenue were nervous, whispering, gossiping among themselves, not yet shouting in desperation to anyone who’d listen.

Her bags were by the door as well, but she was oblivious, this would be the last time she would pack without fearing she was leaving a home she could never come back to, paralyzed with the meagerness of what she could take with her, overwhelmed with what she might be leaving behind. The bears chose to forgo their pre-hibernation foraging, instead retreating north into the San Gabriels towards a winter habitat. Neither the foxes nor the bobcats decided to mix with the muggles on this particular night. Safe from all but the most devastating developments, even the rattlesnakes burrowed deeper.

In today’s terms it wasn’t a big fire, just under 70,000 acres, contained in less than two weeks, however the Grand Prix fire was their fire. They had been evacuated before, but in 2003 it was close and real and the authorities awakened them at 2 a.m. and gave them five minutes to leave. Only the luck of the draft saved their house, while 66 other Claremont families were far less fortunate. It was the oddest thing. She had no idea she could get PTSD when nothing had really happened to her. Yet, merely escaping disaster became a trigger, and every year, in late October, her nighttime ritual included scanning the horizons before succumbing to slumber, never again trusting the Santa Ana winds.
Janice Hoffmann

Author’s Note: This is the time of year I remember the Grand Prix fire of 18 years ago, the night that our house came close to burning down, but didn’t. However, as a result of being evacuated in the middle of the night, my attitude towards packing before leaving home was forever changed. I’ve chosen to approach the experience using a calm, omniscient narrator who tells my story in third person.


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