As someone who tends to fear little things, I’ve learned to
redirect my thoughts when they go from the standard concern to an irrational
spiral toward an epic catastrophe. My sons call me Worst Case Scenario Mom when
I go too far, yet I slay many of my childhood fears with my redirection
One fear from my childhood became a real event this past November.
The possibility of destruction always loomed over us as we lived in the fire-prone landscape at the base of the Santa Monica Mountains. For forty-six years we rode out the dangers of droughts, dry chaparral, acres of flames, and near misses. This luck literally went up in smoke the afternoon of November 9, 2018, when the Woolsey Fire raged through Malibu, CA.
I was in the sixth grade
during the 1978 Agoura-Malibu firestorm when dry brush and the Santa Ana winds
fueled the flames from Agoura to the Pacific Ocean. As the smoke massed over
the mountains, we packed our cars and drove down to Zuma Beach to wait out the
destruction. Huddled with fellow evacuees, including horses and other livestock
from the ranches and farms that dotted the hillsides, we watched and
I wandered on the beach
with my dog as the flames rolled down the mountains sending showers of sparks
down the bluffs across Pacific Coast Highway.
“Please, God, Please!” a woman prayed aloud as the fire swirled around her house in full view of the beach.
All at once, the house
burst into flames from within. The windows exploded, and the fire suffocated
the building and the woman’s prayer. Some people comforted her, and I moved on
down the beach feeling as raw and vulnerable as the landscape around me.
Late that night as we
drove back up into our neighborhood in Malibu Park, past the smoldering remains
of familiar houses, we held our breath as we turned onto our
street. By sheer luck, the flames had left a swath of land untouched
that left most of our street, including our house, intact.
Three years later, we
woke up on an early December morning with smoke already inside our house. The
field behind our backyard was in flames. The Santa Ana winds had knocked a
powerline down and sparked a small fire that burnt at least one house before it
raced down the hill to our street. The firefighters, my family, and neighbors,
were able to contain it before it spread and destroyed anything else.
For decades after our
near misses, our house stayed out of the path of the major fires in Malibu, but
we still worried. My parents took emergency preparedness courses. They cleared
the brush around their home. They cut down trees. They made evacuation lists.
The fire never came.
I eventually left Malibu for Washington state. Even here, with our abundant rainfall, I think of the “what if” options if a brush fire ignited. These dense forests can certainly burn. The past two summers we had many days when our skies filled with smoke from fires in British Columbia and Washington. I’ve considered what would happen if a fire started near my house—the different trajectories, the escape routes, and the outcomes.
On the morning of Nov.
9, 2018, a quick scan of the news prompted a pang of worry. A fire in Southern
California had jumped the 101 Freeway. Once a fire jumps the 101, the fire will
likely burn to the coast. This is Southern California fire logic. I read Malibu
was under mandatory evacuation.
I called my parents.
They were packing and had a plan. Of course, they had a plan.
Every break I had from
work that day, I scanned social media, clicked on news links, and texted my
brothers. My parents were out of cell range, but they had been seen by a family
friend. They were on Zuma Beach.
During my lunch, I watched live news footage. A helicopter flew over the fire, but I couldn’t tell where it was exactly. I studied the vertiginous sweep of canyons and red-tiled roofs, flames, and smoke. For a second, the screen flashed an overlay of street names, and it hit me. This is our neighborhood. For just a moment, I saw our street and the blobs of house-sized fires hazed in smoke. The camera peeled away to survey another burning neighborhood.
Malibu Park is a mix of
old timers, like my parents, in their ranch houses and the fancier types, with
astonishing Mediterranean-inspired estates. Celebrities and rumored
international royal family members live in square footage enough to get lost
in. Mixed up is everything else imaginable—converted garages, sleek
steel and glass rectangles, and even an ornate replica Victorian. Dog trainers
live next door to physicians, plumbers, retired rock stars, teachers, and real
My parents’ house was
classic, a house with an iconic and timeless feel—the original midcentury pink
bathtub, the double-sided brick fireplace that showcased the kitchen and living
room, and the quilted design my mom made tacked carefully to the living room
ceiling, between wooden rafters, to hide the popcorn texture above.
It was a laidback house
with comfy seating, heaps of books, and a big table in the kitchen where we
feasted on excellent meals. Out front, on the brick porch, we had a weathered
rocker for sea gazing. Some things were not perfect, like my old bedroom which
still had the ugly black and hot pink stripes I made on the closet door (it was
the 80s after all).
On that November afternoon, after the fire had made its way to the coast, my dad walked up from Zuma Beach treading carefully, hyper-aware of the dangers of hotspots and fallen power lines. He couldn’t go all the way to the property, but he went far enough to see what remained. Only the fireplace stood on what had once been our homesite.
Later, I found out my
parents had first settled in the parking lot for Malibu Park High School where
they could keep an eye on their street. But as the fire came down the
mountains, they told me the flames funneled into whirls and made deep
undulating sounds like massive gears on some horrible machine. They feared for
their lives and fled to the beach.
Hearing the news of the
growing numbers of fatalities in the recent California fires, my heart breaks.
I am grateful that my parents and others are alive. This is what’s most
important. Yet, there’s no denying a profound sense of loss. My greatest fear
about my family home has always been that one day it would burn down. Now it
This was the home my
brothers and I returned to often and brought our own children to share in the
experience. It was my escape when the dark winters of Orcas Island got me down.
It was our home—the one we moved into in 1972–not perfect but one we accepted
and loved, with all the idiosyncrasies, like a member of the family.
My parents plan to
rebuild. After the rubble is removed and a new home is constructed, there
will be new charms and comforts. After all, the essentials stay the same. The
vibrant pink and orange glow of the winter sunsets will still happen. The
hummingbirds will return to fight over the bottlebrush flowers. At night, we’ll
hear the waves as they break and roll down Zuma Beach. It will be home.
Despite everything, a
new home will rise from the ashes.
I read on Twitter yesterday a Tweet from Ally Carter (an author of excellent YA novels), reminiscing about pumpkin pie made with real pumpkin (not the canned stuff). Some years ago, I started making pumpkin pie with roasted pumpkin, and the results are fantastic! Ally and Tina Hoggatt requested the recipe, so I posted it here.
I searched through my photos for a good picture of the pie. This is the best I can do. It was from Thanksgiving a couple of years ago. The one in the front is the Pumpkin pie. Just ignore the ugly crust; I tend to do rustic over perfect. You can see the deep color of the roasted pumpkin in the pie. Pure deliciousness!
I don’t have a recipe for the pie crust, but there are plenty of great ones out there. I love Smitten Kitchen’s excellent recipe and tutorial for an all butter, really flaky pie dough.
Adapted from the Bakeshop’s Sugar Pumpkin Pie Recipe which was published long ago in Sunset Magazine. I changed a few of the ingredients. I replaced the corn syrup with maple syrup, added molasses, reduced the sugar, and increased the pumpkin and spices.
1 Sugar Pie pumpkin (or any squash that resembles pumpkin). Preferably organic from a local farm like Farmer John’s on Orcas Island.
2 eggs (from local hens, of course!)
1/3 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1-2 teaspoons of pumpkin pie spice (or your favorite combination of cinnamon, ground ginger, cloves, nutmeg . . .)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup maple syrup
1 tablespoon molasses (optional, but it’s pretty awesome)
3/4 cup (generous) organic half-and-half
1 partially baked 9-inch pie crust, the deeper kind of pie dish works better (make the crust and precook it in the oven for about 10-15 minutes 400 degrees). Not a necessary step, but it helps.
Cut pumpkin in half crosswise, remove seeds and punkie guts. Then set cut side down in a pan. Bake in a 375-400 degree oven until very soft when pressed.
When cool enough to touch, scoop pumpkin flesh from rind and discard rind. Smoothly purée flesh in a blender; you need 1 generous cup. Use the rest for something else (a second pie!).
In a bowl, mix the 1 cup pumpkin purée, eggs, sugar, salt, and spices. Stir in maple syrup and ½ and ½. Or put everything in the blender and blend!
Set the prepared pie dish with the crust on a baking sheet. Set baking sheet on the bottom third rack of a 350° oven (middle will work as well). Pour the pumpkin mixture into the crust (or do this before you put in the oven).
Bake until pie center barely jiggles when gently shaken, about 50-55 minutes. If crust rims start to get too dark, drape affected areas with foil.
Cool pie on a rack. Serve warm or cool.
If you have any leftover pie filling (it happens), you can make pumpkin custards. Just pour the filling into a small buttered ovenproof container and bake. You now have something to eat while you wait for the pie.