Residents of Sierra Madre like to think of their town as the closest thing to heaven on earth.
But hell came calling over the past several days. The call came in the form of a wildfire that threatened hundreds of homes wedged into the side of the San Gabriel Mountains.
The fire, a 500-acre hillside blaze that lit up the night sky, forced the evacuation of more than 1000 residents and placed the tiny community of 11,000 right in the crosshairs of national media attention.
Fortunately, as of late Monday afternoon, no one was killed or injured, no homes were destroyed, and life seemed about to return to normal.
On any other spring day, there’s probably nothing quite like a walk through Sierra Madre.
Even with smoke and ash in the air, the scent of night blooming Jasmine, eucalyptus, wild roses and rosemary lingers everywhere.
At the top of Auburn Avenue less than 100 yards from a smouldering hot spot, I met a man named Richter who said he’s lived in Sierra Madre all his life and in that neighborhood since 1970. He said he didn’t fear the fire.
” I wouldn’t live up here if I didn’t like it,” he said. “If you live down by the freeways, you can’t hear yourself talk,” he said. “But up here, it’s as quiet a church mouse — just like heaven.”
City officials have their own take on life in Sierra Madre.
“This is one of the last small towns in America,” Kurt Zimmerman, Sierra Madre’s mayor told a media hoard gathered in Sierra Vista Park, just down the road a piece from the Richter place.
“There’s no traffic lights,” he said, stifling a tear in his eye and a catch in his throat. “This is a place where neighbor knows neighbor.”
Although fire and police officials said they have not determined a cause for the blaze, Zimmerman pointed to a likely human origin.
“Someone, at approximately 3 p.m. Saturday started a fire in the hillside over our city,” Zimmerman told the cameras, microphones and pencils. “This is a crisis situation.”
Zimmerman went on to praise firefighters who, early Monday morning, prevented the blaze from reaching into one of Sierra Madre’s neighborhoods.
“Early this morning,” he began. “A couple of feet from our homes in the canyon, a perimeter was established when bodies and engines; steel, water and human flesh and blood stopped the fire dead in its tracks. We are making progress.”
Almost as soon as Zimmerman completed his dramatic statement, a city spokeswoman said the mayor misspoke.
“We do not know the cause of the fire,” Elisa Weaver said.
She left it at that.
A terse meeting between police Chief Marilyn Diaz, Weaver and Zimmerman followed the mayor’s remarks.
I could hear Zimmerman say, “I didn’t say ‘intentional.’ I was told it was not a bolt of lightening.”
Nonetheless, Diaz came to the podium and reiterated the official position: The cause of the blaze remains unknown.
I wandered away from the park and the press and found myself standing alone in the middle of a graveyard. I spent time looking at old tombstones, thinking of how peaceful the place must be when fire choppers aren’t hovering above.