I woke up to a text message from my aunt who was writing me from her new digs at the Red Cross shelter in Calistoga. Sometime in the night her town of Middleton, California began to burn. She’s there with her man, his daughter, their cats, and dog. In the old days, relatives from 100 miles away might say something like, come stay with us.
But we could be next. Why evacuate twice?
As I’m writing this there’s a 65K acre fire below us and a 30K acre fire to the west and the pristine Northern California air is as thick as San Gabriel Valley smog in Pasadena mid-Summer (and no one wants to breathe in Pasadena in mid-summer). On Monday I was at a retreat in Twain Harte above Sonora off highway 108. That highway connects interstate 395 of the eastern Sierras with interstate 5 of the valley by climbing a steep mountain pass that starts at about 5000 feet and goes all the way up to over 9000 feet, the view of which is breath taking on a clear day and ominous on a smoky day. We couldn’t return the way we came. Fire now directs our travel and our movements.
While in Twain Harte a brush fire broke out directly behind us and a road block was set up three miles away. We spent the afternoon with bags packed in the car ready to go just in case. We were trying to live in the meditative moment of the retreat. We were trying to live in the present and be present as one does at retreats. But that presence came with the omnipresent scent of destruction at the ready. We had to trust that when the time came, if it came, we’d be alerted to evacuate.
We rely on strangers now.
The fires give our divided state and our divided politics a commonality we’ve never quite had before. Or rather it’s changed. We used to be divided by social issues and education and economy. Now it’s rather elemental. We are strictly divided by those who catch on fire, and those who do not. Those that have water and those who do not. Those whose earth is scorched. Those whose earth remains. And those who can breathe deeply and not feel the dizzying sharp pains of fire in our lungs.
There are small pockets of organic, herbicide free city dwellers who still hold the line on self-righteous great causes that we as a state, are known for. There are environmentalists like myself who cheer on low-flying DC10s as they drop retardant, then water on our remaining forests below.
Our landscape changing before our very eyes. Our myths about ourselves flayed open. We are not the California that slides into the ocean after one big earthquake. We are the next dust bowl refugees who will linger in the remaining trees—the coastal cities having already proven themselves to be only for the rich, the prosperous, and the carpetbaggers of virtual industry.
All summer I’ve watched as the creek behind my house gets lower and lower. I’ve watched as the rock formations in the Feather River appear out of their ancient beds like new planets, new deserts. I’ve watched red algae grow over every pond. I’ve watched as the children crowd the one swimming pool in the town as all the watering holes are deemed unsafe or just, you know, gone.
My skin has gone dry and bumpy. I feel guilty ordering water at a restaurant. I force every last drop down if the glass they give me is too big. I don’t drink water at home. I think of the well. I think of the length of other people’s showers. I keep the sheets on the beds longer. I think of how the bathroom always smells slightly of unflushed piss.
It is us and it is them. We eye campers from the cities with disdain. They bring only inexperience and havoc. I think of the logging trucks and other trucks sending sparks upon the grasses in the dry heat. Of how the brakes on the Union Pacific trains when pressed too hard too fast ignite track side brush. I think of smokers.
And then the gods open up the skies with a tease of rain and thunder. The fire look outs sound the alarms. The elementary schools make their press board “only you can prevent forest fires” signs and post them on the sides of our towns. But the warnings are useless.
The gods bring lightning not rain. Is there a sign for, please gods, no lightning bolts here? A tree ignites and the flames crown across the treetops not even bothering to burn the whole trees one by one but instead scorch the tops and jump from tree to tree, jumping creeks and ravines.
What little water we have left is pointless.
We try to live. We try to continue on with our daily lives. The firefighters among us are gone from us for days and weeks on end. Their women and men wait for them like war brides at the train station. The hotshot firefighters, not unlike the marines, fight the fires offensively. They are the front line. They are the first to breathe our fears. They sacrifice for us.
The rest of the country is awash in minor concerns of politics and elections and religious zealots and laws. They squawk about gay people and flags, microaggressions and macro offenses. The rest of the country can still speak the rhetoric of the armchair and hold lazy opinions about the future. They can afford to call people out for the words they chose and they can do it in air-conditioned apartments while drinking glasses of water and flushing toilets in sparkling bathrooms. Pontification is the language of the comfortable.
Understand that we still think of all those things too somewhere in the back of our heads. We still remember what’s right and wrong. What’s liberal and what’s conservative. But we barely have the psyche left for going about our daily lives.
Fire. Water. Earth. Air.
Back to basics. This is our California now.