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Fire season

Posted in Life & Love

I know what a wildfire looks like. I know how it smells, what color it lends to the sky. I know the burning sensation in the lungs when the air is so saturated with particles to render breathing impossible. I know what it tastes like. I am familiar with the agonizing decision, edging bets, on when to evacuate.

As a city girl, I had to acquire this strange knowledge when we moved to a semi-rural area, up a canyon, maybe a bit naively, without considering what living in a fire prone area might mean. But I immersed myself by joining a patrolling program, learning what kind of brush clearance is required, how embers travel, how fast a fire can move in high winds. I know all three of my escape routes like the back of my hand. I even drew up three lists: what to take in case of fire if I have 30 minutes, an hour or a few hours to prepare for evacuation.

You might think it’s a no brainer but your mind turns to fog as you field phone calls from neighbors exchanging information, maybe the Sheriff has come knocking on your door and you try to reason your panic away.

I know that there is a chance I might lose my house one day, maybe this week, maybe this month – it happens quickly, unannounced. In fact, my house is built on a piece of land that burnt a few years before construction began. As devastating as that might be, things are just things, houses can be rebuilt.

I have seen fires, close and far, up and down this state but what I have never seen is the unprecedented loss of life that took place over the course of a night in Northern California. Forty people are confirmed dead but more are still missing.

By looking at the photos of entire neighbourhoods flattened by the fire, I can guess the fire line was of enormous proportions: usually a fire will ravage a neighbourhood, gutting some houses but leaving others intact, depending on how the embers fly or how much dead vegetation is present. But in certain areas of Santa Rosa there is nothing left.

More troubling is the thought that people were asleep and, by the time they woke up, it was too late or, worse, they thought they could make it through: a house where a couple just moved in, a new truck a man didn’t want to leave behind but couldn’t find the keys for. Their possessions, as well as their lives, are now dead ashes.

Our houses, for most of us, represent our lives: they mirror who we are, what we do, what we value. We build them to protect our families, they are safe places where to nestle our feelings, where we nurse heartaches and grief; they treasure some of our happiest moments. I understand how hard it might be to let go. When asked to evacuate, I didn’t. I packed everything, closed all the windows, loaded the cars and walked every hour to the ridgeline to check on the advancing fire. All night long. I was lucky. I couldn’t fathom leaving my house, despite the acrid, unbreathable air, and a rain of ashes blanketing the roof, the patio, the driveway.

But it’s only possessions, I have to remind myself, for the next time I am placed in front of such a choice. What matters is the intangible.

Kay Wilson, an English woman and tour guide in Israel, was sitting in a park with a girlfriend several years ago when a man, wielding a machete, attacked them. Kay survived but her girlfriend didn’t. In what she thought were the last moments of her life, Kay writes that she thought:

I was thinking of the people I loved. The grief that I would never see them again was so searing that it competed with the machete ripping my skin. Never again would I embrace them or even hear their voices. I had not made the most of every moment. It was too late to correct anything I had said, or left unsaid. Gone forever were the opportunities to correct the moments when I did not extend kindness, sacrifice my time and think of those I loved before myself. “

I must remember that, as gut wrenching as losing one’s house and every possession might be, in the end, it’s the memories that matter and not the physical walls were they took place.

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14 Comments

  1. Grazie per il toccante pensiero. Spero che le fiamme siano sempre lontane

    October 21, 2017
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    • Per il momento si, anche se fa un caldo bestiale e c’e’ vento, le condizioni peggiori se scoppia un incendio. Dobbiamo tirare fino a mercoledì…

      October 24, 2017
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  2. With every update of the fire story, my thoughts have turned to you and your fur-kids. Know we continue to send our thoughts and prayers and hoping this nightmare fire season ends soon with no more loss of life. Hugs.

    October 21, 2017
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  3. Heart wrenching. I can’t begin to imagine the terror and yet it is something so real for your part of the country. I have never had any bad experiences with fire which I guess makes me lucky. Glad you are well and safe.

    October 19, 2017
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    • I heard today on the radio that wildfires are becoming a major concern in many parts of the country, and also of the world, where they weren’t before. But you are safe in Manhattan. At least from fires…

      October 21, 2017
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  4. Hmm much food for thought here… Can hardly imagine what it’d be like to lose a home but, like you said, it’s not irrecoverable. And perspective helps.

    We get a lot of bushfires here too, but I’ve never been near one, so reading your descriptions was a bit eye-opening.

    That excerpt from Kay Wilson reminded me of a quote that showed up on the calendar at work earlier this year (and I’ve remembered it ever since): “You can never do a kindness too soon, for you don’t know how soon it will be too late.” Also, I’m sure somewhere in Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations he wrote admiringly about someone who, if he is able, will always make time to see friends and family (and never makes up excuses, to them or to himself, to decline an invitation).

    October 18, 2017
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    • So very true. The bit about family is noble (and sometimes difficult, especially around the most challenging family members..)

      October 18, 2017
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  5. I too know the smell of ash in my mouth, the tiny particles coating my car like dandruff… Right now Portugal has 300 active fires, and yesterday the London sky was an eerie and beautiful golden colour that turned out to be the result of the smoke back in my country. My biggest fear is that while politicians in our backyards are busy pretending global warming isn’t a thing, we reap the devastation of their denial. I hope you never have to say goodbye to your house, but I commend you for your practical outlook on that eventuality.

    October 17, 2017
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    • The reason why California burnt so quickly and ferociously is because we had years and years of drought. Then, after a very wet winter, the vegetation came back with a vengeance and more abundant and, by this time, it is as dried as timber. Yes, the winds were high but the global warming had a big part in it.

      October 17, 2017
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  6. sofagirl
    sofagirl

    That quote – we should all be made to memorize it. Say it like a mantra every morning. Cape Town is burning too.

    October 17, 2017
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    • She goes on to say: I am often emotionally lazy in relationships; my being right had frequently superseded being kind. We should remember this too.

      October 17, 2017
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  7. winstonmoreton
    winstonmoreton

    Not a good circumstance. Maybe time to move away for a few days or a week

    October 16, 2017
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    • Not really an option. This is fire season every year. The heat and winds come and go. Can’t really decamp for two months!

      October 17, 2017
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      • winstonmoreton
        winstonmoreton

        Fingers crossed then

        October 18, 2017
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