It has been a week now since I breathed clean air. A week since I slept with my bedroom window open—something I’ve done all my life. My home in the low desert is in no danger from the “Station Fire” burning in the San Gabriel mountains, nor has it been from any of the previous fires that have raged in and around these parts: the Buckweed fire, a couple of years ago, that devoured the home of a family of four I knew, moving so swiftly across tinder-dry brush from Agua Dulce, driven by raging Santa Ana winds, that they barely had time to grab essential papers and their children, the Day fire, that burned in the vast Los Padres wilderness area near Ojai for about a month turning the skies brown and orange and raining embers and ash—the fires all have names, we hear daily of the numbers of acres engulfed by flames, “structures” destroyed, people injured or killed. Last year a fire swept through a mobile home park, destroying 90% of the homes, leaving a bleak wasteland, displacing hundreds of people whose lives revolved around their community, many of whom had lived there for years.
I wondered if I had an overly morbid fascination with fires. I keep the television on, listen to the radio in my car, check the web for updates, and search for interactive maps that show the movement of flames and the growth of the area involved. Then I realized that, really, it’s my weak attempt to control the uncontrollable—defaulting to my left brain as I usually do when overwhelmed, I feel less helpless, less awed by the terrible power of wildfires, when I have facts and figures: the location of the fire’s edges, the percentage of containment— 154,000 acres burned, 78 structures lost, 2 firefighters killed, 3 injured—natural causes or arson? (apparently, 90% are the latter—although Buckweed was started accidentally by a child playing with matches while the Santa Anas were blowing).
Ironic that, when talking and writing about birth, I am all for allowing Mother Nature to prevail, to trust that, when protected and undisturbed, mothers and babies know how to do this thing called birth with very few problematic outcomes. In birth, “civilization” has taken too much control and outcomes have worsened proportionately. Yet with these terrifying wildfires I want more control. I want Mother Nature tamed and safe. And even then, perhaps fewer homes would be endangered by fire if we paid more attention in selecting where to build: they are tucked into steep, wooded canyons, clustered in the foothills of forested mountains—places that are rich in fuel in this hot, dry climate—beautiful, but potentially deadly. I’m grateful that there has been no significant wind during this fire—it would have spread so much faster and done so much more damage, but the lack of wind also kept the haze from dispersing. *Click*–another shot of pink sun seen through brown smoke.
Physically safe though I may be, the fire preoccupies me every day. Periodically, I try to plan what to pack if I had to evacuate and feel rising panic as I realize what might be considered non-essentials in a hurried departure: my books—a sizeable collection since I completed my Ph.D. and continue to collect publications whose contents fascinate me and/or whose information I hope to use in future scholarly articles or a book, computer, jewelry, boxes of photographs, as well as more accepted essentials: personal documents (insurance policies, passports, birth certificate, etc.), clothes, shoes, medications . . . how would I ever find and pack everything in the urgency of an immediate evacuation?!
I notice ashes on my car in the morning. A colleague posts on Facebook “I’m scared! May have to evacuate!” I stop outside my hairdresser’s to photograph helicopters flying above flames. I drive to work watching for the columns of smoke noting the direction of movement of the fire.
*Click*–a shot of the haze over the desert. *Click*–a photograph of the amazingly white cumulonimbus clouds formed by the heat of the smoke and flames.
I breathe smoke going from car to buildings, I watch and take more pictures of the colors of the sky: pink, brown, grey, orange—anything but the usual intense Southern California blue.
I wonder if I will ever again relax by a fireplace and truly enjoy the crackle and smell of burning wood. I complain with my colleagues about the bad air and the triple-digit temperatures. I cough and rub my stinging eyes, and fall asleep to dream of green places: tall trees in forests, rivers and lakes, the fragrance of pine and juniper, wild ocean waves, rain . . .
Save or share this post:
Postscript: We have learned that this fire was the result of arson.