We woke up about six-forty-five Monday morning, because the rookery of crows about a mile away was raising its usual ruckus. They all start, cawing and squawking, for about fifteen minutes, before they fly off in various groups to their various territories. I’m used to them.
I’m not used to it being dark this time of year though.
Spouse got up and twitched aside the curtain. “Huh. Overcast,” he said. He opened the slider a bit. “Looks like fog.” He pulled on his jeans and walked out of the room, and I thought, smoke.
There was a layer of nearly white powder on the deck, punctuated with slender black lines and arcs. I got my robe and went out to the front, where the sun was a fire opal in a rust-colored sky. Near my foot was a slug-shaped object, glossy black. I nudged it with my slipper and it pulverized into dust; a burnt leaf.
During the night, we’d heard sirens once. I’d known about a Calistoga fire and a small fire in Kenwood, twenty-seven miles away from where I live. The wind had rattled the house with sharp gusts all night. I had expected more sirens. I hadn’t expected this.
And I didn’t even know that much, yet.
On the news; the Tubbs Road fire was getting a lot of attention. Tubbs Road was in Calistoga, nearly fifty miles away. Why so much attention? Then I started hearing names like Larkfield. Mark West Springs Road. Fountaingrove.
I e-mailed my friends who live in Larkfield. I knew they were fine, it was just a formality, a “you guys okay?” thing, like you do. Karen e-mailed me that they and the pets had evacuated at about 1:30 and had stayed at her office; everyone was fine.
I thought, “Mark West Springs Road. That’s like 1964.” I knew Karen and Brian would have an inconvenient night or two and then go home. Later, there would be funny stories about getting up and leaving in the tiny hours of the morning.
“Do you need anything?” I sent.
She said they were fine. Half-jokingly, I replied, “Not even kitty litter/dog toys?”
I looked around on Facebook to make sure friends had marked themselves “Safe.” A couple of friends were without power but were in no danger. I realized Nixle, the law enforcement notification system the county uses, had notified me 14 times during the night. All of them were about fires. I started swiping through them not really reading them, when Karen e-mailed me back.
“I just heard the house is gone. Pet toys would be appreciated.”
I looked at it. I could tell I was reading it wrong, because that first sentence looked like it said the house was gone. (My memory suddenly flashed up a perfect image of their house, at Halloween, Brian’s spooky special effects in the front yard, sunlight through the peach-pink dogwood leaves, the pitch of the roof… like I was standing in front of it. Why do our minds do that?)
I read it again. I think I replied “What?” but I could decipher the words. I just didn’t understand what they meant. Only I did.
In September, 1964, a cigarette tossed away by a hunter started a brush fire near St Helena. The Hanley fire, as it was called, would spread, and embers carried from it would start fires in Boyes Hot Springs and Nun’s Canyon Road. The winter in 1963/64 had been a wet one, and the fire found lots of fuel. Strong gusting winds drove the fire forward in fits and starts. The fire would “hang back,” as one firefighter put it, “hang back and hang back and then you’d be dead.” Bursting with fuel, pushed by the winds and generating its own weather, flame roared through the narrow canyons of Mark West Road and Chanate Road, coming within a mile of what was then the county hospital. It burned north, up toward Windsor and Chalk Hill. I remember walking home from school under a leaden sky and watching a black leaf twirl down out of the sky to land on my hand. It was still warm as it broke into ash.
No one died in the 1964 fire, mainly because there weren’t a lot of homes or businesses along the fire paths. Not like fifty years later, when the city’s boundaries have grown, and houses have gone up onto ridges that used to be grass, and into canyons that used to be trees and meadows.
I did what a friend would do; I brought pet toys.
Karen is the Director of Human Services; with no sleep, knowing her house was gone, she was hard at work maintaining her department and getting ready to deploy staff to the EOC, to shelters, to staff the phone lines at 211. Brian, a writer and artist, was trying to reach all family, friends, neighbors, to let them know his status and Karen’s, and also find out how they were; where they were (in the case of some neighbors) and did they know.
The entire neighborhood is demolished. People are alive. People are okay.
Brian said that there are days in your life that divide your life into Before and After. “Until today,” he said, “The birth of the twins was that day.”
Nearly everyone I’ve talked to in the last three days knows someone this has happened to.
This fire followed the path of the 1964 fire. Supercharged by fuel, 65-mph winds and its own energy, it jumped the freeway at Fountaingrove Parkway, and burned a housing tract on the east side of town. That was new. That was probably the scariest thing; the moment we all knew that we could not predict this event.
The other thing that’s new, good and bad; how quickly we get given input. Some of the input is fact. Some is assumed fact. Some is wrong. Most of it is good; all of it is terrible. I hope that makes sense.
My town is filled with evacuees. I’m glad they’re here. I’m glad they had family or friends they can stay with, or came to one of the shelters. I’m glad they are safe. Karen and Brien are safe too, staying with grown daughters far from the fires. The other people I know who lost their homes have a place to stay, food, safety.
I don’t know about those who were in homeless encampments in the Fountaingrove hills, or people who were renting. We won’t know for a while. The fires are still uncontained; they have spread to Windsor and Geyserville, and there are fires in Napa County, Solano County and Mendocino.
I was just a kid in 1964. I wonder if this what the grownups felt like; knowing nothing, waiting, hoping a time would come when they would be able to help.