Once upon a time, I wrote a few things here about what it was like to grow up in the sticks. And by the sticks, I mean 5 miles up an unmaintained dirt road outside of a tiny town that had a corner store, a post office, and not much else. We lived in this little cabin on someone else’s land that was ostensiby a cattle ranch, and in the summers my dad had to repair the fences pretty frequently because the cows would push them over trying to get in at our garden, much nicer for munching than the dead wild grasses and scrub during those years of drought. We shared a well with a neighbor (the one who mowed his orchard nekkid), and had electricity that tended to go out whenever we had a bad storm – to me, lit candles still mean power’s out rather than ambience. I went barefoot everywhere, learned to ride my bike in a field with no training wheels, and had to plan play dates and parties very carefully to ensure everyone could get there (sometimes the road conditions meant four wheel drive was necessary).
Anyhow, Monkey and some others expressed interest in reading more about bucolic country living, so in honor of this week’s “guess the lie,” I am going to throw you a bone and tell you the story of how my house almost burned down twice within two weeks.
Every kid growing up in the ’80s in my area was treated to yearly education about forest fires and Smokey the Bear (“Only you can prevent forest fires!”) The mid ’80s were all about the drought in Northern California, as each summer more and more of the national and state forests burned. My experience with fire was primarily limited to the woodstove we used to heat our little cabin in the winter, and nobody I knew played with fire (kids) or burned leaves in the fall (adults), since there were very few deciduous trees in the area. So all of the Smokey propaganda didn’t make a lot of sense to me, but I accepted my Smokey tract and pencil every spring.
One summer after a particularly dry winter, everything was dead, dry, and brown by April. The summer was hot with little relief, just heat wave after heat wave, and in July the whole area was a tinderbox. We’d go to the pool in the next town over, my little sister a baby wearing disposable diapers that would just keep soaking and soaking up the pool water until they burst. There was no escaping the heat at home, since we didn’t have overhead fans and certainly didn’t have air conditioning, so we’d head to the library after the pool and recover from the short, hot trip before piling into our car that again, had no AC (and vinyl seats with metal buckles, the most uncomfortable things ever on the skin of my legs), and driving the 45 dusty hot minutes home.
One day, several miles to the north, someone thrw a lit cigarette out a window. Someone else was working in a machine shop in another area to the north, and some sparks caught in the dry wind and flew across the way to a dry vacant area nearby. Conditions were perfect, so each of these fires spread very quickly. Though they started in two different places, within a day or two they’d met up, and had outstripped the ability of local firefighters to put them out, so the CDF (the California department of forestry) was called in. They decided to start a back fire about a mile from our house to burn away some of the dry fuel and help contain the combined blaze that didn’t show any sign of stopping. Normally, this might have been a good idea – but this time? This time, not so much. As it had been doing for days, the wind changed again and the fire burned in the wrong direction – toward our house.
My memories of that first fire are somewhat vague, tinged with fear and ash and sorrow. “We have to bug out,” said my dad, “so put anything you really want to keep in a bag, and we’ll load up the car with it and you guys can go stay with the Fosters.” My dad’s cousin and some family friends made the trip up the hill with their pickup trucks filled with towels to soak and tools to dig trenches, while my mom drove my sisters and me down to our friends’ house to stay the night, praying to whatever deity might exist that the wind would change again and the backfire that had been started to prevent our house burning up wouldn’t actually end up engulfing it. We heard on the news that more helicopters had arrived with enormous buckets, and they were using a wealthy neighbor’s pond and the nearby resevoirs to fill up and dump. In the morning, my parents came back to get us – our prayers had been answered, and they’d gotten the backfire more or less under control. Over the next few days, we unpacked the car and gave more thanks as the combined wildfire was also contained. I could breathe again.
Ten days later it all happened again.
This time, the fire came over the hills from the county to the east. They were sure they’d be able to handle it quickly, but the resources of the entire state were already taxed by the fires all over the place. The wind and dry conditions were again perfect for this quick-moving blaze that jumped fire breaks and seemed to spread like slime mold. My dad had this wild idea that he had to see the fire, so after we’d thrown everything most important to us in bags (again), we all got in the car and drove over to look at the fire, at this point less than a mile from our house and spreading fast. It came up through a canyon, so we parked the car and my sister and I climbed out and stood by the car, while my dad trotted over to look out over the canyon into the inferno. Just then, a gust of wind came up from below and blew the hat off my dad’s head and down into the hot angry blaze. That year, my dad got a new Greek fisherman’s cap before Christmas.
I have only ever felt fear like I did that day one other time in my life, the time we climbed a mountain and got caught in a lightning storm. That time, though, I was afraid for myself and my boyfriend. The day of the second fire and the lost hat, I was afraid for the lives of my family and the disappearance of all I knew. I had never actually seen the first fire, though I’d smelled it, so to really see it, to KNOW with every fiber of my being that it could easily travel the last quarter mile and burn down our house, that it could blow up over the road and we’d have no means of escape – that was true fear. I felt the heat and the strength and the ferocity of the fire, the need it had to consume in order to survive, the hot wind that urged it along toward my family – that was sheer terror. I still remember the maniacal look on my dad’s face when he realized his hat had blown down into the canyon, and the insistence in my mom’s voice when she urged my dad to come back to the car so we could drive to safety. We managed to get back to our house, load up the car, and drive down to town, and again our house was saved in the nick of time, though this time nobody’d had time to bring their trucks, towels, or tools. We did have several fire trucks parked in the field outside our house through the night, and in the morning we went home and my mom made pancakes for all of the CDF guys.
Ever since then, whenever I pass an area where a wildfire’s been, even if it was months before, I get panic attack symptoms – my heart races, my mouth goes dry, I breathe faster and feel afraid. Just the smell of a wildfire brings back the frightening memories of that summer, the feeling that nothing in my world was safe. For years after that I was afraid to go near fire of any kind, even to light a candle with a match or a lighter. Fire was unpredictable, so any type of fire might suddenly mean the end of all I held dear, so I steered clear. To this day, I keep a respectful distance from the fire pit at the cabin, I never involve myself with fireworks, and I can use a lighter, but still shy away from matches. My house didn’t burn down that summer, nor did anyone I love get injured or killed by either of the roaring blazes that thrived in the dry, hot, windy conditions. But I will never forget that smell, or that sound, or that feeling of complete helplessness in the face of something that without which mankind would not be what it is. I’ve learned to respect fire for what it is, but I don’t know if I’ll ever be completely comfortable around it again.