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Ashes, Ashes

A reflection on California’s conflagrations

Christiana White
Nov 14, 2018 · 12 min read
Photo: Matt Howard/Unsplash

It’s dark outside. Dark and sooty. The air is heavy. It obscures California’s undulating golden hills—hills that should be green by now. The bay that usually beckons at the foot of the hill is blanked out. Mount Tamalpais, ditto. You wouldn’t know a mountain was there at all—let alone a rich, dark, majestic one cloaked in redwoods, beyond which lies the Pacific Ocean, which is usually scintillating. Probably not today.

Late on Tuesday, November 5th, the Santa Ana winds arrived to California. A seasonal wind that used to excite and enthrall me, a perfumed wind that pummeled my door and intoxicated me with its floral desert aroma, the Santa Anas were a wind I used to welcome on autumn mornings.

I’d fling open the door, delighted at the warm wind. I’d sit with bare feet on my front stoop and call the kids and say, “The Santa Anas are here! Come smell the desert!”

In those days, the wind was clean and clear, warm and heady, fragrant and exotic.

I loved how the wind shuddered the window panes, the force of it, nature’s power. I loved the way the world was swept clean the next day—how the dark trees were suddenly and totally stripped of their jacquard leaves, piles of which lay heaped in gutters or wherever they had lodged.

Since last year’s devastating Napa and Santa Rosa fires, however, a shift has occurred.

On the night of Tuesday, November 6th, the wind woke me up. I listened with my eyes staring up at the black ceiling, as the garden gate thrust and shuddered, as the pines and cedars soughed, as the leaves skittered. A random garbage can crashed to the ground and rolled on the asphalt.

This time, instead of marveling and listening with a kind of glee, dread fell over me. I sniffed the air in what is becoming instinct. Was that smoke I smelled? I wasn’t sure. I sniffed again. And decided it wasn’t. I went back to sleep slowly, with trepidation in my heart.

On Wednesday, November 7th, the wind was strong, hot, and gusty. I walked Daisy in the hills. On the way back up the mountainside from the canyon, I smelled smoke. The scent was light, I thought. I looked around critically and picked up my pace.

Thursday, we awoke to a leaden sky and the sharp, insistent smell of woodsmoke and burning chemicals.

On the way home, a kind of energy crackled in the air. Something was amiss. Colors seemed different. Traffic on Highway 13 stood still at an odd time of day.

I went online and discovered there was indeed a brush fire off Highway 13 in Berkeley, that the fire department was there, that they expected to have it under control shortly.

The next morning, Thursday, November 8th, we awoke to a leaden sky and the sharp, insistent smell of woodsmoke and burning chemicals. My daughter Nina and I left the house for school. As we were getting in the car, we noted a single huge raven balanced on a telephone wire above the car. We exchanged a glance.

“It’s the apocalypse, Mom,” she said, humorlessly.

On the way home, on Highway 13, the sun appeared as a beige, ineffectual disk in the sky, about the size of a nickel. Little particles hit and stuck to my windshield. I realized they were ashes.

Sometime that day, I began hearing about the Camp Fire, which had kindled in Butte County at 6:30 that morning. And then, later, about the Woolsey Fire in Thousand Oaks, where 12 people had been gunned down a mere 24 hours earlier. I heard about the fire gobbling Ventura. Then, about Malibu burning. I learned that the entire town of Paradise, with a population of 27,000 souls, had burnt to the ground and was no more.

On Friday, I worked from home. In the early afternoon, I went to the grocery store. The parking lot was almost empty. The air was thick. The light, lurid. Although everything was gray and colorless, when the sun’s rays did manage to fall on something, it cast a fluorescent red glare, as if reflected through millions of tiny red prisms, as if the air itself was on fire.

The next morning, Saturday, I woke up with a headache, a sore throat, and painful, itchy eyes. The air was thick and hurt to breathe. Nina’s soccer game was canceled. We stayed inside with the windows closed.

In the afternoon, I drove Nina north to Berkeley for a birthday party. The air was worse there. I dropped her off and went to a bookshop on College Avenue in Rockridge, an Oakland neighborhood on the border of Berkeley.

I bought a book I shouldn’t have. (Books are not in our budget. The library is.) I went to a cafe. ($4 cappuccinos are also not in our budget.) I thought, to hell with it. I’m taking a mini-vacation. I don’t want to go home.

I looked at people curiously, wondering how they felt, wondering how we all walked around as if everything was normal when it most certainly was not.

I parked in a neighborhood filled with pretty Craftsman houses. I admired the gardens, but there was no bounce in my step. I looked around cautiously. The streets were quieter than normal. The sky was ashy and dark. I had developed a dry, itchy cough. Every fourth person I passed wore a flimsy paper mask. Occasionally someone passed with a more substantial mask.

At about 3:30 p.m., it looked like nightfall except that instead of black the sky was burgundy. I looked at people curiously, wondering how they felt, wondering how it was that we all walked around as if everything was normal when it most certainly was not.

I went to my friend Bubby’s. I was spooked by then, sick of breathing foul air that hurt my chest. My throat prickled. A dry cough erupted without warning. My eyes burned. Bubby offered me wine. I accepted.

I sat on his floor and did some stretches. Bubby showed me the air quality index on his iPad. Everything in the Bay Area was colored red or purple: “unhealthy” or “very unhealthy.” He said the Camp Fire in Butte County was mowing down the equivalent of a football field every three seconds. Last night, I read that it was actually every one second.

We read that it was best to stay indoors and/or in air-conditioned places. We read that San Francisco was waiving entrance fees for all museums the following day to provide safe spaces with filtered air. As we talked about the developments, fear and desperation crept into my voice.

I had planned to dance that night, but when I picked up my daughter, I no longer felt like it. I did my best to stay calm. We drove toward home in the ashy darkness. On the way, I said, “Let’s visit Grandpa and make sure his air filter is on.”

I had bought him a $1,000 air filter last year when the Napa fires were blazing, the last time the air was “unhealthy” (which, mind you, was the first time in my life that had happened, after 50 years of living here).

He was asleep in his bed. His breathing was raspy and labored. The air filter was not on. Nor was it plugged in. Nor could I find the plug. I eventually found the plug, plugged it in, and got it going. We kissed my dad goodbye.

We went to see Boy Erased at the Piedmont Cinema. Very few people were in the theater, maybe eight of us. The feeling in the room was warm. We laughed with each other. There was a feeling of camaraderie.

The smell of smoke hung in the theater too. During the movie, management ratcheted up the air conditioning. It grew freezing. My daughter wrapped her arms around herself. I moved closer to her.

When we got home, I said, “Let’s do a road trip tomorrow and get out of here.”

Sunday morning, the air was thick and foul. Grimy. Lurid. We took off for San Luis Obispo.

To our surprise, the air, while certainly better, was still poor on the central coast. We went to our Airbnb in Los Osos. We were dismayed. The town was ugly. The street was ugly. The house, impersonal and ugly. It was cold inside. Everything in the house was baby blue and gray and somehow miniature. The windows wouldn’t open in the back bedroom. Desperation washed over me.

I thought, We’ve made a terrible mistake.

We drove to San Luis Obispo, 10 minutes away. The sun was a white orb ringed with gray in the sky. The gorgeous, sinuous hills and craggy volcanic plugs were fuzzed with haze.

I showed Nina the river that courses through town. It was a dry riverbed.

It was twilight, and we roamed dark streets covered with expensive stores. I felt like screaming. I needed air, light, freedom. I needed to see the feeble sun’s last rays on the trees. I needed some breeze. It was cold and ashy.

The sky was black. I didn’t care anymore what we did.

Nina wanted to shop. I reluctantly let her enter a crafts store and stood impatiently outside. I said, “I want to be close to nature.”

I was ridiculous.

We walked a few blocks up. I could see a golden hill that had no houses, no stores on it. It attracted me. I aimed for it. Suddenly, something caught my eye.

It was a swarm of black birds—starlings creating a beautiful murmuration above the street. They dashed forth in concert, separated, and turned back, seeming as though they would crash into one another. Then, they parted at the last second, as if by magic. They did it over and over again, over the street, above, through, and below the branches of the tawny sycamores, against the purpling sky. They were black and sharp, free and joyous.

I stayed on the corner and watched the starlings, dozens, hundreds of them, swoop and play in amazing, beautiful formations, over and over again, scattering and merging, scattering and merging, in joy.

We still had some time to kill before our reservation, and night was coming on. The sky was black. I didn’t care anymore what we did.

We found our restaurant, a two-dollar-sign Italian place that was unfortunately only so-so. I asked for sea salt. My daughter rolled her eyes.

I felt awkward, irritated, stressed. I didn’t like how a bright light shone on our table. I didn’t like that we were in the path to the kitchen. I didn’t like… anything.

Nina’s pesto was blah, and the pasta definitely not al dente. Mine was over-rich, under-salted, and uninteresting. We got the obligatory tiramisu because I knew it would make Nina happy. Not surprisingly, it was not the best tiramisu we’ve ever had. Nina said, “It’s better with cocoa. Cocoa is important to tiramisu.” I concurred.

In the middle of dinner, as pressure and sorrow and panic mounted within me, I finally blurted, “Did we make a mistake?”

The forced cheer I had been trying to cultivate melted away.

Nina said, “What do you mean?”

I said, to my own surprise, “I’m homesick.”

Nina smiled gently. “Mom, I think we’re depressed because of the fire.”

As soon as I’d confessed my feelings, and she’d acknowledged, accepted, and explained them, I felt better. I felt our bond restored. The forced cheer I had been trying to cultivate melted away. I was still afraid and upset, but less tightly wound. Less irritable. Less angry. Less hopeless.

On the drive back to Los Osos, the moon rose blood-red above the hills. Nina said, “Mom, let’s both write tonight.” (We didn’t.)

The next morning, I woke up around 7 a.m. The air seemed clearer. I worked for a couple of hours, let Nina sleep in, found a breakfast cafe down by the water.

When she got up, we walked there. The town didn’t look nearly so menacing. I stood in line to order while she explored the tiny beach and pier. I struck up a conversation with a retiree, a woman whose daughter lived in the Bay Area, in San Rafael. She said the smoke was very bad there. She said she loved the central coast, that she and her husband had lived here about a year. She liked to kayak in the serene bays.

Nina and I went to Avila Beach, where Nina hoped to swim and play in the waves. But the wind kicked up. It suddenly felt cold near the water, and when we stuck our toes in, the chill of it was off-putting.

We scampered away.

Back in Los Osos, Nina saw a sign: “Elfin Forest.” She said, “Let’s go there.” She made me turn right and park.

We followed a dusty red trail through stands of tiny, ancient oak trees. We came upon a lookout of Morro Rock, the bay, and the ocean. The wetlands were striated black and blue in charming patterns. Families of ducks and other water birds paddled around. The light and the colors were cool, wispy, pastel.

She said, “The water is so clear.”

Nina said she liked Morro Rock. She said, “Mom, let’s run a hotel here, when you’re old and I’m retired. We can have a hotel. It can be right here. It will be after the apocalypse, so the land will be available.”

I said, “Okay.”

We hurried back to the rental, packed, and took off for Thai food.

The Thai place in Los Osos was closed. It was Veteran’s Day. Giant American flags rippled and snapped in the air all around us.

Nina googled and found a Thai place in Morro Bay. I was so excited by the setting sun, and so afraid of missing it, we parked wherever and raced out of the car and down to the end of the street to snap pictures of Morro Rock, the teal bay, the setting sun, the solitary and peaceful sailboats moored nearby.

Nina looked down and said excitedly, “Mom, look! Starfish!”

And so there were. Two of them: one red and one orange, bright and clear as day and shining up through water equally clear. It was a joyful, charming, and reassuring sight for sure.

We wandered farther down, to the wooden dock, and snapped more photos. Nina kicked off her shoes, sat down, and dipped her feet in the water.

She said, “The water is so clear.”

Seaweed waved in the water below her feet. Sea urchins clung to a metal brace beneath the water.

We went to Thai Bounty, in Morro Bay. It was fine. Not spicy, but we doctored it with sauces.

It got dark. The night dropped a black velvet curtain over us and the town.

Nina knew I wasn’t thrilled about driving in the dark. We mapped Waze to get us to 101N toward Oakland. The app took us on Atascadero Road. The road was black. There were no street lights, no other cars. We seemed to be driving up a mountain. We were suspended in the night with no reference points.

Nina wanted to sleep but chose to stay awake until we made it to 101N.

The realization sinks in that this just may be the new normal.

After about 40 minutes, we broke through. Civilization in the form of ugly gas stations emerged, and we were on our way. Before she put her chair back and shut her eyes, Nina asked me twice if I was tired. I assured her I was not.

We listened to “Eclectic24” on the radio, which was a lot of fun. Nina liked it too. She said, before she drifted off, “Mama, please, when you lose the signal, keep the radio on. I like it.”

I kept the radio on. She woke up periodically.

We listened to “punk viejo,” Mexican banda with the tuba oom-pah-pahing, Jesus songs, country songs. I told Nina how the banda music was influenced by German polka, from when a bunch of Germans lived in northern Mexico in the 1890s. We listened to a live bluegrass show. We listened to ’80s rock, and the Stones, and Journey. I marveled at Mick’s wonderful raunchiness and swooned at Journey’s romanticism.

As we neared the Bay Area, Nina said, “This ride went fast. I like listening to music in the car with you, Mama.”

We are home. The air is worse than when we left.

I left for work this morning and found myself at a standstill on Highway 880. The sun was a white smudge in the sky. My throat tickled. My eyes grew hot. My head began to pound. The air was ashy white, but the sun falling on the Tesla in front of me reflected an unappealing brassy pink. I turned around and went home.

I shut the door, checked all the windows, turned on the heat. I made coffee. I apologized to Daisy, who will again not get her walk today.

And so we wait.

We wait, and we mourn.

We wait, while valiant, exhausted firefighters sift through ash for bone, searching for the more than 200 people still missing in Butte County. (When I wrote this, 200 were missing. Now it’s over 1000, with 78 confirmed dead, incinerated, so far.)

We wait for fires to stop raging, as we count the acres burned, as 70,000 turns to 90,000 turns to 130,000, and still it burns.

We wait as the realization sinks in that this just may be the new normal. (It can’t be. I can’t bear it.)

We wait, and we mourn. I mourn loving the wind. I mourn feeling safe in the world. I mourn for my daughter, who is depressed, sure this is the beginning of the apocalypse, and relatively resigned to it.

I mourn for the world—and for us all.

Writer, copywriter, editor, and word lover. Subscribe to my newsletter at christywhite.substack.com

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