To grow up in the wild American West is to live under different gods. Leave behind the urban sprawl and palm trees of Los Angeles, the candy-colored Victorians and precipitous hills of San Francisco and drive north. Just a few hours will be enough to find the buildings replaced by towering redwoods, Douglas firs, sugar pines and oaks. Here, people find north by looking for where the moss is thickest on tree bark. They harvest wild huckleberries, pick pea-sized strawberries and eat thistle hearts. They get their water from cold springs and flowing creeks and can identify poison oak even when it is leafless in winter. Their children learn to ride a tricycle or roller skate indoors, because the dirt roads are too rough for little wheels. Neighbors are the distant buzz of a chainsaw, deep in the forest. The land smells like fresh-baked bread in the summer, and blooms with a musty spice after the first fall rains. Fog rolls off the ocean, over the coastal ridges, sucked inland by heat, and the fading sun paints it rosy. Innumerable stars, hard and bright, throw their blanket over the land at night.
These western gods are generous with this bounty and beauty, but it doesn’t come free; fear is their tariff. Mountain lions slink from under trees into the bright, golden meadows, blinking in the sun, drawn by the stench of a dead sheep. Bears raid porches, pawing through garbage and cat food, prying open cages to snatch a guinea pig. Timber rattlers hide in plain sight, their mottled skin just light dappling a forest floor, while black widow spiders snuggle into the darkest cracks of houses. And, of course, somewhere out there, over the silent, coniferous ridges, a wildfire waits to burst into life.
Most of life’s dangers out here can be avoided with the right finesse. When surprised by a mountain lion, don’t turn and run. Get big and loud, wave branches and throw stones; become the predator. With bears, clang two pot lids together or, short on pot lids, speak calmly and sternly while slowly backing away. Hi, Bear. Yes, I see you, you good Bear. If struck by a rattlesnake, call an ambulance, move as little as possible and keep the bitten limb below the heart to slow the venom’s spread.
But avoiding fire once its fate entwines with yours is more chance than finesse. The only hope of being spared its destruction is to prepare, and keeping fire’s ruination at bay becomes the organizing principle of rural life. Winter months are dedicated to trimming trees and removing all dead grass, plants and debris from the yard and roof. Pile this detritus high, apply for a burn permit, pour a little kerosene on and have a bonfire. Walk around it and poke its edges, marvel as sparks shoot up into the air, safe in the knowledge that they’ll do no harm now that this corner of the Earth is saturated with rain.
Spend the summer in constant vigilance. Scan the horizon and sniff the air for smoke while washing dishes, sipping coffee, taking a shower, walking the dog. Berate strangers who start campfires down at the river on a Saturday night. Track the weather and try to stay calm when the seventh consecutive Red Flag Warning — fire weather: temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, humidity in the single digits, whipping wind — is issued. Ensure nothing flammable comes within 200 feet of the house.
Yet, doing all of these things religiously doesn’t mean fire won’t come. So stock emergency supply kits and memorize what you’d grab if you had three hours or three minutes.
A wildfire, like any fire, needs only three things to exist: fuel, heat and oxygen. Eliminate any one element and the fire dies, but provide them in ample supply and it can send 160-foot flames to the tops of trees. Wilderness is the best fuel, with no concrete or metal to get in the way, no sidewalks and pavement and bricks. Just dead grass, shrubs, sapling trees, moss like a candle’s wick, a tinderbox of withered foliage. With these raw materials, a fire can get creative.
Heat can come from a dropped cigarette, a car idling over a patch of dry grass, a downed power line, campfire embers carried on the wind, a bolt of lightning. It doesn’t matter what starts a forest fire, because once ignited, it can burn at 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit. That is about the temperature of a furnace of molten glass. That is hot enough to burn you in the third degree without even touching you. The hotter a fire is, the more it feeds itself, because the heat rolling off it evaporates moisture in the fuel ahead, preparing the terrain like a sacrificial lamb.
As with humans, oxygen is a fire’s breath. The more oxygen it has, the bigger and greedier it becomes, using hot air to pull in fresh cool air, which pushes it across land faster. A fire can move through a forest at the speed of a leisurely human jog, and on grassland it exceeds the pace of a professional marathon runner. Give a fire enough room to breathe and its heat can begin to generate its own wind. These vortices can cause fires to leap forward more than 300 feet in a single burst. And given the right angle of tilt, they become what are called fire whirls — tornadoes of fire whipping across land at fifty miles per hour.
Eight thousand seven hundred and forty-five wildfires burned California in 2015. That exceeds the previous year’s total by nearly 1,000. All told, the fires burned 893,362 acres statewide. That is as if every last building, tree and blade of grass in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, Atlanta, San Francisco and Seattle burned to the ground.
The West has always been a fire-prone place, with its hot, dry summers and expansive forests combining to make the perfect fuel supply. The charcoal sedimentary record shows that burning slowed between the 1400s and 1700s, and increased again as settlers pushed west. Only in the 1900s did the frequency of blazes die down, as new fire management practices were developed. Previously, when a fire started it simply burned itself out, clearing the grass, underbrush, and saplings as it went. This meant blazes were more frequent, but often milder. As pioneers put down roots in the West, built homes, then towns and cities, fire became less a part of the landscape and more a threat to be controlled. The prevailing fire management strategy was to extinguish them as soon as they started, thus minimizing potential damage to humans and their property. Consequently, the forests slowly got denser, the fuel loads heavier. Fires, when they raged beyond control, became larger and more severe.
California’s prolonged drought changed the fire landscape. Since 1932, Cal Fire, the state fire agency, has tracked and ranked fires: most damaging, by number of structures destroyed; deadliest, by loss of life; largest, by acreage burned. On their list of the twenty largest fires, 65 percent have happened since 2000, with the second- and third-largest fires occurring since the start of the current drought. Two fires in 2015, the Butte Fire and the Valley Fire, both made the most damaging and deadliest lists. Many of the fires that sprang to life and ranged across Northern California in early October of this year will likely make both lists, with nearly 6,000 homes destroyed and a total of forty-three dead.
The industry name for these types of fires is “Very Large Fires,” and they are strongly linked to climatic conditions. California’s protracted drought laid waste to forests, killing 102 million trees and counting. Some of these deaths are simply due to a lack of water, while others are due to the bark beetle, which bores into the bark of weak or sick trees and deploys a fungus that eventually kills the tree. Although the beetle is native to California and a necessary part of a healthy ecosystem, with so many trees made vulnerable by the drought the beetles have been feasting.
California’s drought hampers our ability to fight these Very Large Fires in an obvious way: Water is harder to come by. While firefighters still have access to what they need, they often have to go farther to get it. By 2015, major state reservoirs held less than half their typical volume, and many wells and aquifers were drastically depleted. Water conservation is an essential part of California’s drought management strategy, but it can’t make up for the lack of rainfall in the state’s forests and wild lands.
Hot weather drives fires, and 2014 and 2015 were California’s hottest years on record, 2016 was the hottest summer, and San Francisco broke its all-time high temperature record in 2017. As the climate has warmed, fire season in the West has stretched out and is now on average seventy eight days longer than it was in 1970. A 2015 paper in the International Journal of Wildland Fire predicted that Very Large Fires will increase in coming years across historically fire-prone regions. Not only does this mean a higher monetary cost — firefighting now takes up 50 percent of the Forest Service’s annual budget, compared to 16 percent a decade ago — it also means more days of living with fear.
In 1997, when Rick and Julie Harper built their house in Calaveras County — the gold country east of Sacramento and Stockton — they chose its location because the view was an oh-my-God-er. From their ridge-top vantage the forest of pines, firs and redwoods poured below to the Mokelumne River, and the peak of Mount Diablo shone in the distance. Rick, tall with glasses, a steady gaze and a peppery moustache, had his shop full of tools. Julie, a self-proclaimed “plant person,” more than a head shorter than Rick, with a heart-shaped face and gentle smile, had her yard heavy with fruit trees and grapevines.
Julie loved winter, with cozy fires heating their home while rain poured outside. The summers, July, August, September, were always her least favorite times, so dry, so hot, so uncomfortable.
“In August and September I would go to bed at night and go, ‘Oh good, we got through another day without a fire,’” Julie recalls. In recent years, her anxiety about wildfire worsened. As California’s drought dragged into its fourth year, the water-starved pines around the Harpers’ house died off in greater and greater numbers. To ease their minds, Rick and Julie had fire terraces built below the house, clearing 300 feet of so-called defensible space, three times the perimeter recommended by Cal Fire.
It was 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the nearby town of Mokelumne Hill on the afternoon of September 9th, 2015, when the Butte Fire started in the flats by the river. Rick and Julie looked down the canyon from their house and could see rising smoke. Next came the aerial bombers dropping plumes of scarlet fire retardant. The Harpers had seen flames before in that area, and Cal Fire’s bombers and ground crews had always contained them, so they weren’t too concerned. Even after the fire jumped to their side of the Mokelumne River it was still far away enough that they didn’t pay it much mind.
They only started to worry around dusk, when they noticed the fire was now on both sides of the canyon, heading toward them. The power had gone out so their landline — their only phone — was out of order. They began pulling things together haphazardly and the next time they checked, the fire had covered half the distance to their house. Night had fallen, and the aerial bombers had stopped their flyovers because of the dark. Neighbors with cell service came over to tell Rick and Julie they’d received a call from Cal Fire: evacuate immediately.
“So we just bailed,” Rick said. “We saw the fire coming, and we knew it was gonna come, but we planned on, like always, the firefighters will put it out that night, or by the next morning we’ll be able to come back and everything will be fine. But that didn’t happen.”
The Butte Fire burned almost 71,000 acres in Amador and Calaveras counties, which still doesn’t make it big enough to gain entry to Cal Fire’s list of the twenty largest fires since 1932. But it was the seventh-most damaging, with more than 800 buildings destroyed.
Almost 300 firefighters went to work on the blaze, challenged by the steep terrain and their distance from a large enough water source. Rural areas, like Amador and Calaveras counties, often do not have municipal water or fire hydrants. Fire crews must improvise, drawing from nearby lakes and rivers, or, as in the case of the Butte Fire, using water tenders, specialized trucks that can carry 1,000 gallons or more from a water source to a rural fire.
Authorities evacuated people to the Veterans Hall in the nearby town of Valley Spring, between the Butte Fire and Stockton. The first night, Rick and Julie went to stay with Rick’s brother. The second night they stayed with a friend over the river in Amador County. By the third day these friends and Rick’s brother were evacuated, too. Finally, the Harpers headed to nearby Sonoma County, where their daughter lives, and stayed in a trailer in her backyard. The constant moving, combined with the uncertainty about their home’s fate, ground on them. Not only were they rootless, but they had no privacy, no space to process their emotions and fears.
In a rural area humans are not the only concern. Rick and Julie’s nephew helped rescue trapped horses and other large animals, taking them to emergency shelters at the county fairgrounds. On his patrols, he passed the Harpers’ driveway. Their house was tucked back a quarter of a mile from the road, shielded from view by the trees and underbrush of the forest. But the line of sight was clearer on that scorched earth, and all their nephew could see from the road was the Harpers’ boat. This was ominous but not definitive news; after all, perhaps even with a clear view one quarter of a mile was still too far to see. It left a narrow margin for hope, so Rick and Julie hung on.
Farther north and west in California, Lake, Yolo and Colusa counties burned throughout the summer of 2015. In late July, the Rocky Fire came to that remote area. It torched almost 70,000 acres, pulling in the California Army National Guard and fire departments from across the state. In early August, while it was still smoldering, the Jerusalem Fire ignited, burning more than 25,000 acres just south of the Rocky Fire area. Mo Whiteside and Kate Haley, husband and wife, watched from their ridge-top home in Lake County as both fires began, then raged. They were nine miles away, then eight, then seven, and Mo and Kate waited and worried. Finally, the blazes turned north and east, leaving them unscathed. Still, as August ticked by, the sobering threat of fire hung on them. Every day without a spark was one day closer to the safety and relief of the rainy season.
Mo is tall and gentle, with a face lined from years of frequent laughter, and Kate is warm and intense, with curly, red hair and a smile that melts. The pair moved to Lake County thirteen years ago, drawn there by the solitude, beauty and community. They bought land in a quiet neighborhood where neighbors’ houses were distant shadows through the trees. Their property ran right to the edge of the mountainside and spilled over, and they built a small house on that lip. It was originally intended to be a guest house, but over the years became their full-time residence. As architects enamored with the arts and crafts tradition, their home was a labor of love. They worked on it slowly, with great care paid to the interior finishes and woodwork; Mo had put the wainscoting and crown molding in the last room earlier that year. They’d designed the building to take advantage of its natural setting and had paid equal care to the land, planting it with conifers and Japanese maples, creating paths through the manzanita to a special lookout at an outcropping. From that vantage point, they could look onto the valley below them, its ridges rippling to the horizon, or up at the night sky salted with stars.
September came, and on Saturday the 12th, Mo and Kate were in Portland, Oregon, to celebrate Kate’s father’s 90th birthday. Work had been keeping them busy, and they hadn’t had time to prepare for the trip. But they were only going to be gone for a few days, so they didn’t need much. They simply threw some things in the car, and drove 10 hours north on I-5.
As Mo manned the BBQ on that unusually warm Saturday, he felt his phone buzz with an incoming text. It was from his neighbor: “Looks like this could be the one. The flames are showing up on the ridge across from our valley.” Mo and Kate didn’t have to discuss what to do; they simply bundled their belongings back into the car, much to the confusion of Kate’s city-folk family.
“They were kind of mystified, like, ‘Well, you know, do you really have to run off just now? Won’t the fire department take care of it?’” Mo’s baritone laugh rings out as he recalls this. Thinking the “fire department” could protect a rural home from a catastrophic wildfire is akin to thinking the neighborhood police precinct could fend off a bloodthirsty army.
Mo and Kate left Portland around 5:00 p.m. and drove south on I-5 through the night, in the hope of getting home in time to save precious keepsakes — Kate’s violin, jewelry, photos and gifts they had given each other over the years. They also hoped to save their computers, which they had left behind, because these machines held the only copies of their architectural projects past and present. Mo and Kate had no online backups, for their satellite Internet’s bandwidth was not big enough to upload large AutoCAD files. Every component of their personal and professional lives was in that house.
Despite the urgency, the drive was an ordeal; Mo and Kate had to stop several times to get coffee and walk around just to stay awake. What had been a ten-hour trip on the way up was closer to twelve on the way home. Texts and calls flew back and forth between them and friends who were keeping watch over the fire’s progress. The blaze, by that point known as the Valley Fire, ate its way over Boggs Mountain, one ridge away from their home. But, like the Rocky and Jerusalem Fires before it, the Valley Fire seemed to be heading away to the east.
At 6:00 on Sunday morning, when Mo and Kate were an hour from home, the wind — fire’s fickle engine — shifted. Just like that, the firestorm began whirling and leaping toward their house. They got one last call from a friend: “The smoke is too much, I’m gonna have to leave.” Their friend grabbed Mo and Kate’s cat, Bebe, and escaped just before authorities closed the road to all traffic.
Like the Butte, the Valley Fire does not make Cal Fire’s twenty largest list, yet it was the third most destructive wildfire in California since 1932, when the agency began keeping records. In the span of several days the Valley Fire wiped out nearly 2,000 structures, 1,307 of which were residential.
Hundreds of firefighters swarmed the mountainside, struggling to protect people’s homes. Helicopters swooped in and out, dumping water as bulldozers scraped away flammable underbrush, cutting fire breaks in an attempt to stop the firestorm.
The Red Cross set up an evacuation center at the Twin Pine Casino in Middletown, for the more than 13,000 people evacuated as the Valley Fire raged. Hotels in the area filled so quickly that when Mo and Kate were unable to get home they had nowhere to go in Lake County. Instead, they stayed with friends two hours south in San Rafael.
The authorities kept the road to Mo and Kate’s house closed for a week. Once the initial firestorm passed, there was still a significant problem with creeping spot fires — small blazes that would pop up in unexpected places, sparked by embers carried on the wind. But fire wasn’t the only danger on the mountain in the days following September 12th. Looters came to Lake County from San Francisco and Brisbane, three hours away. Some people whose homes survived the fire returned to find them ransacked, belongings upended and valuables missing. Although suspects were found in possession of burglary tools — face masks, gloves, duct tape, zip ties, acetone, lighters, headlamps, flashlights, binoculars, empty garbage bags, large knives — they did not necessarily need to force their way into abandoned homes. Fire-preparedness protocol advertised by Cal Fire instructs homeowners to close their doors and windows, but leave them unlocked in case firefighters need to get inside. And with how quickly the Valley Fire got out of control — burning 40,000 acres in the first twelve hours — many people only had time to escape with their lives.
It was afternoon, hot and still, the sky almost painfully blue. My dad was the first to notice the fire. I was washing dishes when he rushed in — Go tell your mom, I’m going to start packing the car. Then I could see it through the window above the sink: a solid wall of orange at the forested base of the hill below our house. It advanced as a united front, sucking up trees, eating the hill.
I raced upstairs and woke my napping mom — There’s a fire, this is the one; we have to get out. She whimpered and turned over, unwilling to open her eyes. I looked down the hill through the sliding glass door of their bedroom. The fire had grown and was no longer linear. It leapt from tree to tree, igniting redwoods and Douglas firs like matches. The fire made the trees sparkle.
Mom, mom, you have to get up, I shook her. She sat up and swung her feet out of bed, but made no other move. I touched her shoulder gently — I’m going to go pack — then raced across the hall to my room. I upturned a small dresser drawer into a duffel, snatched clothes, bundling and rolling them.
I looked out my bedroom window into our yard. My racing hands froze; the tall Douglas fir we wrapped one end of our laundry line around was engulfed in flames. Blink and you miss it; one second it’s there, the next second it’s ablaze.
My legs buckled and I hit the floor in my room. The room I had lived in from the day I was born until the day I went to college, in the house my parents built. The only home I had ever had. My eyes were dry, but a wail rolled out of me, clawing from the pit of my stomach up my esophagus, out my mouth. There was no saving anything; we would be lucky to get out with our lives.
I awoke with my heart kicking in my chest. I was in a tent on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon with my parents beside me, snoring in their sleeping bags. Gauzy, gray predawn light filtered through our tent fabric and I listened for the crackle and whoosh of fire. Just the wind whipping through the Ponderosa pines on the canyon’s lip. There was no fire here; we were safe. My heart slowed momentarily, then — what if there is a fire at home? Should I wake my parents and ask them to call our neighbors? But even if they found flames devouring the hillside, racing toward our house, what good would that do us? We were 900 miles from home. If it was burning now, it was going to burn.
I was raised in rural Northern California, only two hours north of San Francisco but worlds apart. I delighted in my woodland home, playing pioneers in our meadow, following my dad into the forest to check the pump at our spring, and pretending that a group of ancient burnt-out stumps was an airport. But on our forty acres, among towering redwoods, Douglas firs and tan oaks, the threat of wildfire was ever-present in my life.
As a young child, I had my share of irrational fears: sharks, snakes, kidnapping, standing on a dock next to large boats, somehow ending up as the last living person on Earth. But fire? It was less a fear and more a fact of life to be dealt with. In addition to having regular household chores, I knew what items were mine to grab if a fire forced us to flee. I knew how to turn on the roof sprinkler hidden in my room behind a needlepoint. When we barbecued in the backyard, I kept vigil over the fire pit, stamping out stray embers carried on the wind. At the end, I doused the fire and the surrounding ground with the garden hose until the coals ceased to hiss and smoke.
We had our share of close calls over the years. The summer I was seven, or maybe eight, my mom was in the Midwest on a research trip and a fire started about a dozen miles from our house. It came close enough that my dad and I packed nonessentials — scrapbooks, financial records, books, keepsakes — into the car, but we never had to evacuate.
Another scare came in August 2015, about a month after my nightmare at the Grand Canyon. I was visiting my parents on a warm, dry, still night, and we were gathered around the table after dinner playing a board game. My dad’s cell lit up, and he put the call from our uphill neighbor Tim on speakerphone. Tim could see flames through the forest; they were just a few miles from us at another neighbor’s house, maybe in an outbuilding, hard to tell through the trees. But in the heart of California’s long drought, in the middle of the dry season, even the tiniest piece of bad luck could transform this structure fire into a wildfire. Tim had already called the fire department.
I remember fixing on the game board, and thinking, oh God, how terribly bizarre — it’s the dream. Unlike the dream, however, the fire was not racing toward us with incredible speed. There was no wind that night, and fire typically travels uphill, not down. Chances were it wouldn’t spread to us but, nevertheless, we had to prepare.
I went up to my room — the one I haven’t lived in for nearly a decade — and looked around. The time hadn’t come for collapsing and howling on the floor; my pragmatic calm bordered on a comfortable numbness. Most of my essential possessions were across the country in Brooklyn, so what would I take? I pulled my childhood journals from a bookshelf and stacked them on my bed. I searched for a bag of hand-dyed wool I had inherited from my grandfather and was planning to knit into a sweater. I stared at the books on my shelves and wondered what I would want to read on a long, sleepless night in a hotel if we truly had to leave. I chose two favorites — Random Family and Everything Matters! — and put them into a tote with the journals and wool, then turned off the light in my room.
My mom was downstairs in a similarly bewildered state, wondering whether or not to take the newspapers she had saved from the day I was born. I snapped sloppy, poorly lit photos of her antique desk, our dining table, refrigerator, china cabinet, entertainment center, TV, couch and recliners for insurance purposes. We waited.
Where we live, there are no streetlights, no fire hydrants. Our dirt roads have no street signs and often not even address markers. As soon as Tim had called with the news, my dad went to the bottom of our quarter-mile-long driveway to direct fire trucks toward the blaze. My mom continued to pack randomly and I tried to be helpful while we waited. The house was very bright inside, the night so dark around us, and I felt intensely, fearfully still in the way that, perhaps, a high-wire walker does.
After half an hour, my dad returned. The firefighters had arrived in time to control the blaze. It would not spread to the forest; we would be alright. My mom returned the newspapers to a drawer in her desk; I put my journals back on the bookshelf.
That night, I lay awake in bed for a long time. I had grown up with a whole forest as my backyard, open meadows and a sky like cornflower silk. After big winter storms, it was still enough that we could hear the ocean crashing, seven miles away. Frogs sang me to sleep in the spring. Some nights, the stars and moon were so bright that when I walked outside I could see in color. Boundless nature was my first and only home, and I accepted without much thought that it came with a price.
That kind of abundance instills a certain arrogance. Not a superiority over city-dwellers, but a sense of dominion. Sometimes, on afternoon walks with only the dog to see, safe in the knowledge that the land on either side of the road belongs to my family, I raise my arms like a taunting Roman gladiator and stride ahead.
But fire, even a whiff of smoke, cuts that arrogance to the quick. We had to be reminded from time to time that our number could be called, that our hold on these wild lands was tenuous and fragile, and that we were helpless in the face of what they could unleash. Fire could come at any time and, unlike other dangers in my life, there was no lesson to learn, no making myself safer next time.
We had escaped that night, but fire was still out there, hulking, its hot breath at our backs.
As Mo and Kate were in limbo, Rick and Julie were adjusting to a new reality. One day shortly after the Butte Fire, their elderly neighbor called. He and Julie had talked almost every morning before the fire. “I was back in my kitchen just from hearing his voice. I could transform myself back into my house,” she recalled. “But then, when I opened my eyes, that wasn’t really happening.”
The Harpers’ house burned in the second day of the Butte firestorm. The flames, 200 feet high, broke like a wave over the cliff’s edge where their house was perched, and swallowed the building whole. The fire’s cruelty was arbitrary; when Rick and Julie were allowed back five days after, they found their house in crumbles and ashes, but a wooden fence at the edge of the property intact.
As they were trying to take in the mind-boggling damage, a fire truck from Marin City pulled up. “I felt kind of negative toward them,” Julie admitted, “like, I don’t know how I feel about firefighters right now; they didn’t do it, it didn’t work, our house didn’t get saved.”
A handful of young firefighters piled out, walked over and asked how they could help. They spent three hours with the Harpers, helping them safely access the remains of the house to see if anything could be salvaged. Despite feeling defensive initially, Julie saw the compassion these firefighters had for her and Rick, and it made that first terrible day of dealing with the wreckage a little easier.
Throughout all of Sunday, September 13th, Mo and Kate fielded calls from friends in Lake County. The firestorm had missed their house; their photos, their keepsakes, their computers and architectural code books were all safe. However, because the roads were still closed they couldn’t return home. Although the firestorm had passed, many concerns remained, including those spot fires creeping along the forest floor. A firestorm is hot and violent and uncontrollable while it rages, but it does not necessarily burn everything in its path. Because of the way it can jump and shift, a firestorm can miss things that a slower -burning spot fire does not.
“It’s just going along, and then it comes to a deck — our deck, I guess — and then the whole house goes,” Mo said.
Mo got a call too early on Monday morning to be good news. Their house had burned sometime in the night. Had they or anyone else been there, the fire might have been prevented. Had he been there, he knows what he would have grabbed.
“Material possessions are just, well, they’re just stuff. But there’s something about the familiarity and association with them that registers deeper in the body,” he said. Mo experienced that subliminal attachment not only to his belongings, but to the house itself. Once their road reopened, they went to stay with their neighbors, whose house was still whole. Often, while returning to their neighbors’ house at night, Mo and Kate would accidentally turn down their driveway instead, thinking they were going home only to remember nothing was there.
Mo tried not to play the what-if game anymore. Losing his home, his business and all his belongings was tremendous and painful, on the level of a death, and his emotions since have run the gamut: denial, anger, sorrow and doubt. But he tried to find opportunity in his grief, to view the fire as a clean slate. As he talked about it he laughed often and heartily, as if to say, what else can I do?
One of Mo and Kate’s friends started an online fundraising page for them, and I go take a look at it. The first photo is a close shot of them. Kate, beautiful red curls, is leaning her head on Mo’s shoulder, smiling. Mo, with salty hair and a peppery mustache, looks like he’s mid-laugh. The next photo is of their house: straw-colored walls, a deep green roof, ample windows, a red glass hummingbird feeder hanging from a beam above the porch. The house is partially obscured by a yard full of trees — there are Mo’s Japanese maples. They had a beautiful view of the backside of Boggs, a state demonstration forest. It was a carpet of conifers on a quiet ridge, and they could see it not only from their living room, but also from the special lookout point about ten yards from the house.
Their home reminds me of mine: Like theirs, our house is two stories; like them, we have a yard full of trees, madrones, oaks, firs, redwoods and one lone maple.
I click, and the next photo makes my breath catch in my throat. There is a gaping absence where Mo and Kate’s house stood, nothing remains but its foundations. The ridge across, once hidden by the building, is now visible, albeit blurred by smoke. The trees that remain are leafless, crooked, charcoal sticks. The ground is black. I cannot look away and I keep toggling between it and the previous one of their house, intact and dappled by sunlight. Now you see it, now you don’t. This brutal snap from presence to absence is a dilution of the raw shock Mo and Kate experienced when they were allowed to return home.
The first time Mo brought me to his property after the Valley Fire was in January 2016. We picked through patchy snow to the lookout near where their house had stood. It was indeed quiet, but in a broken way. There were no birds singing or wind rustling the leaves. Black land stretched below us, with small islands of green, as far as we could see. We stood in silence for a long time, looking.
After the Valley Fire, Mo and Kate began working with their insurance and trying to make sense of the other resources available to them, from FEMA, to loans from the Small Business Association, to the Red Cross. Simply navigating these resources and working to file an insurance claim became a full-time job, with many bureaucratic knots to untangle. For example, during the Rocky Fire, Kate had extended their insurance coverage to a 150 percent reimbursement. But, as they learned, that extra 50 percent only comes into play if they rebuild. With so much riding on their decisions, it can be hard to determine the next step, but by December 2015, three months after the Valley Fire, Mo and Kate felt almost certain they would stay and start over in Lake County. The community they had there, the extent and depth of their support, became apparent after the catastrophe, and they did not want to leave that.
Others who lost their homes and planned to rebuild began turning to them for architectural help. Between their own grieving and the logistical hurdles of buying new computers and piecing together projects from files they emailed to clients, focusing on work was challenging. But for Mo it’s an important part of getting their life back.
“It moves us more into this position of giving rather than receiving, even though we’re in a similar plight,” he said. “Honestly, it’s kind of therapeutic to be doing that kind of service.”
Rick and Julie were similarly consumed by picking up the pieces of their life. Their possessions were insured up to $179,000, but they would only receive $100,000 unless they could prove they owned more. So they spent the months following the Butte Fire making lists for insurance: writing down every possession they owned, whether it was an heirloom or something they bought, when they got it, what they paid. Two pairs of bike gloves bought in 1999; five pairs of bike shorts from 2010; a corded sheetrock hand drill, Dewalt brand; a Rockwell palm sander; a 2013 towel rack from Lowes; a collection of antique blue-glass bottles; one toiletry bag from 2005; one at-home waxing kit from 2013; four floor-length curtains bought at Bed Bath and Beyond that year; a framed Modigliani print, a gift from 2013; fifty hair ties from CVS; six lip glosses, six lipsticks, five eyeshadows. They made lists at the dinner table, while going about their day, when they woke up in the middle of another sleepless night. The more time passed, the harder it became for them to visualize the rooms in their house, the contents of their cabinets and drawers.
When not making lists or on hold with their insurance agency, they asked themselves the big question: to rebuild or not. Initially, they rented in Sonoma County near their daughter, son-in-law and grandkids, with their insurance footing the bill through the end of April 2016. But what to do in the long term nagged at them in the months after the Butte Fire.
“It’s so ugly up there, with the hills all burnt,” Rick said. “It’s like a war zone, and we don’t even want to be around the area.”
They decided early on to wait and see if spring would rejuvenate the land, but, in the meantime, they considered what life would be like in a milder, safer climate. Julie didn’t want to go on living with the fear of wildfire, or be reminded of the Butte Fire day in and out by the blackened and transformed landscape. So, when she was awake at night and couldn’t think of anything else to add to the list, she would go online and browse houses for sale in Sonoma County.
Long after the last embers were snuffed out, the Butte and Valley fires will continue to shape the land they scarred. In the short-term, all those burned buildings, constructed with heavy metals and asbestos, left behind piles of toxic ash that must be dealt with delicately but quickly, before winter rains could transform them into sludge, washed into the creeks and rivers. Just as bad, without the forest’s canopy and underbrush to protect the soil it becomes vulnerable, and the risk of mudslides increases.
In Lake County, where one quarter of the population lives under the federal poverty line, the economic impact of the Valley Fire is grave. The county lost revenue from sales, property and hotel taxes, and energy royalties from a damaged geothermal plant. An estimated ten percent of the businesses in the county were destroyed. Residents and local officials alike are counting on money to flow back in through the inevitable construction boom that follows in fire’s wake, and the state backfilled the lost taxes in 2016. But housing was already tight before the fire, so ensuring that residents stay around long enough to rebuild will be critical to the area’s future.
Around December 2015, the same point at which the Harpers finally decided to buy a house in Sonoma County rather than rebuild, Mo and Kate decided to stay in their community and start fresh. But as the months ticked by, the loss of their home and the destruction of the land weighed heavier on them. By February, they had made an offer on a house on the coast. It’s in a town small enough to feel rural, but with much lower fire risk and — most importantly, a landscape that isn’t charred and scarred.
One of the first things Mo told me about the Valley Fire’s destruction was that he realized the land won’t look the same in his lifetime. He wasn’t speaking hyperbolically. Many of the trees were 80 or 100 years old and for the forest to return to what it was — if it ever does — will take generations.
“We were in the mountainous part of Lake County, which is all lots of tall conifer forests, and there’s parts of it that are just turned into moonscape,” he said. “The trees are gone.”
Calling the land “moonscape,” however, doesn’t quite capture the psychological toll of a wildfire’s devastation. I sobbed driving through mile after mile of scorched earth on my first visit to Lake County after the Valley Fire. The land’s destruction was so complete that it fit my images of a combat zone more than the moon. With entire neighborhoods razed and the trees, unburdened of branches and leaves, shooting skyward like charcoal spears, the land bore an eerie resemblance to the Agent Orange-doused forests of Vietnam, during the war.
Often, damage from a fire as severe as the Butte or Valley does not have historical precedent, and, in fact, has the potential to permanently change the landscape. California’s forests now emit more carbon through wildfires than they sequester. Without a tree canopy to spread seeds and start the cycle of regrowth, the land could to transform into scrub and grasses, at least in the short term. Prairies are less effective than forests at absorbing carbon from the atmosphere, further exacerbating the global climate crisis and thereby increasing the risk of wildfire. In the way that heat from a fire dries the fuel ahead of it and thus feeds itself, burning in the West is a self-reinforcing cycle. Fire changes the land, readying it to burn in summers to come.
And yet, one anxious August after another, we stay. We stay for the frog song choruses, shimmering stars and the summer nights when the earth smells like fresh bread. My parents still live deep in Northern California’s forests. They have been there going on thirty-seven years, and have watched the redwoods, Douglas firs, madrones and oaks that cover our property grow taller, fill spaces in the canopy and creep into the meadows. The land has changed slowly but is as beautiful as ever, and my dad, not the first person to see it this way, calls it G.O.D. — Great Out of Doors.
The fires that took Northern California by surprise in October tore through landmarks I knew and memories bubbled to the surface: watching Chinese dragons dance in the big, beautiful Luther Burbank Center for the Arts when I was in elementary school; sleeping fitfully in a stranger’s house after visiting a family friend in the hospital at the beginning of his terminal cancer; eating steak and watching late-night TV alone in a room at the Fountaingrove Inn after a work event. The first days those North Bay fires raged, I checked the news obsessively, sent Facebook messages to people I hadn’t talked to in years, mourned the destruction of the city of my birth. The fires were separated from my parents’ house by one mountain range and about thirty miles, but the footage coming out of Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino, and Lake counties was enough to convince them to cancel a trip to Arizona, to not leave our homestead for significant periods of time until the first rains come. With the earth dampened they can work it more, my father using his tractor to cut fire breaks, thin the underbrush, put a wider margin of safety around our home. He tells me I’ll be amazed by how much our view of the ridge across has opened up. I can’t help but think how a tractor isn’t the only thing that could open up that view. Our land hasn’t burned in probably more than one hundred years, but deep in the forest I know where to find massive blackened redwood stumps, left by fires long forgotten.
In winter, the hillsides are green, the land briefly revived from its brittle state. But even if the season brings sixty, seventy, or eighty inches of rain, the way it did when I was child, it will only provide a respite, not true relief. The skies will dry in May, purifying to a blinding blue, the days will grow long and hot, and the yoke of fear will drape around us. We can stock emergency supply kits, sweep debris from the roof, test the fire sprinklers and extend our defensible space, but if fire wants to find us, it will.
Lindsey J. Smith lives and writes in San Francisco, but dreams of someday moving back to a wild place. You can follow her at www.narrative.land and @lindsjean.