“What is the true meaning of shelter?”
Pádraig Ó Tuama
God knows what time it is when a strong hand pounds the door, rings the bell incessantly, and someone yells, “Fire! Fire! Get ready to evacuate.” You open the door, but your neighbor is already running down the street toward his house. You hear a distant sound like popping corn or gunfire, a battle raging. You will later learn it is the sound of gas mains, propane canisters and car gasoline tanks exploding, a gun shop burning to the ground.
How does one get ready to evacuate? You have never thought about this. You won’t know how much time you have. The first thing you think about are the photo albums. The second thing is that you haven’t looked at them in a decade. What use will they be? The best idea you have is to start the coffee.
You will rediscover the local AM radio station you haven’t listened to for years. You may have to listen on your cell because you no longer have a radio. The announcers will say the same thing over and over again because there is no real news. Fire areas are closed, the situation fluid. You text friends, but no one knows much more than you do and some of that is merely rumor. You feel a psychic numbness. It may take days before you find out if you have lost your home. The road there is closed. There will be talk of looters stealing from the houses that didn’t burn.
You will worry about the direction and speed of the wind and will check weather sites impulsively for a wind shift that could either be saving or devastating. There will be time to do this because you will be waiting. The power may be turned off, which means your internet won’t work. Your cell service may also go out. Your work may be cancelled, many businesses will be closed. You will hear sirens and the rumbling roar of fire planes and helicopters. After days of this you will think of war and long for normal. You are surrounded by a bubble. Sound dulls, sight blurs as you wait. And wait.
The hills have disappeared. Even the near trees are blurred with grayish brown. The white flakes that fall from the sky are ash not snow. It is 94 degrees. Everything is littered with soot and ash, blackened leaves, burnt pages of books. The smoke makes you sluggish. You feel it in your lungs, a heavy, itchy, irritation. Your breath becomes shallow. You want to sleep. And when you do, fear creeps into your dreams in little tongues of flame and you don’t sleep anymore.
Is it wise to go out in the rain of ashes? What is safe to do? What do the homeless do? When things get bad, you avoid going out at all. Outdoors feels toxic. The poison seems to seep into your home through the vents, the gaps under the doors, the edge of desperation in your voice.
The sun loves smoke. They are both children of heat. She refracts him into colors you never imagined. Reddish purple. Orangish black. The sun and moon will look like scenes from a horror movie, thrilling and terrible.
Afterward, your whole body will rejoice in the first day of blue sky. When you greet someone in a store or on the phone you will begin with, “Are you okay?” meaning “Did you lose everything?” You may want to tour the damage. Or you may not want to know. You will wonder if there is a safer place to live and check real estate listings in other towns, other states.
You will clean your gutters, pick up the leaves in your yard, trim bushes back from the house. All things that should have been done a month ago. It might save your house or buy precious time to escape in the middle of the night. It might save your neighbor’s house but not yours. In 80 mile per hour winds, it won’t matter. Days, months, years afterward, you will look at tall, dry grass and thickets of brush with suspicion and loathing.
You will know people who have lost everything. You may not know what to say but you can listen. They need to talk. People will trade stories. Like the one about the man who sped down a mountain road with the fire so close it melted the plastic on his car. Or the one about the woman who helped her husband, who had just had a hip replacement, down the stairs only to find they could not raise the garage door because the power had gone out. They hobbled down the street together as their house caught fire. Or the one about the family that lost a ranch they had owned for generations and all their animals. Or the one about the family whose house survived when every other house on the street was burned to the ground. The fire burns in random ways.
You will hear stories of heroism and kindness and see hundreds of signs thanking first responders. You may see a sign like the one on the Glen Ellen fire station, (where half the town burned), “Everyone did what they thought was best at the time.”
When they rebuild, the neighborhoods will look strange and naked because they will have no trees. Some will not replant, viewing those trees that used to shade their homes as an enemy. Drought-desiccated trees spread embers like fireworks. And usually, we think of trees as shelter.
The second time fire comes, local officials will be better prepared. They will know to get everyone out so fire crews can fight flames instead of rescuing people. You will have apps for your phone to measure smoke density, gauge wind direction, and track the fire’s path. Alerts will send you scrambling for your phone. They come at all hours. You will know what a red flag alert means, what the high-low siren means.
You will have a bag packed and will have decided questions like, what do you want to take? What should you actually take? What do you need? What is irreplaceable? Very little. Almost everything is fungible.
Some of your partner’s choices will be brilliant and insightful. Others will make no sense. When you ask about these, the reasons will seem convoluted or they will make a sort of sense you would never imagine. The quaver in her voice will haunt you. It is easy to think our things give us shelter.
You will consider routes of escape and know that some roads will be closed, blockaded by police from other, safer cities or the national guard in armored vehicles. You will learn that escape routes will be clogged. You will think about the people of Paradise who died trapped in their cars on a jammed road.
You will pray for rain.
No rain has come. Fire season has come again. It is the middle of November, with no significant precipitation since last December. The entire West is in drought. Even the evergreens look shriveled and brown, thin for lost leaves and needles. Native Californians know that the landscape is designed to be purged by flame. Manzanita seeds and others cannot sprout unless opened by fire. The natives of Yosemite Valley used to regularly burn the land to clear brush and make way for new life. In the areas that have burned in previous years, fire has done what it is supposed to do, burned away the choking underbrush. The wildness looks tame, naked, reduced to bare trees, rolling hills and sun-scorched grass the color of desert sand. The tough, old oaks have survived the flames. Their branches are bare except for ghostly, pale gray lichen. It’s hard to tell, two years later, which of the smaller trees is burned dead and which are dormant.
The weather has been beautiful, and we have been hiking. Today, the dryness is palpable, a sucking presence in cracked earth and grass baked to grey. In areas that have not burned, a steady breeze rattles shriveled leaves of manzanita, madrone and poison oak, dries the skin and chaps the lips. The evening forecast is for hot, dry torrents of angry air with gusts up to 60 mph, 90 on the peaks. A red flag alert lights up our phones. Power will shut off in places. No word yet if we will lose ours.
The car is packed and facing out, though we have not been told to evacuate. We have our camping kit loaded and have crossed off all the items on our checklist. We keep thinking of other things to bring. We have watered the roof, but our home is surrounded by oh so flammable twenty-year-old decks. We think usually of our deck as a haven, a place to gather and appreciate the outdoors. They now seem like a hazard. Tonight, we hosed them down, but really, it takes a long, slow soaking to have an impact as the hot winds will soon dry them.
An alert sounds on both our phones, one after the other. A fire has started in the Napa Valley, a mountain range away. The wind is roaring, blowing from there to here. Evacuation orders go out for the hills in between. Sirens howl and fade with increasing frequency, heading to the fight. It is hard to rest, to not keep refreshing the relevant apps that we hoped we would never have use but loaded anyway. When you go outside smoke and a menacing glow taints the sky. Another zone between us and the fire has been evacuated. It seems to be moving quickly. I reassure my partner, who is new to the area. “A lot of city would have to burn before the fire reaches us.” But she has seen Coffee Park and the burn zones from previous fires and doesn’t seem much comforted. I say, “If they evacuate the zone next to ours, we will go, too. Then we will be out of the way and out of harm’s way.” We get an alert that one evacuation center is full and the other is being evacuated.
We go out in the dark to water the roof and the decks again, which already appear dry. The wind roars and carries water from my hose over the house to spray her. “Hey,” she yells. We get alerts. The zone next to ours has been evacuated. We get in the car and go, just like that. My rationale is at least we can get some sleep instead of tossing and turning and listening to the wind buffet trees and house. On the way to the freeway, we pass a line of cars from the other side of town heading into the hills to watch. I imagine it would be a dramatic sight. It is just before midnight.
As I drive, my partner is on her phone. The internet is barely functioning. Is it the smoke? Destroyed cell towers? Hotel switch boards are jammed. The closest room we can get is 75 miles away. The rate they charge us is twice what is listed on the website. We feel lucky. Over 35,000 people have been evacuated. We wonder if it will be like this every year.
When we get home, our neighbor was out front with a hose. He had watered down our roof and decks. He had stayed.
Robert DiLillo is a West Coast teacher and writer, by way of Lewis & Clark College, UC Berkeley, and the Centrum Writing Workshops. He has published in a variety of journals including Litbreak Magazine, Backchannels, and Ginosko Literary Journal. He has a work in progress on male personal transformation.