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Fire in an empty amphitheater

The smoke on the day we packed to evacuate.
The smoke on the day we packed to evacuate.

Sept. 12
Hold the shoe upside down, heel in one hand, sole to the sky. With the heel of the other hand, give the toe three or four sharp taps. You never know what’s going to fall out: debris, usually; but sometimes a spider or some dry cat food put there by a rodent will come out. Once in a rare while — often when you forget to check — you’ll find a lizard. (The day I forgot to check, I thought my sock was crumpled under my toes. It was not.) This is life in the country.

I’ve never had ash fall out of my boot before. It came out with each tap, a little flurry like snow from the shaft of my boot. I kept tapping, thinking it was awfully odd to have such clumpy dust. Then I realized it was not, in fact, dust. I looked up at the cloud-that-was-not-a-cloud peeking over the hill behind my house, wondering what I was breathing in at that moment.

I never knew that smoke could look so like a thunderhead.
I never knew that smoke could look so like a thunderhead.

Fresno is always smoggy, but this was quite obviously different.
Fresno is always smoggy, but this was quite obviously different.
I went home Sept. 11-14 to go backpacking with my dad in Mineral King, in the mountains that rejuvenate my spirit. It was a rather random date: I’d wanted to book flights home sooner, but other commitments had prevented me. That was the only weekend I had free before it would be too cold to camp. It also happened to be the weekend the Rough Fire came within 10 miles of my family’s home and business.

Facts are an easy crutch to avoid emotion. How much particulate matter is in the air at this moment? What percentage is the containment at? Just focus on finding out the facts, and not on the place you think of as home potentially going up in smoke.

The Rough Fire is the largest fire in Fresno County’s recorded history and is the largest fire in California as I write. It grew from somewhere around 125,000 acres to 135,000+ acres while I was home. In four days, the number of personnel tending it grew by a thousand. Instead of the small planes I’ve seen drop retardant in fires past, bombers from the National Guard base in Fresno made pass after pass after pass, disappearing into the plumes of smoke. I fell asleep with the faint thump of aircraft engines and the lonely cricket outside my window.

Facts help you evade emotion. Has everyone packed clothes? Do you have enough emergency water for the horse, too?

Don’t think about the fact that the place you loved to ride your horse is already gone.

Don’t think about the fact that the place you grew up hiking with your dad is never going to be the same.

Don’t think about the fire coming over McKenzie Ridge, destroying the church you grew up in.

Don’t remember the hundreds of hours you spent hiding your soul in the remote reaches of mountains now charred.

Remember instead your awe at the scars the giant sequoias bear of fires long past; hollow dark places big enough for a person to shelter in carved by flame. Marvel at the maps of the progression of the fire; the number of vehicles and people camped out in the wide, empty stretches between the rodeo grounds and the library. Let the bright orange “Incident Command Post” sign posted at the entrance to your hometown make you catch your breath. Then go home, and start making lists of things to do and items to pack in case of evacuation. Keep checking the InciWeb site. Be angry about the failure of local and state news outlets to do anything more than regurgitate government press releases. Be especially angry when the New York Times writes about the fires like it is observing a pet in a cage; like it has just deigned to noticed that the whole of California is on fire.

Part of the small city erected to feed and house the 3,000+ fire personnel fighting the Rough Fire. This is normally just an empty field.
Part of the small city erected to feed and house the 3,000+ fire personnel fighting the Rough Fire. This is normally just an empty field.

I spent 23 years in these foothills: dry, parched years and wet, rainy years. The Rough Fire is not the first fire to threaten our home. But it has terrified me like none other. And it has made me realize how much I need to be closer to home. A minimum travel time of eight hours is not close enough.

They say El Nino is coming this year. They’ve nicknamed the storm “Bruce Lee.” I don’t believe the storm will save us all. But I can pray that it will despite my skepticism. El Nino did save us, once before. That was a long time ago.

But only survivors live here. They don’t need Bruce Lee to save them.

Because what else are you going to do but splash your feet in a pool in the middle of a drought and raise a toast to the fire in a fire-extinguisher highball? (Fun fact: My grandfather patented the modern mechanism for fire extinguisher latches.)
Because what else are you going to do but splash your feet in a pool in the middle of a drought and raise a toast to the fire in a fire-extinguisher highball? (Fun fact: My grandfather patented the modern mechanism for fire extinguisher latches.)


Sept. 14
I stood outside currying the horse for the last time before I’d have to get on a plane and leave the clouds (were they smoke? It was hard to tell) towering over my parents’ house. Rascal’s sensitive skin often got dry during the summer, but he was unusually dandruff-laden this trip.

Oh. That’s ash.

I looked up at the sky, wondering if I were doing the right thing by leaving. What if the weather shift that was predicted brought more lightning and wind and no rain? Nobody here remembers it ever raining in September before.

Rascal was only interested in eating. I pet his neck rather absently. A tiny wet speck landed on my arm. It was too small to be bird poop, which meant it could only have been one thing.

I don’t think I breathed for the next minute. God, there are so many people here who are waiting for You to send the rain.

Then He did.

I dropped the brush and ran to the house.

“You guys! It’s raining!”


Sept. 21
The Rough Fire is more than 65 percent contained now, as opposed to the mid-20 percent numbers we were facing when I was home. The firefighters have headed it toward the Kings River, and the personnel numbers have dropped to somewhere around 1,700 — almost by half. The forest roads are reopening. I know there are other fires in California that have endangered far more lives and destroyed more homes, and my heart aches for them, too. But this one was deeply personal in a way the others are not. My family’s keepsakes are bundled into oddly-categorized boxes, piled into a van. (For as much stuff as my parents’ house contains, there are a surprisingly small number of those boxes.) We haven’t lost anything, but the experience of having that possibility stare you in the face is its own odd sort of trauma.

But, then again, only survivors live here.

Published in Family