Ted Bucklin | Bucklin Winery Fire Aftermath
Fire Report - October 2017
This is my personal account of the fires that raged through Sonoma beginning on the windy night of October 8th, 2017. In fact I was not there for the first day and a half of the disaster, so (thankfully) I missed the terrifying blast of wind-driven fire that consumed the majority of buildings and caused the most devastation, and only arrived in the middle of the afternoon of the second day. By then the fires had become somewhat tame in comparison, though they continued to burn tens of thousands of acres and destroy property for another week and a half. Many local residents suffered much more dramatic and tragic loss than I and my family did, and my point is not to delve into loss and tragedy but to describe what it feels like to be enveloped by destructive forces over which you have no control. In part, I feel compelled to offer this story in order to help flesh out the account we all saw on TV.
Most people who followed these events did so through the lens of the television set, and it became apparent to me in watching news reports how the media’s only angle was to play up the emotional impact of the tragedy. Meanwhile, we who were in the middle of the disaster were desperate for concrete information about the fires, where they were burning, whose homes had burned and whose had been saved, and where the fires were heading. Which roads were closed? Why weren’t there any firemen? These questions could not be answered by television journalists from out of town, hell, the reporters had to read the name of the road they were reporting about from a card. Honestly, I don’t think anyone, not the media, not even the officials leading the fire-fighting efforts, could have answered our questions. This is the nature of disaster, chaos and thin threads of information and rumor, not yet ready to be woven into a story. Hungry for information, we clamored for sources that could bring clarity and reassurance, or on the other side, confirmation of our loss. Anything to reduce the anxiety of not knowing. It turns out that once you are outside the immediate danger, not knowing is the greatest source of anxiety in a disaster, in our disaster anyway. Which is why we turned to the media, only to find that news focused on the tragic aspect only exacerbates one’s anxieties, while providing us almost no useful information..
Being on the inside of this disaster made me realize that news is less about information and more about storytelling. And it wasn’t a story to help us deal with the fire, it was a drama designed to stir the emotions of spectators, people outside the actual event. We survivors still get lots of condolences from outsiders because the events were portrayed as tragic. Yes, losing your home, your pets, your family members, is indeed tragic and many people are suffering now and for years to come. For them condolences are appropriate. But for me they seem a little out of place and I’m hoping this journal will expand people’s understanding of this disaster beyond the one note of tragedy as suggested by the media into a more expansive portrayal of human experience and emotion. Yeah, it sucked, but it was also really interesting.
Monday, October 8th
At around midnight a pulse of ferocious winds roared into Sonoma Valley where we live. My brother and his wife awoke to the sound of tree branches crashing to the ground outside near his house, leaves and sticks blowing against the walls of his house. Gusts on that Sunday night were recorded at around 80 mph, hurricane strength. My wife, Wendy, and I were sleeping peacefully about a thousand miles away in New Mexico, and blissfully unaware of the tempest brewing in our backyard. All it would take was one branch hitting a power line to spark a conflagration. Apparently it happened that night in several places around Sonoma County. (I recently heard a story of a neighbor that night who watched as the electric wires swung so close to one another in the winds that they were arcing and sending showers of sparks onto the ground – no tree branch needed. After putting out several small fires himself, this neighbor called the power company to tell them they had to turn off the power RIGHT NOW! The company rep said they’d look into it.)
Monday morning the news was breaking of a full-throttle disaster. Four or five fires had broken out in Sonoma and Napa Counties. Whole neighborhoods in the city of Santa Rosa had been scorched to the ground overnight, thousands of homes destroyed in a few hours. In nearby Glen Ellen, where my mother and two siblings live, only four miles from our home, the fire blasted like a blow-torch along a bucolic county road we know well, igniting homes almost before residents could scramble out of them. The fires were spreading rapidly out of control. I called my mother, who’d evacuated from her Glen Ellen farm at 3:00 in the morning with flames approaching. Should we come home, I asked. Stay away, she said. It’s horrible.
My wife and I, and our families, live on four vulnerable-to-fire rural properties within 15 miles from Kenwood to Sonoma in Sonoma Valley; our businesses, including an organic produce farm, a vineyard, a conference center, and two multi-generational family retreats are built on those properties, and our lives center around them. The fires seemed to be within reach of all of them. We have lived for decades with the expectation, the certainty, really, that someday fire would sweep through, and that one or another of these beautiful places could be wiped out in a fire. This week it looks like all of them could be. One practices a certain detachment, and I, for one, would often ask myself during fire season if this would be the last time I’d see the place in a pristine state. Since the last big fire in 1964, it’s always been a hypothetical question, until this week.
By the time Wendy and I landed in Oakland on Tuesday afternoon, we’d gotten conflicting reports about which of our buildings had burned, but it was clear that there were already losses in my family and the fire was still spreading. On my mother’s farm the farmer’s house burned, the mechanic’s shop and fuel storage shed were destroyed too, and at the vineyard, my brother’s shop and office and a lovely guest house were gone. Several water storage tanks were destroyed and the water systems knocked out at both places. The fire’s advance had stalled at our vineyard yesterday, but here across the road from the vineyard the fire was blazing away on the hillside and advancing toward my mother’s house and a big block of farm buildings. Wendy and I saw it billowing away as we pulled up to the police roadblock that stopped us from going the last half mile to the farm. The road was jammed with traffic, rubber-neckers getting out of their cars to watch the spectacle of trees exploding in flames and huge clouds of smoke, far enough away to feel safe, close enough to feel like you were right in the thick of it.
I didn’t have time for rubber-necking, I needed to get to the farm to help my family protect what was left of our buildings. We hadn’t come all the way from New Mexico to be stymied by a lousy police roadblock. Wendy let me out of the car and I slipped down a vineyard alley and loped the last half mile, crossed the highway over to the farm.
There I found a very tranquil scene. My brother and another fellow who works with us in the wine industry were seated at a picnic table out in front of the pole barn where the farm’s produce is packed for delivery, smoking cigarettes and looking at the nearby crackling hillside inferno with mild interest, more like it was a bonfire. I’m not sure what I expected to find, maybe heroic, half-charred figures with singed eyebrows and tattered clothes scrambling to put out the fire. Well, one of the oddest things about this stage of the ongoing disaster was the slow paced, if inexorable, advance of the fire. This fire was taking it’s sweet time coming down the mountain, though it was coming down the mountain toward us and there was nothing we could do to stop it with our water system out and no firemen in sight. It was like watching a vast phalanx of well-armed enemy soldiers advancing on our little village and we have pitchforks and rakes to defend ourselves. Some trees on the hill just beyond my Mom’s chard field burst into flames and we could hear it crackling as the fire slowly crept down toward our cluster of buildings. There is the pole barn and greenhouses for plant propagation, a worker’s house and my sister’s house, an office, and our large dairy barn built in the early 1900’s all clustered together, all made of wood, and likely to go as one if the fire managed to get past us.
Another odd thing was the utter lack of professional fire-fighting presence. Apparently all local fire-fighting resources had been deployed to Santa Rosa and the more populated areas, where whole neighborhoods were destroyed by the gale-driven fire. My brother, Will, and his wife, Lizanne, who’d been awakened by the hurricane winds on Sunday night, stood by anxiously in the wee hours as first smoke and then fire showed up on the horizon before dawn. Will’s optimism that the fire was too far away to be a threat quickly evaporated as the flames kept advancing at incredible speed. Together they scooped up the dogs and cat and evacuated to our house a few miles away, where my mother and other assorted family refugees had gathered as well.
The fire came to the edge of our vineyard on the north end and raced through the neighboring grasslands along our western boundary, blown by violent, swirling winds, scorched our fence line and trees but failed to find purchase in our well-tilled vineyard, looped around the south end, burning our neighbor’s nursery business badly, before doubling back on our property and setting my brother’s shop and office alight. With no one there to resist it, the fire ambled along the creekbed toward the guest house a couple of hundred yards upstream, and by the time Will was able to come back early that afternoon, the guest house was a smoldering ruin too. Fortunately by then the winds had calmed somewhat, but flames were still spreading along lines of tinder dry vegetation, and Will arrived to find flames advancing toward his house. With electric power burned out and water pipes melted, he and our nephew, Jack, were left with only shovels and buckets of water siphoned from the water tank to put it out. The fire got to within 20 feet of his wooden deck before they stopped it, and they spent the rest of the afternoon dumping five-gallon buckets of water on hot spots around the property. At no point was there any sign of firefighters. No planes, no trucks, no sirens, no people. They were fighting the fire entirely on their own.
It was particularly eerie to be facing down this monster alone, with no firemen around to help us fight it. My brother said he had seen one fire truck when he was evacuating the day before, but the firefighters were as freaked out as everyone else in the howling smoke-filled winds and they explained they were only evacuating people, not fighting the fire. By mid-afternoon Tuesday, there was still no sign of professional help. Well, I needed to do something, so I grabbed a rake and started raking leaves away from around the pole barn, and then we started cutting down low hanging branches so the trees wouldn’t catch fire. Tom, my brother-in-law was on a tractor raising clouds of dust cutting a fire break out in the grassy field. For peace of mind I had to do something, even though it seemed pathetic and useless.
And then, miraculously, a big red fire truck from the local fire department drove up and stopped at the pole barn, and four men in bunker gear got out. At the same time three neighbors, after dodging police barricades, wandered in with rakes and shovels in hand to see if we needed help. All at once we had some expert guidance and a big enough crew to get it done. The firemen directed us all in making a fire break through the scrubby creek bottom where Tom’s tractor couldn’t go, so we all jumped into action and soon had a 20’ swath of bare ground. And then the firemen stepped back, took a seat on the pickup’s tailgate and watched the fire just like we had. They said you couldn’t really go out and fight a fire like this in the woods, you had to let it come to you. It was getting dark. With no electricity and no water at the farm, and a massive forest fire a few hundred yards up the hill, we civilians retreated and left it to the professionals, who promised to stay the night and watch over our buildings.
Wendy set up our house at our conference center, where the day before we’d sent the guests home, as the family refugee center, with the fire burning just across the valley. Tuesday night we had eight guests for dinner and 5 dogs. We cooked a nice dinner and put up the refugees in our spare bedrooms. The next night the town of Sonoma was evacuated as the fire drew near to the edge of town from the northeast, so we had near 20 refugees for dinner and 8 dogs. Our friends Jeff and Diana were not sure about whether their house had survived the fire, it was all around their mountaintop house, and Isa was all but certain her house was gone.
After the ferocious winds pushed fires through Santa Rosa, a city of 175,000, on Sunday night into Monday and wiped out 5% of that city’s housing, and swept through both Kenwood and Glen Ellen, burning many more houses only a few miles from us, for four days now, the fire had been wandering through the hills of the Mayacamas Ridge on the east side of Sonoma Valley, sometimes creeping down close to the valley floor and threatening our neighboring communities of Sonoma and Boyes Springs and Agua Caliente. For the most part firefighting efforts from Monday through Wednesday had involved local and regional fire fighters protecting properties along the advancing edges of the many fires in the region. But the fires themselves have been allowed to burn more or less freely in the larger expanses of undeveloped hillsides. But Thursday, with the extremely frightening prospect of strong gusty winds in Friday’s forecast, the state finally rounded up some serious fire fighting resources and got them deployed to the fight. (According to my brother-in-law, who runs the fire and emergency response services for a Bay Area county, it takes three days for the state to organize and deploy this kind of response.)
Giant 747 jetliners bearing loads of fire retardant and helicopters ferrying 500-gallon buckets of water roared into action in the afternoon, hitting hot spots on the hills just above Sonoma town. Bulldozers tore up the landscape making firebreaks on mountain tops and around the perimeters of the fire, thousands of fire fighters traveling in convoys of giant fire trucks finally arrived from all over the west to attack the fire lines, National Guard troops and cops from all over the state were deployed to keep order, and this awesome display of human energy and resources seemed to be having an impact on the fires. The threat of catastrophic destruction to the communities closest to us seemed to have abated, though the fires were now marching eastward, advancing on villages in the Napa Valley.
We feel helpless. We want to do something to thwart this danger and yet it’s hard to know what to do. How do you rake all the flammables away from 20 buildings that we have on this property? Wetting things seems like a good idea until you realize that when the fire comes any wetting you do now will be baked off by the advancing fire. How do you wet things down after the power has gone out and you have no water. We feel helpless because we are pretty much helpless in the face of this massive force of nature.
Finding ourselves utterly unable to act to stave off the fires, we seek information to quell our anxieties. But even with incredible digital maps that track fire activity, it’s difficult to know what is happening anywhere. This is in part because the frontier, the active edge of the fire is always moving, and it could go almost anywhere so information about the fires is not only vague, it’s indeterminate. What you are desperate to know is whether yours or your friend’s house has burned. All the maps tell you is that the fire is in the area of the house, or headed in that direction, heightening your anxiety. Are there firemen nearby, is your house all alone, are the flames closing in?
You have no way of knowing. You might hear that your house hasn’t burned, but until the fire is truly out, and you’ve seen it with your own eyes, you can’t be certain. Conversely, we heard many times someone’s house or business reported as burned, only to hear later that it still stands. You can’t go see where the fires burned or are burning because the roads are closed with CHP manning the roadblocks, and you never know which neighbors might be lurking in the shadows with itchy trigger fingers. If we are observed sneaking in they look at us as looters. You can understand why they don’t want civilians getting in the way of firefighters, but then you hear stories of someone who stayed and saved their neighbor’s house and their own. The news media don’t know the area and can’t report anything more than the most general facts about the fires. They tell the stories of heroism and tragedy and show disturbing pictures, all intended to make us feel uneasy or worse. The anxiety builds for those who don’t know the fate of their homes and everyone worries that the fire could still come for theirs. Indeed we are faced with a weather prediction of high winds, and fire officials admit that all the successes of the past few days in containing and controlling the fires could be erased in very short order. Back to square one, they say. That’s not very comforting!
Friday, the smoke was thicker and more acrid than it’d been since the day the fires started. It hurt to breathe outside. I had to do some work outside and afterward I felt woozy and bilious, and my lungs hurt. The smoke isn’t just bad for your health, it also claws at your state of mind. It’s hard to feel optimistic on a smoky day, the word that keeps floating to the surface in your mind is Hell. I am in Hell! We all try to keep a sunny outlook, but the smoke wears us down. Over night it settles in thick, cool and dark, like tule fog, and then thins out as the day warms up and the breeze moves it around. It comes from the fires up by Kenwood eight miles away, or it comes from just across the valley only a couple of miles away. Sometimes we can actually see blue sky or stars above, sometimes we are entombed beneath an acrid blanket. Sometimes in the day we catch a glimpse of a burning ridge across the valley, a giant curtain of smoke draped across its flank. At night, you can see the ghostly orange glow on the burning hillsides, and it looks totally out of control. At night in our old house with leaky windows I’ve woken up a couple of times with alarm as the smoke seeping in smells fresh, like the fire is close by.
The winds kicked up on Friday night, and in the early morning hours the fire jumped containment on the east side of Sonoma and swept down through vineyards and into a neighborhood only a few miles from us. Fresh panic and ragged worry. One of the people staying with us lives in downtown Sonoma and was worried for her two sons and husband, who were home overnight, spraying the house down (There’s something to be said for community water systems). The smoke at our house thickened and became more offensive, and we stayed indoors. The sky thundered with an unending convoy of giant helicopters flying overhead dragging five hundred-gallon buckets of water filled from a lake nearby. We had little indication of how the battle was going, but the steady stream of helicopters overhead suggested that the fire was putting up a fierce fight.
A New Fire
Throughout the early days of this unfolding disaster, we had been monitoring the fire’s progress on the live digital fire map, checking our phones regularly, watching with particular interest and mild dread the area just west of Kenwood where my grandparents bought property in the ‘50s, perched on the slopes of Mt. Hood above Sonoma Valley. It has always been accepted as inevitable among us twenty-some cousins and siblings who still go up there for regular family get-togethers that someday it will burn. In the summer the steep dry grass hillsides and thick forests of douglas fir and oak stand ready to explode into flames at the slightest spark, and watching the digital map, we could see two fires lurking in the vicinity, just a couple of miles away really. But they never seemed to make a move in our direction, and by Friday we had reasonable confidence that this property would be spared.
But on Friday afternoon, the fifth day of the Sonoma Valley fires, we got a text message from our down-the-hill neighbor, Laura, that a new fire had been spotted on the hill above their house, on our property. Her husband happened to be chatting up the fire crews resting in a parking lot at the bottom of our road, when he noticed the smoke and led the firemen up our road and they put out the fire. They even had helicopter support. It seemed to good to be true! The fire had started under our power lines. Apparently, the electric company had turned the power back on without checking the line. They failed to notice that a tree on our property had blown onto the lines during the hurricane. It had not been cleared and it sparked and sent a shower of embers onto dry tinder below.
I’m still trying to understand the truly odd nature of this beast called fire, as it took over our lives in this disaster. Over the course of the last month or so we had watched in horror as several other forms of natural disaster wreaked their destruction on other neighborhoods, an earthquake in Mexico City and hurricanes ripping across the Caribbean, followed by floods. I don’t know what it was like to be in those disasters. But to some extent I am drawing out these experiences of this fire in comparison to the experiences people have had dealing with earthquakes and hurricanes.
The first thing we have to acknowledge about fire is our instinctual fear of it. The smell of smoke in the right context can arouse panic, the sight of flames on the horizon, even more so, and with howling winds pushing flames faster than a man can run, it’s hard to imagine the terror one might feel. Over the seven days or so we spent surrounded by fire and immersed in smoke, there was always at least a tremor of fear vibrating somewhere back there in the recesses of our animal brains. Even after one gains a semblance of control over the raw fear of fire, the ubiquitous smoke - dark, purplish and dangerous to breathe - activates yet another primal fear, of suffocation or poisoning. And even without the fear, the smoke is truly horrid. People wore masks that sift out the dangerous particulates, but not those volatile gases that make you woozy and burn your throat and lungs. We took refuge inside and the smoke did too. Looking outside through the murky toxic soup, one also can’t help letting a rather dire sense of helplessness and apocalyptic futility creep into your mindset. To escape the smoke you’d have to leave the area but then you throw the fate of your home literally to the wind. And that’s another thing, the sanctity of home and our primal attachment to our place, our little patch of earth. As long as the fire continued to burn we felt the threat to our very basic sense of place. At any moment, the winds could pick up an ember and drop it in the tinder-dry golden grass nearby and fan that little ember into another conflagration and burn our house down.
Finally, the mercurial nature of the fire itself had a strange effect on our state of mind. Terror in the face of those wind-driven flames and the panicky chaos of trying to escape, that part of this event conforms to our general idea of what a disaster is supposed to be like: helpless people running for their lives from an overwhelming threat. But the winds only blew for a few hours over Sunday night and into Monday morning. After that, the fire took on a much more mundane character, burning slowly through the hills, just as destructive when it got to your house, but something like a mafia hit man, calm, collected and ruthless, and you never knew when he’s going to pop up and take you out.
We had no way of knowing where the fire would strike next. From the media perspective this is a regional event, for us locals it is a personal, street by street, family by family disaster. We have friends and relatives dotted all through the area, we know where their houses are, and as the fire wandered across our digital maps it would refresh our sense of doom and gloom. Oh no, not their house! Even when it had been contained or put out along one frontier, it was no guarantee that it wouldn’t rise again or come from another direction.
Over the course of days, however, the fire seemed to be slowly coming under control, and while we couldn’t ignore the ever-present smoke, the sense of threat was definitely diminishing, if only because it’s difficult to maintain an emergency state of alert for days on end. We believed the fires were coming under control, and we were getting impatient for this nightmare to end. Nevertheless, the winds were predicted to get strong again Friday night, and that could whip it up into a raging monster in no time at all. So the mercurial character of the fire kept us on edge all week.
On Friday evening it looked like our family and our grandparents’ place had dodged a bullet. The fire crews and helicopters doused the fire on our property, and everyone marched back down the mountain and prepared to deploy to other fires still burning around the area. For our family, for me, this was incredibly good news. My grandparents had bought the place in 1955, the year I was born, and all of us, aunts, uncles, parents, cousins, brothers and sisters, and now our own children and grandchildren, had been coming there all those years to be part of the family. We all grew up there, learned about rattlesnakes and ants and horses, stole Grandpa’s cigarettes, we learned about hard work, we learned to drive on the old ’43 Willys, we tested potential mates with work projects to see if they were suitable partners. It is where we gathered, more than 40 strong, to cook the Thanksgiving feast, to work on the place on weekends, where we went to celebrate and sometimes to mourn. It was our family redoubt, and every one of us has had our lives and our family bonds enriched by the privilege of being part of that place. Friday evening we really could not believe our good fortune - the fire we all knew was coming had flared up and then was extinguished before it could erase our family legacy.
On Saturday morning, however, it became apparent that our optimism had been misplaced. Overnight an unquenched ember had reignited a full-fledged new fire just below our family home and was spreading fast in all directions, as the predicted strong gusty winds fanned the flames out of control. Oakmont, a retirement village at the foot of the mountain, was threatened and for a second time so was the nearby town of Kenwood, only days after the first fire had swept through. A friend whose house was brushed by fire from the east on Tuesday, but survived, was on Saturday threatened from the west with this fire that had started on our place. Saturday afternoon our neighbor, Laura, sent text messages and dire looking photos of the fire on the hill above her house. It seemed all but certain we’d lose our homes up there, as could she.
A couple of hours later she sent a message that a crew had gone up and taken positions around our two houses and they were once again saved, we had positive confirmation that our houses were still intact. It was a stunning reversal. And she said the crew would stay there and protect the houses through the night. Family members were contacted and the dramatic story was told and sighs of relief were shared again. What luck!
As the fires had grown on Saturday morning, the smoke down valley at our refuge thickened and forced us inside again. Blasting overhead, unseen in the heavy smoke, helicopters were ferrying their heavy loads of water to fight flames all around the valley and we watched with apprehension on our digital maps the little red dots popping up in places we knew and loved. Around our family property on Mt Hood the fire seemed stronger than ever, a mass of red dots on the map signifying active hot spots right on our property, and the TV news was ablaze with apocalyptic videos of houses burning and swirling tornadoes of sparks and flame. It was hard not to get swept up in the disaster mentality. Our digital maps showed a red dot next to each of our homes up on the mountain, you could actually see an outline of our houses on the map, and on Grandmother’s house the dot was resting right on her porch. In spite of all the good luck of past days and hard work of fire crews, it was hard to imagine that the houses still stood with the fire that close. I got back on the phone with my cousins and we all agreed how we knew it was inevitable that one day our place would burn. Maybe this was the day. We practiced our non-attachment with shrugs, and phrases like “Oh well”.
Sunday morning, Isa, whose house had burned to the ground, and I got in the car and drove a roundabout way, avoiding all the closed roads, to Sebastopol, a few miles west of some of the most devastating fires in Santa Rosa, to attend a dance class. We needed to shake out some of this disaster malaise. Not more than ten minutes after we left the house, we crested a small hill overlooking the beautiful smoke-free Petaluma valley, and it struck me like a thunderbolt. We had crossed over into normalcy, and while we had been immersed for days on end in smoke and apprehension, here, on just the other side of the ridge that bounds our Sonoma Valley, people have been going about their lives. It had never occurred to me that in some ways all the sturm and drang of this disaster was optional, that from just twenty miles away my smoke and devastation was just another scrap of news flotsam to the rest of the world.
That afternoon we got another call from Laura, who told us yet another story of heroism and good fortune for us, in which another neighbor, upon learning that the fire crews who had been protecting our houses had been called off and were not planning to return, took it upon himself to round up a crew and went up the road himself to save our homes, as once again the fire was raging around on the hill up there. I wasn’t sure I could believe her. I did not call anyone to report the good news, figuring it better to just wait and go see for myself with my own eyes when they finally opened the roads and we could go back to our place.
After Saturday’s dangerous winds calmed down, on Sunday and then into the week, the massive efforts of state and local firefighting began to gain the upper hand over the fires. On Thursday, the eleventh day of the fires, we received a half-inch of rain, which went a long way toward quenching the fires and cleansed the air of smoke and ash. Over the next few days, power was restored to neighborhoods, roads were reopened, evacuation orders were rescinded and people were allowed to go to their homes, or to the jumble of scorched rubble where their homes had stood. We have a few of those of our very own.
Two weeks after the fires first flared up, the road to my family’s place on Mt. Hood was opened to residents, and my sister, Kate, and I showed some documents to the nice man at the police checkpoint and we went up to survey the damage. The last giant fire trucks and a couple of minimum-security prison fire crews were just leaving. The fire had burned the creek at the bottom of our mile-long driveway, all the way up the hill to the meadow where our houses are, and then on through the forest and up the hills behind the meadow. It appears that practically every square inch of our property was swept by fire. Driving up, we passed through moonscapes where the fire had burned so hot that everything down to the last stick had turned to ash - this was mostly hillside covered with a dryland shrub called greasewood, which burns as hot as its name suggests. There were the open grassy hillsides that were burned down to bare earth and left black. In the oak woods, the flames appeared to have licked and scorched the trunks of trees but perhaps left them alive, they still had green leaves on their upper branches. The meadow had been burned clean and smooth down to khaki brown earth, which showed through the black ash in the many tracks of fire trucks that crisscrossed the field in their fight to save our homes.
It was true, as we’d been told, that our houses survived the fire. But saving a building from fire is not a pretty thing. Bulldozers had scraped the earth around the houses and toppled trees and pushed them to the side. The fire had burned up to the edge of the patio at the house I grew up in. There was no sign of the rosemary shrubs that used to grace the perimeter, only short black stubs where they had grown. The beautiful yurt, my bedroom in the woods, was a pile of ash and twisted bedsprings. At the house my grandparents had built, the wooden steps leading up to the wood deck were charred and collapsing, but the deck and house were unburned. A pinkish residue on the deck explains how the house was saved. One of those 747s dumped a load of fire retardant right on the house. Our rickety Rube Goldberg water system has been crippled and will take months to rebuild, and the whole place stinks of smoke and charred wood.
Kate and I walked around the meadow taking in the destruction. It is remarkable to see the ground cleansed of all cover, the decades of fallen branches and leaves and plants wiped away, leaving only soil and blackened rocks, and the standing trees black going up the trunks to head height, but seemingly normal above that. I’m told we’ll have to wait a year or so to know which trees will survive. We entered the tall fir forest at the upper end of the meadow where the only building that predates our family stood. It was a small redwood plank cabin built in the early 1900’s with a dirt floor and a wood cookstove inside. I remember my grandparents standing around the blazing cookstove on a cold drizzly winter morning before we had any of our own houses up there, trading stories with the old hermit, Henry Robinson, who lived up the hill. They made cowboy coffee in a porcelain pot and fortified their steaming mugs with whiskey and smoked short cigarettes, and steam came out of their mouths as they talked. The cabin’s corrugated metal roof panels now lay twisted from the heat over the small rectangle where the cabin had stood. A couple of the panels have draped themselves over the little cookstove like a shroud. The antique iron stove appears to have survived intact.
Of course, for many in the area this disaster had been much worse. More than forty people died in the flames, and thousands of homes burned. People lost their livelihoods and their pets and all those things we humans assemble around ourselves that help us know who we are. My family lost some buildings, some water tanks, and it will take us some time, effort and money to get things back to full functioning. But in the same way that we practiced non-attachment about whether our homes survived, we can see through the wreckage and blackened landscape and imagine this place returning to beauty before too long. There’s more rain in the forecast for next week. The hills will green up with winter grasses, spring wildflowers will bloom, the forests will recover, and we’ll go on with our lives. It’ll just take patience, a bunch of work, and another healthy dose of non-attachment.