We thought we were safe

  Editor's note: On July 9, Gordon Gregory reports that he and his family were forced to move again. The house they'd found to rent after wildfire destroyed their home on the southern edge of Paradise turned out to be in the path of a new advancing fire.

I live close to tall trees in Northern California, and on the afternoon of June 12, I held our mare, Millie, and watched wildfire advance toward the draw not 1,000 away where my wife and I had almost finished building our home. We’d been working on the house for almost four years.

The wind pushed a towering cloud of black smoke west of our place. I found hope in the lateral drift. I believed that the inferno then burning for a second day would slide by us.

But when I heard explosions, caused by God knows what as fire consumed the homes farther up the road -- explosions that grew louder as the homes of nearer neighbors were hit -- hope began to fade.

And it vanished altogether when I saw whole trees torch off and heard the roar of destruction that nothing would quiet. Not the DC 10 dropping its 12,000 gallons of fire retardant, not the engines staged along the gravel roadway, and certainly not my silent prayers, offered far too late. When a fireman yelled “Get the hell out!” I felt the kind of sickness that comes from powerlessness in the path of fury.

Jogging away from the inferno, Millie tossing her head against the roped halter, I couldn’t imagine how I would tell my wife and our 14-year-old daughter that every board and nail, every ill-hung door and crooked tile, every left-behind artifact of our lives was gone.

All of it: Georgia’s ribbons, her childhood drawings of cats, her notes of love; the books and writings, the framed family pictures, the glass art and paintings from my sister and mother, my brother’s ink drawings, and my father’s watch, the one he wore the day he died and which I wear -- wore -- when I need his support. All of it violently rendered into nothing more than a smoldering statistical blip.

By 2:30 p.m. that day, our house had become rubble. It was one of more than 70 homes lost to the Humboldt Fire, and one of 102 residences destroyed by wildfire that week alone in Butte County, Calif. As I write this three weeks later, the fires still rage, people are still fleeing, and on July 9, another 40 homes were lost in a nearby community.

Our experience, like everyone’s, is simple. It is also entirely commonplace.

We thought we were safe. We thought disasters were only stories. We thought that human action could forestall calamity. Surely, a retardant-laden jet and all those fire trucks, coupled with the stucco siding and tile roof, not to mention the home-sprinkler system backed by a 5,000-gallon water tank -- surely, all of this would be enough to defeat something as simple, as archaic, as fire.

Such silliness.

So what does fire teach? Perspective, I suppose, though that depends on your vantage point. The one I’m sitting on now teeters between gratitude and grief. The support and aid we’ve received from neighbors and strangers has been remarkable, and our appreciation for this community has grown immeasurably. But the loss of our house and belongings will haunt the three of us for a good time. I doubt we’ll connect with another dwelling as fully as we did the ruined one. I fear we will never again put down our roots as deeply.

Sometimes I look for meaning, or at least symmetry. The land we lived on was untouched until we borrowed it from nature. We took away many of the trees and the brush and we changed the habitat, putting our needs first. Then the brush and the trees conspired with a spark to take it back.

But that’s too simple. Wildfire is not something to which one can attach a meaning. It is simply the chaos of nature taking over, and maybe that’s the lesson. We think that because we can turn jetliners into air tankers, we are in control. We think we can fix anything if we just put enough technology, money and bureaucracy into the effort. But we delude ourselves, just as I deluded myself for a time June 12.

The reality is that, here in the West, we live in fire’s realm. It is less a neighbor than an inattentive overlord, an absentee landlord who might ignore you for generations and then, on a whim, suddenly decide to burn down your house. When it’s your house that’s taken, you may become a refugee, fleeing with only what you can carry or lead away.

Then, after the initial shock, you’ll have to ask yourself: Now what? What do I do? My family lost almost everything we owned. But we’ve held on to our stubbornness. We will rebuild, right here, back in that draw.

That’s the decision, though I don’t think I truly believe it yet. It probably won’t sink in until I am finally able to lead Millie back home.

Gordon Gregory is a freelance writer who lives somewhere near the town of Paradise, in Northern California.
Jul 11, 2008 05:55 PM

My deepest sympathies to the writer and his family in losing their house, but I was chilled by his resolve to "rebuild, right there, back in the draw." How many wildfires will it take before we realize that we can't do that any more? Vist the woods, camp in the woods, ride your horses and mountain bikes there, sure - but live in the city, in the town, in the village. And if you want to live out there in the woods, well, then, you should pay for it - with fire protection districts that gather enough funding from those live in fire hazard areas to pay the full cost of protecting those houses in the woods.

Jul 14, 2008 12:16 PM

I concur with the posting by annemacq.  In addition, the writer may want to remember that fire throws a one-two punch. Rain and snow bring mud and landslides down through mountainous areas denuded by fire.  He may want to wait a season to lead Millie home.

Jul 14, 2008 12:40 PM

But Annemacq - Don't you think those who live in the woods DO pay? When I lived in the woods, I paid far more than those in cities - Those who live in the woods pay for the "retardant-laden jet . . . trucks, . . . stucco siding and tile roof, . . . home-sprinkler system[s] backed by . . . 5,000-gallon water tank[s]" - Those who live in "those houses in the woods" actually add to the protection we already have for our forests. Too, houses in cities and town also burn. A wooded city can burn as devastatingly as a peopled wood, and inhabitants of either are often helpless against it, particularly when the wind rises.  But aren't you missing the writer's point in order to make yours? I may be missing it too, but his description of the things he and his family had lost went right to my heart. I feel his awareness of his powerlessness - its surprise and kick. And I agree with his point that most of us think we can outsmart disaster - avoid it through some kind of magic, maybe. But if we think that we can avoid the consequences of not having believed that the weather is changing, and that we probably have contributed to it and that the change has dried much of our forestland into tinder, we're mistaken. We may even think that because we haven't experienced it personally, we won't. But it's coming. And city or town, country or woods, we will all share the coming disasters. We just don't believe it. And we think anyone who does is a fear-monger. Hell, I feel like a fear-monger, but when I look at the evidence, I'm afraid. And I'm glad that I'm old.  
Jul 14, 2008 12:40 PM

Why, why, why are people Not building with Sustanable Adobe brick, that stays for thousands of years, and save on heating, cooling, AND is Fireproof!! Get with the Program...

Jul 14, 2008 12:41 PM

Cities, towns and villages aren't safe, either.

Where I live, on the Black River in Southwest Washington, it could be fire in some years. It could be flood. It could be earthquake. It has been ashfall from a volcanic eruption. In December 2006 a windstorm blew a giant oak tree down on my house. Many of my possessions were destroyed by water damage.

We think what we have accumulated and built has to last forever.

It doesn't.

                   Pete Holm

Jul 14, 2008 01:32 PM

Having gtown up in California in the 50's, I watched the beautiful Big Bear Lake area burn year after year. Later living in N. CA, I watched as those forrest burn also. Then down in the S. CA area got to watch as every Mountain and Forrest burn again year after year. People just turn around and re-build back in the same place, only to see it happen again , and it will. Now over in AZ, in the Beautiful White Mtn's, I went through the Rodio/Chadeski fire that almost took out this whole area. Even the President Bush came to watch. Some 350 homes went up that time. Not having "my" company together then to offer a NEW way to re-build with Bugpfoof, waterproof, and Most importantly FIREPROOF Adobe Block, "they" once again rebuilt with what I, and most Sastanable savy people call "stick homes", with New wood to burn. I'm looking for Gov. Grants, and/or Private funding to get my company started. I will be using all recycled products, and a new method that will qualify as "sweat equity" do it yourself building. Used as down payment for HUD Housing grant money. Seriuos people wanting to help me get this program happening, contact me. Ivan Sherwood, tend2it2day@yahoo.com Let's DO IT!

Jul 15, 2008 04:18 PM

I know it seems cold-hearted using one family's loss of their house as a hook on which to hang a discussion of public policy - and I apologize to Mr. Gregory and his family - but I feel strongly that it's a discussion that must take place. To previous posters - yes, I realize that nowhere is "safe". I lost a friend and my grandparents house in the Oakland Hills fire. Three years ago a fire in Carson City came within less than a mile of my house and less than a half mile of my parents house- and we live close to the center of town. But it's generally easier to defend denser urban areas than houses scattered in the forest or brush. So in my view urban areas, while not safe, are safe-er. And scattered rural subdivisions are not only more difficult to defend from wildfires, they're also more expensive to society in  other ways: counties have to maintain more and longer roadways. School districts have to deploy more buses over longer distances. Residents have to drive everywhere, polluting the air and burning more fossil fuels. And so on. I think this whole notion of living in the woods, close to nature, is a dream and a fantasy and it's time to wake up to the social, economic, and environmental costs of all those houses in the woods and brush far from town.

Jul 16, 2008 01:59 PM

To my cousin Gordon and his family: We are so saddened to hear of your loss.  What a tragedy.  Please know that our thoughts and prayers are with you all at this terrible time.  Although our meetings have been less than scarce, our hearts go out to you all.  I'm sure your above writings are only a part of the emotional strain.  May God Bless you and your family and help guide you to your new beginnings.

Love, your east coast cousins,

Lynda, Diane, David and George (Miles)