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.
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.