In the middle of the night, sirens startle me awake. My ears prick to the wind. Oak branches whip the sky like Medusa’s head of snakes—a raspy hiss. Plastic pool chairs scuttle across asphalt. Beside me in bed, my wife’s breath halts, sensing, before the cadence shifts back into slumber. I write in red ink while she sleeps.
It’s fire season in California. October, my birthday month. Fall was always my favorite. But that was before.
In July we spent two weeks camping at Lassen Volcanic National Park. A black bear with a cinnamon coat ambled past our hammock under a canopy of Jeffrey pines, which reached toward heavens the deepest blue. The firmament sparkled with night stars and a comet was visible. But as we summited ten-thousand-foot Lassen Peak, a giant smoke plume sprouted in the distance like a nuclear mushroom cloud—harbinger on the horizon.
In mid-August, following some five dozen wildfires throughout the state, dry lightning sparked the Woodward fire at Point Reyes National Seashore, just north of San Francisco. A few days before, Kristen and I hiked the eponymous trail to the coast, binoculars in hand, watching humpback whales lunge-feed offshore. Two firefighters on the hillside where we had picnicked were rescued by helicopter amid five thousand burning acres.
Later that week, through our farmhouse windows, we watched lightning slice the sky. Electricity sizzled from each direction. Every few minutes, a roll of thunder. Never rain. By morning the Walbridge fire—part of the LNU Lightning Complex that would span five counties—spilled into northern Sonoma County. “The downstairs bathroom is clean and the guest bedroom is ready,” I told friends evacuating Geyserville. We live forty miles south, on a former chicken ranch my wife’s grandparents purchased in 1941. Eight decades ago, the region was deemed the World’s Egg Basket. Now it boasts the newest wine appellation. A rancher leases the pastures to graze sheep, which trim the green grass in winter and spring when—or if—it rains. From summer into autumn, the fields turn to tinder, the color and texture of straw. When the stalks no longer serve the dietary needs of the ruminants, the sheep farmer mows them down to stave off the threat of flames. Masked against the coronavirus and the smoke, our friends brought produce harvested last-minute from their garden and set down a basket of zinnias on our front porch. We had sheltered the elder couple during the previous year’s Kincaid fire, but this year they ate their meals outdoors, fearing COVID-19 even more than the toxic smoke.
Toward the end of September, the Glass fire began. What started as a small vegetation burn near St. Helena quickly spread into five hundred acres on the far side of the Sonoma Mountain range. The hills, normally in view from my office window, were entirely obscured by heavy drift smoke. Official reports assured us there was no threat to our county at the time. The conflagration was unlikely to reach across the Napa Valley floor.
That night I dreamt I was trapped, soon to be engulfed. Helplessly I watched the fire descend like a waterfall down the hillside, igniting trees and rooftops. I could feel the heat, the immense heat, consuming the walls of our tenuous shelter. In the dream, as in life during the pandemic, I was still in sweatpants, my disheveled hair unwashed. We had no bags packed, no essential documents gathered. How much time did we have, I wondered. There were no evacuation orders or frantic knocks at the door. “Kristen! Kristen!” I called, over and over. But my wife was nowhere to be found. Suddenly she appeared, opening all the windows. “I just want some fresh air,” she said, seemingly unaware of the imminent danger.
Overnight, the Glass fire expanded into the largest blaze in the San Francisco Bay Area. Flying embers ignited the hills east of Santa Rosa. At one o’clock in the morning, more than four thousand residents of Oakmont, a senior living community, were evacuated. According to a weather.com news report: “Many of them were in their pajamas and robes as they shuffled toward the buses under a glowing orange sky.” In a replay of previous years, the bumper-to-bumper traffic crawled toward the highway.
My mother’s rental home, situated at the southern edge of the encroaching flames, stood among some three thousand residences in the mandatory evacuation zone. Although we live just thirty minutes away, I have never been to her house—not this one. I typed her address into the live fire map. A black dot marked its location. I clicked the plus sign to magnify her street, which was surrounded by a plethora of red dots, each marking hot spots. When my wife entered the room, I pointed at the computer screen, speechless. It was Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. Kristen cradled my head to her chest as my tears rained down.
I do not know whether my mother occupied a cot at an emergency shelter or slept in her car with her cats. For the fourth year, I did not offer her refuge.
The firestorm continued for several weeks, the sky a white sheet flapping in the wind. Kristen felt desperate to escape the smoke and falling ash, which dusted the raspberry leaves like snow. But with so much of the West on fire, where could we go? Southern Oregon was battling a destructive fire path that led straight up the Pacific Highway, while Colorado simultaneously fought its three largest fires in state history. Add Utah, Idaho, and Wyoming to the list. Escape was illusory.
The Glass fire consumed over sixty-seven thousand acres and more than fifteen hundred structures, making it the tenth most destructive California wildfire to date. As residents returned to their neighborhoods, supply stations were set up with face masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, water bottles, goggles, shoe covers, and a bucket to sift through the remains.
“Maybe we’re just going to have to make them pay for it because they don’t listen to us,” President Trump told his supporters at a rally, threatening once again to withhold federal aid. In late October, the Trump administration rejected the governor’s request for disaster relief—an estimated $346 million—for wildfire recovery. Later, the White House reversed the decision.
The blaze was not fully contained until the morning after my birthday.
My wife and I celebrated the end of my fiftieth year on the Sonoma coast. Returning inland, we drove past jewel-toned vineyards glistening in autumn light and dined outside in Healdsburg. It was unseasonably warm, with Red Flag Warnings of extreme fire danger. Parched conditions from a nearly decade-long drought meant any wildfire was likely to spread rapidly. Four days later, power lines near the tourist town sparked the Kincade fire. On Saturday morning, the sheriff’s office issued the first evacuation orders, effective immediately. Our friends were among one-hundred-eighty thousand people to flee the region. They drove twenty minutes south to stay with her sister and brother-in-law—also friends of ours—who were renting yet another house after the Tubbs fire, two years prior, incinerated the self-designed home they inhabited for more than three decades. Soon they were joined by their visiting brother and his wife whose prescheduled flight from Seattle was the final arrival before the local airport shut down.
The National Weather Service issued a High Wind Watch in effect that evening through Monday morning. Dangerously strong offshore winds were anticipated to reach up to eighty miles per hour at higher elevations—historic levels, given their strength and duration—combined with critically low humidity. We urged the three couples to come stay with us in case of more evacuations or power shut-offs, as thousands were already without electricity. They packed up, then waited for another Nixle alert.
At three a.m., their evacuation order came through. My mother’s neighborhood in Oakmont, located in Zone 6, was also mandated to get out.
“It’s go-time!” Kristen said, leaping up when our friends texted to confirm their departure. We set up the sofa bed, put out extra towels, and expanded the dining room table. Thirty minutes later, three vehicles crunched along the gravel drive. They were as excitable as children on Halloween.
“You’re safe now,” I repeated, but they wouldn’t stop checking their devices for updates. “Screens off,” I finally said. “Everyone get some sleep.”
The next day, Kristen grilled leg of lamb while the air was clear. Someone napped in the warmth of the window seat. The men watched football and the women took a walk. That evening we feasted, including fresh-caught salmon brought down from Washington. Everyone got a bit drunk on wine. It felt like an early Thanksgiving, each of us grateful, celebratory even.
“You’re my angel crew,” one of the sisters told us. When the Tubbs fire raged, she and her husband had survived the night in a neighbor’s pool while a sculpted angel watched over them.
The nearest town’s seven evacuation shelters, including temporary centers opened by faith-based and non-profit organizations, reached full capacity. President Trump threatened to cut off disaster relief, despite the catastrophic destruction. “Every year, as the fire’s rage & California burns, it is the same thing—and then [Governor Newsom] comes to the Federal Government for $$$ help. No more!” he tweeted.
We purchased new blankets and pillows and dropped them off at a donation center at the Petaluma fairgrounds. A food truck stood near the volunteer tent where holistic health practitioners offered massage and acupuncture, free of charge to first responders and fire refugees who wandered around in a daze.
I never heard from my mother.
In July, a former fire chief and neighbor who had lost his home in the Tubbs fire mowed his lawn on a dry, hot day. A spark ignited the property next door to our rental cottage. Propane tanks exploded from the outbuildings and fire singed the redwood trees. We were away on a trip, but another neighbor, also a firefighter, unlatched the farm gate and hooked up a water hose, soaking the grass perimeter to create a barrier. We returned home to find paper-thin blackened strips, carried high on the wind, floating on the pool cover.
In November, the Camp fire tore through Butte County, replacing the Tubbs fire as the most destructive wildfire in California history. With some eighty-five fatalities—most of them over the age of sixty—it was deemed America’s deadliest blaze in a century. A fourth sibling of the friends we would shelter lost his home among the fourteen thousand that burned to the ground in Paradise. When President Trump visited the decimated town to witness what he called “total devastation,” he spoke without a respirator mask as ash contaminated the air. By then, twelve thousand residents had already registered with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for financial aid. Two months later Trump would tweet: “Unless [the state] get their act together, which is unlikely, I have ordered FEMA to send no more money.”
In the dozen years I’ve occupied this land with Kristen, some of them with her parents, we’ve seen nearly half as many fires. First came a small electrical fire in the shop, a plywood structure with an aluminum roof and old wiring, where my father-in-law was using an electric saw. Months after he died from a pulmonary embolism, I was working in the garden during a heat wave when two fire trucks blasted past. My mother-in-law and I ran down the farm road to survey the damage. A large metal container of compost had spontaneously combusted in the native plant nursery, and a line of flames shot across a strip of grass, setting an empty sheep barn on fire. Insurance did not cover the building’s demolition. Shortly after Kristen’s mother passed away, we were awakened by the blare of sirens to find another neighbor’s barn burning two short fields away. The crackle and snap is most frightening at night, as the lack of shadow and definable scope magnify a fire’s ferocity and dimension. In the dark we watched firefighters dampen the blaze until the smoking structure charred into skeletal remains.
Ten days before my birthday, while hiking the Nakasendō, an ancient route in Japan, Kristen and I received news of the Tubbs fire. We had just visited Magome, an Edo-era post town of wooden homes that were repeatedly rebuilt. A museum displayed antique firefighting equipment and a map that diagrammed each nineteenth-century fire.
When you pushed a button, a rectangle lit up in neon to outline its borders—not unlike the live fire maps that would become ubiquitous in California.
One couple we knew fled their hillside home above Santa Rosa just past midnight. After driving through flames, they made it safely into town with their two dogs, stopping in the parking lot of a market. Within moments they heard vehicles exploding, the popping sounds growing ever closer. They took off again and reached the safe haven of a hotel. Then the firestorm jumped the freeway, chasing them further south.
Kristen texted: Go to our house right now! Dogs are fine. The extra key is in the garage. Please make yourselves at home.
As they drove up our driveway, entered our home, and took in its tranquility, they breathed a sigh of relief for the first time. The following day, while the firestorm razed their neighborhood, they went shopping to replenish lost clothes, food, and supplies. “Words can’t adequately express our gratitude,” they told us, sending photos of the dogs curled up to sleep in our light-filled living room.
That morning I received an email with the subject line: Your Mom Needs Help. Our city is in flames, informed a friend of my mother’s who contacted me on her behalf. The friend’s family had offered them both temporary shelter, with six people packed into a small home. Now a second evacuation was imminent.
Your mother is hopeful she and her two cats can stay with you for a couple days. She would love for you to take her in.
“That’s a big ask,” said my therapist, who accepted my international call.
Following a fourteen-year estrangement from my mother, I spent the previous year forging a bridge across our divide. I had agreed to meet her for lunch or tea—always in public spaces—half a dozen times. Then, around Christmas, thinking we were out of town, she showed up unexpectedly, driving around the property. She wanted to see where she had never been invited. After I confronted her on the boundary violation she defended her actions by emailing a vindictive rant; she described the place as “a mess of potholes and muddy, crappy SHIT of stuff” and called both my wife and me bitches. Her rage and blame were nothing new, but I was struck by her final dismissal: I am NOT your mother. You are NOT my child, she stated. Live with that. After the therapy session I replied that we were unable to accommodate my mother.
Meanwhile, the president used @realDonaldTrump to tweet about “fake” news, Obamacare, the strong economy, crooked Hillary, obstructionist democrats, the border wall, and NFL players who refused to stand for the national anthem. His video comments about the California wildfires, in praise of first responders and FEMA, lasted less than thirty seconds.
While riding the train back to Tokyo, Kristen and I read the news story about our friends in the swimming pool. When fire blocked their only exit at the end of a steep road, they ran downhill through burning woods. It was the husband who remembered the pool, nearly half a mile away. Don’t jump yet, he said, considering the intense heat emanating from a towering redwood tree against the chill of the frigid water. Wait. Now!
When they weren’t underwater they used their T-shirts as a second skin, protection against errant embers. “To stay warm, they held each other. They stood back to back. They spoke about their deep love for each other and their family,” a Los Angeles Times reporter wrote.
Throughout the night our friends watched their neighbor’s house burn to the ground. They watched the immovable moon. Their two grown daughters called each other, hour after hour.
When the inferno finally receded, the couple warmed their shivering bodies near the sizzling cement. At daybreak they stumbled, wet and barefoot, through smoldering ruins, her scorched cell phone their single possession. The angel statue on the patio was the only thing untouched.
According to the article, “It was a beautiful October night. The sky was clear.”
Two weeks before Trump loses the election for the forty-sixth presidency of the United States, I listen, vigilant, to the Furies of night. Wind chimes clang like an angry toddler banging pots and pans. The hammock’s chain slaps its metal stand, a staccato rhythm clapping. Each gust rises and recedes in waves. I lie suspended between sets on the surface of this turbulent sea, waiting.