29 August 2009

Smoke from a distant fire

For those looking for up-to-date information on the current Southern California fires, the L.A. Times has been one of the best sources. For those with specific interest in the Station Fire, you may also want to check the La Canada website, the Incident Information System or the sites of other affected communities.

The air is sour with smoke and heat; the sun is obscured by an ashy, greyish white haze.

When I climbed out of the car in Yuma a couple of weeks ago, the sizzling day melted my muscles down to my bones. I find Arizona heat luxurious and my body relaxes into it like it relaxes into a bath. It's a heat to be wary of, it can be a heat that kills, but if you know it, it can be a heat that welcomes you.

Today, the California heat is merely oppressive, surly, filled with fire and fear, and plumes of smoke so enormous, they can be seen from space.

We're watching the progress of the Station Fire with no little fear, though not because we live nearby, not anymore. But we have family who lives in that area, right at the evacuation boundary. We used to live just a street below the evacuation zone.

(I say below because the boundary is on the top of a ridge, and our street was one street below the ridgeline. Only a few days ago, lunching with a friend, I noted that I really don't miss living on a hillside with only one very narrow street as my way out.)

I find myself testing the idea of that old house, the infernally crabby house, reduced to ash and wooden bone and lonely chimney, testing the idea the way one would probe a tooth that might be aching. I didn't like living there, but there is history in those walls, my story, the story of my children who began their lives within its confines. What would its erasure mean?

It's a terrible house, a ranch house thrown up like so many of its compatriots in the area as cheap housing in the 1950s. The wind screamed through it; earthquakes shook it to the foundation. It had a septic tank, for crying out loud; the sewer didn't come to town until after we left.

But there are good memories, too, of dinner parties, and sitting on the front lawn with the son on summer evenings watching the birds come home to trees while we waited for his daddy to get home too, and walking the curving road around our mesa, on the lookout for deer and quail.

We are no strangers to this whole process. When I was pregnant with the son, we watched as the fire of 1993 crept closer and closer until it was only half a canyon away, standing at the same chain link fence bordering the national forest where the news crews stood reporting a day ago. It seemed the fire was very much a living entity, something I would see again when we were piloted through a mountain pass in Montana while a forest fire raged around us. I walked away from the fence that night and I remember how real the possibility of losing everything was. But my thought processes were crystal: with few exceptions, everything was replaceable. I quietly gathered the things that couldn't be replaced: photos and documents and our few valuables and put them by the door to the garage, along with the dog's leash and the cat's carrier, our car keys and wallets, in case the call came in the night. I stared at the tiny pile, and went to bed with no qualms.

So why the sentimentality now?

I suppose if it were my job to rebuild, it would be one thing. Oh, it would be a nightmare, I know, but the memories would be mine and new memories would be a part of the evil sewage-filled ground. It saddens me to think someone else, some strangers, might lose everything they have to random bad luck. Sad, too, that the part of the house that was us would become nothing more than just another ghost on the California landscape.

Go listen to some music: "Smoke From a Distant Fire" from the album Smoke From a Distant Fire by Sanford & Townsend. It's so hard to know, based on media description, what exactly is going on. All we really know is that 31 sq. miles have burned thus far. As usual, it's watch and wait.

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