A few days ago, a lifetime ago, I made the drive from San Francisco to the north of Lake Tahoe, where the leaves are starting to turn. The air had the perfect chill of fall, crisp and tangy as the skin of an apple. The lake, so recently receded, now fairly bulges with water, the beach narrowed to a mere strip of sand where the cold water laps at your feet, as if greedy to take more ground after the long drought of the past five years.
The temperature was 39 when we woke in the morning – chilly enough for a fire in the kitchen woodstove, which I stoked with giant resiny pine cones collected from the back yard. The faint smoky smell of the fire, of warmth, was homey and comforting in the dark cold of the early morning (this is a thought I will find unbelievable in a matter of hours). By the time the fire died away mid-morning, the day was already warming up nicely; with the chill burned off, a large rectangle of sun beckoned me to take my laptop to the deck to continue working outside, and I added the muffled tap tapping of my keyboard to the sounds of the little chicories curiously scurrying the perimeter of the deck, and the scolding of the blue jays.
What a difference a day makes.
Today, I am back in San Francisco and wearing an N95 Rated Industrial Respirator – not just when I am outdoors but indoors too. According to the AirNow.Gov site, the air is unhealthy but I don’t need the site to tell me that – from my window I can see all the way to the Marin headlands, and while it is often a view obscured by the fog implacably making its way over the bridge to spill into the bay, today it is obscured by the dirty yellow-brown smoke of the wildfires that began raging through the wine country region just four days ago, and continue mostly uncontained today.
One by one friends from the North Bay check in on Facebook, many having been forced to evacuate and waiting, agonizingly, to see which way the wind would blow, and would their house, their home, and everything in their life that makes it their life be spared? Pictures triggered by motion detectors on abandoned properties show smoke swirling like some sinister noir film.It is hard to know what to hope for, for whichever way the wind chooses, somebody loses.
Whole neighborhoods burn away, leaving only the foundations of houses in a matter of hours. Here and there a house is spared by nothing more than the fire’s caprice, standing surreally among leafless blackened dead trees and ground that still smokes.
Aided by sixty mile an hour winds that flatten the peaks of the blaze into roaring, horizontal sheets of flame, the tinder-dry vegetation that blankets the terroir that is the wine country makes it easy for the fire to jump roads and roofs, ditches, fences and fields.
The fire is voracious, caring not what it consumes; it blows whichever way the wind takes it, and takes whatever is in its path. In seconds a hundred year old barn is a fiery skeleton of intricately burning wood, then gone. Four hundred people are declared missing. Some have been found, like the woman, 99, and her husband of 100. No one could have guessed at their their 75th wedding anniversary this past March, that in just six months’ time they’d be leaving the world as they spent most of it: together and comforted by the presence of the other in the last, knowing seconds. Less than ten miles away, another couple in their 70s shelter the night in a swimming pool while flames leap thirty feet into the air, engulfing the vacation home they had been staying in; he survives, but she dies in his arms as the sun rises. When I read their story, and how, in the morning, after she has died, he must leave her to walk down the mountain and find help, quietly asking her permission to borrow her shoes (his have been burned up), my heart threatens to crack wide open.
On that trip to Tahoe last week, we passed through Santa Rosa on a perfect Indian summer day and I wrote about how the hills of the wine country glowed pale gold against a light denim sky, and now less than one week later that same landscape is like the blackened, burned, ashy remains of a war zone. Back in the city we are miles from the destruction of 170,000 acres of homes, trees, wineries, businesses, cars, family fortunes, dreams, lives, but the smell is nevertheless pervasive both outside and in, seeping around the edges of windows and trickling through the door cracks.
I’ve been indoors for the past three hours, the steam from my breath behind the mask fogging my glasses, my hands smelling vaguely of smoke. I click over to a website monitoring the path of the fire; we are on standby, the husband and I, water and moving blankets packed and ready to drive across the bridge into the smoky throat of the valley to lend a hand to save the ranch and orchards of a family member, if we can. We anxiously check the direction of the wind, which changes by the hour.
The fire line is just two miles from their property but I cannot, will not bring myself to imagine the flames reaching that front door I have passed through so many times. I picture the house, silent, hushed, in the smoke-swirled darkness. It is filled with beautiful things but what pops to mind are the ordinary and familiar. In the kitchen, the wooden fruit bowl cleverly carved into a pig sits on the counter. There is a pillow with the face of a rabbit that leans on the arm of the couch in the living room. In the bathroom, a series of three delicate bud vases that always hold a sprig of lavender from flower beds that graciously bracket the length of driveway. In winter, the big ceramic bowl on the counter kept filled with chestnuts from the trees out back.
For now, all roads leading into the inferno are closed, and towns are literally emptied save for drifts of smoke and the soft rain of ash that covers everything for miles.
Yesterday I drove across the bridge, the sun shimmering prettily in the particulated air. In Sausalito the smoke tang of the air is more pronounced. After my meeting, I stop for coffee at a cafe frequented more by locals than tourists. At the next table, a woman has melted gold jewelry wrapped in a scarf; she is on her way to sell it to a broker for cash. I read about a family visiting Santa Rosa, their host’s house burning up along with their passports, cell phones, and identification, the ripple effect of the disaster already spreading. How will we get home, they wonder, even as my social media feeds fill with pictures of friends of friends standing on the ashes of their homes with dazed expressions. A local newspaper features a picture of a melted safe in the blackened corpse of a home. A local TV reporter talks to a farmer about his thousands of acres of cannabis plants, all uninsured, not to mention thousands of dollars in cash, now gone, up in smoke.
By the time I return to my car, a walk of a hundred yards, my eyes are gritty, my clothes stink and I doubt I will ever again describe the smell of woodsmoke in winter as “homey”. Homicidal is more like it. Coughing through the drive home, radio on, NPR is doing a story on Puerto Rico, which lies drowned and in darkness thousands of miles away. In my rearview mirror there is only smoke.
The fire has not begun to be finished; the damage has not even begun to be tallied. With every sweep of the second hand around the clock, lives are irrevocably changed. Rain is not forecast for weeks. The smoke creeps over everything, reddening even the eye of the sun.