Many years ago, when we lived in the Eastern Sierra, John and I were nearly evacuated from our home. That summer, the Rainbow Fire brought firefighters from all over the West to our small mountain town. Whether and how we’d have to leave was all people could talk about. For over a week, the sky was heavy with blood-red smoke that occluded the sun. We kept our truck packed with a few essentials, those we couldn’t bear to lose. Just in case. Firefighters saved the day then, as they will soon, I hope, in the hundreds of fires that rage now in the West.
Years away from that proximity to wildfire have made me forget how fire worry cloaks dry places in summer. When we lived in Pennsylvania, I can’t remember one fire scare that didn’t involve a structure. Floods were that region’s menace. In our seven years there, the shed in our backyard flooded three times. Next to a culvert which backed up every spring from heavy rain and idiotically designed drainage from a nearby golf course, the shed was full of things we’d carried from move to move. Memorabilia, furniture, yard tools. One March evening John and I forged through our backyard in chest-high water and hacked a section of fencing away so the water could drain instead of flooding the house.
In the Pacific Northwest, late summer means smoke from fires east and south. My favorite woods are closed down by the timber company in August and September. Just in case. But in general, for many years, I have spoken of fires as not that near to us. They are over there.
This year, fire has been on my mind pretty much since spring, when we decided to move. It is a story both short and long, too tedious to report here, and is also the reason for the radio silence in this blog space.
John and I have moved a lot in our together life, each time purposefully, each time surprised we’re doing it again, each time mystified about the way our belongings have multiplied like those gremlins in that awful 80s film. Moving means limbo and heartache, straddling the line between the love of one place and the hope about the next place. It’s exhausting, exhilarating, overwhelming, terrifying. The cleansing power of fire – a proper burn of most of our things and the party that would accompany it – was a solution I thought about more than I should have.
Before we moved, I ended up burning only a few things I’m not at liberty to report here, but suffice it to say there was (probably) too much beer involved. Not as a retardant but as liquid encouragement.
The second night in our new town, which is in the high desert, we were jolted awake by a thunderstorm and a fire raging in the hills above town. It was three o’clock in the morning. The seven fire trucks worth of sirens I counted were ultimately eclipsed by the din of thunder above us, which boomed so loud it rattled the glasses in the cabinets and made the dog hide behind the toilet (I’m not sure why this was a safe zone, but she felt that it was). The kids climbed into bed with us, and it would’ve felt like a scene from The Sound of Music, except that ash blasted into the house through the open windows until it occurred to us to close them.
The next morning we found all the surfaces in the house covered with chunky silt. Parked on the street, our car looked like it had been in a ticker tape parade.
This. Our new life. We’ve moved from the one of the rainiest places in the West to one of the driest, a climate John and I haven’t lived in for fifteen years. In the months that led up to being here, I made a habit of turning to John and telling him all our moving troubles and expenses could be solved by one thing.
“Oh yeah?,” he’d say, “What’s that? A brigade of leprechaun movers?”
His ideas were different every time. A team of furniture-hungry zombies. The world’s biggest yard sale with a complimentary deep-fried bar – Oreos, pickles, butter. A Dumptruck Demolition Derby, all the contestants loaded down with our household goods. The crowd could trash-pick our stuff when the event was over. The list was endless.
“Nothing so theatrical,” I’d say. “I was thinking a book of matches.”
“Your solution lacks imagination.”
I didn’t think we’d move again, at least not this far away. For months, while I packed up our belongings, I cursed the weight of them, the knickknacks and kitchen crap, the books (oh dear, I DO have a problem), the clothes and shoes and yard stuff and furniture. I fantasized about using this life change as an opportunity to become a family of ascetics. We could retrofit our trailer and practice micro living, everything we owned having more than one purpose. Downsizing! The next frontier!
With my truck: Eleven trips of donated goods, one trip to give away items to family members, several more trips to deliver plants in pots and those dug up from the yard to friends, one trip to the food bank. A massive neighborhood yard sale. And still, we had too much crap.
I mean, what do we really NEED my high school lettergirl jacket for? Or the skis John lost in an avalanche twenty years ago that we found the next spring? Or the newspapers from 1875 wrapped in wax paper my great aunt gave me?
It turns out downsizing is a tricky business. Even though we gave away so much, we still have too much to fit into our new house. (I’m mostly sure we’re not hoarders). So we did what all good Americans do and put the overage of our lives in a storage unit. Boxes upon boxes of it, where it will probably mold overwinter in the rainy Northwest, the plywood walls of the unit wet with condensation as so often happens, and then we’ll probably have to get rid of it anyway. Maybe we’ll learn our lesson this time.
Now that the world is burning all around us, the thought of lighting matches doesn’t bring me much joy. Each morning we wake to see what our day will bring. Some days it is a “red flag warning” (a trifecta of wind, lightning and plenty of tinder). Others it is an AQI (Air Quality Index) level Orange or Red (UNHEALTHY). Above Red are Purple and Maroon, levels that are “HAZARDOUS.” We plan our time outdoors accordingly. Morning is best. In the afternoon it’s hot as balls, and the air reeks of fire and burns our lungs.
The kids have begun to ask what would make the world reach Purple or Maroon, and I don’t trust myself to answer, because of course I’ve imagined something apocalyptic already that involves much more than wildfires. As a family, we keep our fingers crossed that fire will not be the thing to get us into those foreboding AQI colors.
Truthfully, now that I’m a high desert dweller again, I can’t make the joke about needing a book of matches without thinking about the loss of life and property this year’s fire season has already cost.
But at some point we’ll have to face the music with the rest of our things, and I’m pretty sure the leprechauns are not going to help us out. I guess I’ll stow my matches for another time. Just in case. For when the rains come (I hear they do here), for when there’s not such a constant reminder of how nature is the boss of us. For our next move.
Or maybe I’ll put my matches away for good. Now that I’m thinking about it, John’s Dumptruck Demolition Derby idea isn’t half bad. We DO have a county fair here…