I was on a plane when the Tubbs Fire burned. This was 2017. A rumor ran through the airport that our flight was one of only a dozen to land that day, that the remaining hundreds of others were canceled, diverted, sent to destinations the people in them had not elected when they boarded for takeoff. We angled out of the air, which I felt in the belly, just as all I could see through my little window was a strange, white diffusion, an infinite nothing that held us, weightless, until the runway rushed up fast and the carriage of the airplane sank heavy onto its wheels. I was back for a visit, and nothing looked like the California I knew.
A year later, the Camp Fire smoke in Oakland for a month (the fire’s official name, “Camp,” although everyone I know refers to it by the name of the town it took, Paradise, like something from a bad fairy tale). I’d moved back by then, was living in a small blue house in the foothills of the city, my childhood home, the only place in Oakland I could afford. A listless haze stretched across a weak neon sun, the disc hanging like a dim button in the span. The view from the higher streets I knew from girlhood, its geography as reliable as any morning fog, was gone: no glimmering bay, no city skyline obscuring the ocean, no bridges crossing the water. The sky dawned each day an opaque, limpid pink, a curtain that disappeared the world somewhere off in the middle distance. It was something like what we remembered from Tubbs, but not exactly, still its own discreet event.
When, come the following fall, the Kincade Fire bloomed across the north bay, I wasn’t in California. I was at a residency in Wyoming. I called my partner each night, asked how he was, asked for his accounts of what was happening. At first he talked about his feelings, the same feelings I was having, too—shock, worry, an eerie itch that some fundamental stuff of what assured his world was under threat. As the days went on, the tone with which he spoke began to ease, something like normalcy creeping in. It’s fire season again, he said, a little earlier, bigger and faster, but basically, essentially, like last year.
We adapt so quickly. By fractional adjustments we arrive at a completely new understanding of ourselves, and by the stepwise process manage to do so without ever having realized any departure in the first place. Like the frog in water, temperature rising all the time, we repeat this phrase (of a pandemic, of climate events) new normal, as by its repetition we can will it into being, as if, by insisting we are already adjusted, we will be able to forget whatever normal once was, ignore whatever long distance we’ve come from that place.
Here is what they don’t tell you about the frogs: prior to the experiment, each specimen was lobotomized. The parts of their brains that would sense distress, or danger, that would trigger their reflex to jump to the glinting edge of the pot and, if they were lucky, escape to the cool safety of the countertop: these were gone. And so 2020 came to California, and the sky filled with ash, and I was left wondering whether I still had the parts necessary for survival.It’s a strange thing, to walk through the space you live in and try to decide which parts of it you’ll want most when the rest are gone.
I know California fires. In 1991, a firestorm tore through Oakland the likes of which the modern age had never seen. It surrounded the house I live in, but did not burn it down. I lived in it then, too; I was four, and when my parents evacuated us—when they stood at the second story windows of their friends’ house, and clutched each other, and watched the hills go orange—they were sure our house was gone. That they were wrong would be the relief of a lifetime: a yard of ash the following afternoon, the scorched roofs of the neighbors, and then around the bend, their own soot-stained miracle standing in the gray.
I have been writing about that fire, about California fires, for years now. In the basement-turned-apartment of that same house, I sit, and think, and read thousands of pages of government reports and first-hand eye witness accounts of the 1991 fire. I learn about the meteorology behind the Santa Ana winds. I call experts, the authors of papers I’ve tried to decipher and can’t, and cajole them into explaining their work to me over the phone. I pore through Wikipedia, trying to parse the basics of what qualifies an event as a firestorm, or a conflagration, or this new word we’re seeing more of all the time, “complex.” I watch fire officials in tiny videos on Twitter, listen as they explain that “complex” is the word for a series of fires in a given region, classified by “similar characteristics, starting time, and geography.” These officials offer the definition with stalwart authority, like it is some solution, like they are saying something other than when there are this many, we run out of names.
I track lists through the years, these lists ordered by structure-loss or death count or acres burned. The top of almost every one of these lists, now, is a fire from the last five years. For nearly 30 years before that, the top of many if not most was 1991.
I do this from a place of compulsion. Whether in writing, or in any other investigative tear, I do it from the blood, because, as another Californian once said, “In times of trouble, I had been trained since childhood, read, learn, work it up, go to the literature.” It is a skillset I’ve honed over years of higher education, critical thinking, in seminars and conferences and retreats. What is my command over my own life besides my ability to understand it? Understanding, a dissection: this is what I do best.We fit fire into the human narrative; we emphasize our power over it; we mold the reality of such an elemental force into something over which we have a mechanism, any mechanism, of control.
What I’m saying is that I should be ok with what is happening in California. I have, by increments, by the salve of information, adjusted myself to the temperature of the water. I should understand that what we’re seeing has been fated for a long time. Because I do understand that, and because to me, understanding means solution, my own persistent discomfort is a mystery.
What I have not examined, not really, is the impulse that starts the compulsive researching, thinking, writing, the instinctual seed, and whether the long years of obsession are actually an answer to what starting gun compels them forward. It’s hard to pin point, that moment, as fleeting as it is, in part because I’ve been kicking hard away from it for a long time now. But there’s something under there, some feeling all this cerebrum is working so hard to shore up.
People are more comfortable thinking themselves the arbiters of their own fortunes, rather than living every day with the close, clear reality that they are, broadly speaking, at the mercy of something larger. It’s why we insist on normalcy as we do, on narrative, on the familiar characters and the basics of what drive them. It’s why I gravitate toward information, toward “the literature,” the mechanism by which I happily conflate knowledge with control, by which I build a narrative from the past, and try to imprint it over what I think of the future.
We see this construction of narrative, and the habit of putting human agency at its center, even in the very most singular images of fire: the firefighter as he descends the ladder, exhausted, blackened but successful, his heroism over his shoulder in the form of a child or a pet or a fellow fireman. If he is not successful, and especially if he is lost to the fight, his failure is reassured by a grateful community, his memory immortalized with speeches and statues. I hold no position on whether firefighters are heroes or not, but rather my aim is to point out that, when we focus on fire, what we highlight is a person’s ability to fight it, or when they cannot, our ability to appropriately revere their memory. We fit fire into the human narrative; we emphasize our power over it; we mold the reality of such an elemental force into something over which we have a mechanism, any mechanism, of control.
The end of the Didion quote: “Information was control.” It that true? I’ve had my share of twelve step meetings. I’ve thought a lot about control, about attachment, about what it means to love with no guarantees. I am coming to understand that, no matter how diligently I try to acclimatize, no matter how meticulously I follow every kernel of information back to its source, I will never be comfortable with what is happening. This is my home; these are the people I love best in the world, and not a single thing I know about normalcy, or narrative, applies to us now.
Yesterday, I sat in the backyard. Ash fell from the sky like a fine, light snow, settled on the broad leaves of a squash plant gone sickly green against the orange air. My garden hadn’t seen the sun in days, and I didn’t know when it would again, but I watered, swept the deck, set the tools back in their corner. I went inside and pulled a polyester duffle bag out from under the bed. More than 30 years I’ve been a Californian, and I’d never packed a go-bag before.
It’s a strange thing, to walk through the space you live in and try to decide which parts of it you’ll want most when the rest are gone. I looked up some lists on the internet. I added several of their suggestions (clothing, snacks, documents, cash). When the essentials were accounted for, I pushed them aside to make room for the disembodied middle drawer of my writing desk, which I maneuvered, full of notebooks, beyond the open zipper and into the belly of the bag. I’d built the desk more than a decade ago, with my partner, back when we were barely more than children. It’s made of old growth redwood, pieces once near-rotting in his salvage pile, now planed and sanded fine, a relic of human achievement in its own right.
With the drawer, the bag is bulky, has a strange non-bag shape to it when I set it by the door to the kitchen, which is where it will stay for the rest of the season, or the year, or however long we wake each morning and see the very air reassuring us that normalcy is a dangerous proposition. At night, when the world seems almost familiar for the fact that we cannot see the sky, I lay awake and stare at the open space left in the desk, its dark, square absence stretching back into nothing. I listen to my partner’s heart beat under my ear, in his chest, count his breaths as they come, one after the next. There’s little else to do, I’ve found, at the end of the world.