The night of a dry lightning storm in Northern California I woke up terrified, and from my bedroom window I watched relentless spears of lightning shatter the sky, Zeus or Jupiter very upset, fire from darkness splintering the land, and I knew immediately we couldn’t all survive this. People. Critters. Houses. Trees. Max rolled over in bed next to me. There’s going to be a fire, I said. We got up. It was four-thirty a.m.
I lived on the north slope of a thickly forested hill with Max, my partner, in a small white house under large red trees. Our road was a single-lane dead-end. Down the hill there was a ramshackle neighborhood of cabins. Upslope, past the leaning fence of our yard, there grew three hundred acres of mixed evergreen forest, which was privately owned and chronically neglected.
From here the woods spread west into thousands more acres of Northern California landscape: more trees, more hills, small groupings of homes perched between. Farther west, where the coastal range stopped, shrubby slopes descended to the Pacific Ocean. My extended backyard.
Wind had woken me before the lightning; it rattled the single-pane windows in our bedroom. Above the redwoods fathomless clouds lingered like silence. From inside them the furious sky hurled its energy at millions of acres of dry, deep wood. I had never seen so many lightning strikes. The blades of electricity bisected the air, the earth, everything.
My insides were set abuzz. My lungs contracted like they’d just hit cold water; my jaw compacted into itself; my eyes searched for purchase in the uneasy dark. Every muscle in my pelvis, from psoas to sphincter, felt as though it had been turned to wood. Somewhere inside my brain every synapse fired, and I was thrust into a whorl of anxiety: go, go, go.
The storm continued. Max and I ping-ponged between each window in our house, trying to track the lightning and gauge its proximity to the roof; the large, open yard; the 150-foot-tall redwood trees surrounding it; the thousands more trees in the hills. We opened the door and stood on the back porch beneath the eaves and looked up. The canopy blocked our view of the dive-bombing sky.
Redwoods were the tallest plants on the planet, older than almost everything. Since childhood I had felt safe beneath the shelter of these grand trees. I often thought of them as my protectors, and myself as their comrade. The redwoods where I lived—coast redwoods, Sequoia sempervirens—were second-and third-growth, as most in the area were, due to past logging.
They were probably over a hundred years old; just babies, in redwood years. The trees lived together with us in mutual silence, and when it was windy they swayed gracefully above the roses I’d planted in the clearings between them, as though they were keeping watch.
Despite my feelings of comradeship, past storms and human history showed that the trees and I were in fact liabilities to each other, not guardians; anyway, we couldn’t protect each other from this. Lightning was inescapable, an elemental force unleashed. It struck and struck, splintered and shone.
My skin bristled as the atmospheric pressure plummeted, but bizarrely this lightning had arrived without rain. The storm was near to us, very near, and every time the thunder clapped I counted one, two, three inside my head to clock its proximity. But the expected crescendo of every thunderstorm, the deluge, never came. Instead, electric spears kept plunging toward the earth and fear kept rising inside my body, and the two connected in my brain and, perhaps, never came untied.
We went back inside. Max looked online for reports of new fires, and I put on a sports bra, in case I had to run from something. I then walked to the closet where we kept our camping gear and started to take stuff out. Although we’d evacuated from a wildfire the prior year, we didn’t have an emergency kit—a go bag, in disaster-preparedness parlance, which was fast becoming everyday lingo all over the world.
Here, fires didn’t usually happen until autumn. In recent years I had noticed less predictability to the seasons, but by August the land was reliably dry, the hills a mélange of browns and yellows. August nights, however, were moist; in the mornings the fog crept out of the valleys and back toward the ocean like it was hungover. By September the marine layer would relax its grip as the Diablo winds, named in part for their capacity to do bad things, began to roll over the mountains from the east, and the oak leaves and fescue would then shimmer like hot gold.
Historically, in summer in coastal Northern California, it did not rain. It did not thunder. Lightning was for other seasons. But there was so much fire in that sky. It had to land somewhere.
I did laps around the house, carrying things from closet to bed. Tote bag, sleeping bag, head lamp. Car registration, my asthma inhaler, passports. In the closet we had an old, cheap backpack with a broken strap that had been my feeble earthquake kit when I had lived alone in San Francisco. I found it, cursed its uselessness, and tossed it on the floor near the front door anyway.
I had read that in the extreme heat of a wildfire scenario, synthetic clothing could fuse to your skin, whereas natural fibers burned clean. I positioned my leather clogs by the door and fingered the fabric of my pajamas. Cotton. I added to the pile a wool sweater, in case it ever got cold again, although we’d been in a severe heat wave all week. The lightning kept crashing and the electricity flickered, but held.
Max reported back from the internet: no fires yet. Wild lightning pics, though. I kept packing. I thought I could smell sulfur. Somewhere in my body, a habitual response had already taken control. The world was flexing its power over me, and I knew from experience that when this happened it was important to be quick, be ready, then be gone.
At some point our local firehouse siren moaned its air-raid lament. I checked my phone. I checked again. No notifications. But the siren meant that someone nearby had called 911, which meant that somewhere near my home, trees were being cracked open; power lines were falling; small fires were certainly starting.
We could only hope that the volunteer fire department was finding them all. Our next-door neighbor was on the VFD; I usually relied on him for intel about storms or fires. I looked out my kitchen window and across the half-acre slope of the yard toward his driveway, but his pickup truck was already gone.
Max joined me in packing. We didn’t talk much. My thunder counts grew shorter in number, then began again to extend. The lightning stopped, eventually. The sirens quieted. Then the light dawned and it was gray, then, bizarrely, there was a very small amount of rain, more thunder, and for a refreshing moment the atmosphere felt like August in Pennsylvania that summer when I was fifteen years old and away from California for the first time and the thunder rolled across the green landscape every afternoon and two different boys wanted to kiss me. But this moisture was anomalous, limited, I knew. It couldn’t make magic happen.
It was 2020, the first year of the coronavirus pandemic. There were no vaccines. On Earth’s surface it was about one degree Fahrenheit warmer, on average, than it had been when I was a child. In the United States a climate denier with white-supremacist leanings occupied the highest political office.
Around the world people and places were having a hard time. It was a year of overwhelm: In January flash floods had displaced sixty thousand households in Indonesia. I had been told to stop hugging my friends in late February, and we’d stopped going inside one another’s houses in March. That April unseasonable wildfires had burned in northern climates such as Scotland, Poland, and in Ukraine inside the exclusion zone at the site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. By May the virus had killed one hundred thousand people in the United States alone.
In June a wave of protests swept the country in response to ongoing murders of Black people by the police. The U.S. mail stopped arriving promptly sometime in July. In early August an inland hurricane called a derecho had decimated parts of the Midwest, causing $11 billion in damage and destroying nearly seven million trees in Iowa, and it had barely made national headlines.
By this time in the age of humans, it was a known truth that extreme weather events were linked to irreversible changes in the climate—which were caused by increased greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere, a direct effect of burning fossil fuels and a slightly less direct effect of capitalism—and that nobody with power seemed to be doing anything differently.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, then home to 7.7 million people, it felt to many like the summer season had seen higher temperatures than usual. The rents were up, too: average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment was $3,000 and rising; there were roughly twenty-eight thousand people living without houses in the region. In Sonoma County, two hours north of San Francisco, my mortgage was $2,800 a month. Max, a union organizer, and I, a literary magazine editor, worked from home now.We returned home to work on our go bag, a term I disliked because it was grammatically awkward, but I also disliked the alternate, bug-out bag, which made me think of doomsday preppers.
Behind the house in which we lived, the forest trails, known only to locals, had lately on weekends become as crowded as the beach. One neighbor had taken to patrolling the paths for interlopers, mad with territorial defensiveness. There were rumors of increased crimes. People were out of work. People were bored. The air was thick with worry. In many ways, a freak lightning storm fit right in.
That Sunday morning of the storm, after it became light, Max and I checked news and fire maps online but didn’t see anything notable. We put on our jauntiest cloth masks and went for bagels at our favorite outdoor café. We made small talk about the eerie weather with the proprietors, a cheery couple in their thirties who cured their own lox, and traded rumors with café regulars about small, lightning-adjacent catastrophes—spot fires that were easily extinguished, power fritzes that were soon restored.
We returned home to work on our go bag, a term I disliked because it was grammatically awkward, but I also disliked the alternate, bug-out bag, which made me think of doomsday preppers, who in the year 2020 in America were often also racist separatists and whom, as a fellow white person, I felt it important to not share vocabulary with.
We spent the day packing the bag without the appropriate moniker: first-aid kit, camping equipment, cash, two kinds of masks (cloth masks, which at the time were recommended for Covid-19, and N95 masks, for smoke), and a medical handbook called Where There Is No Doctor that an anarchist friend gave me a decade back. We joked that we weren’t sure whether we were packing for a potential wildfire evacuation or an apocalypse, and really don’t they go together, one after another?
The next day, a Monday, I flaked off work and drove around doing errands. In the nearest big town, about twenty minutes east, I got more Band-Aids and refilled my pain meds, for the go bag. On the way home I sped west down Occidental Road with the radio up and the windows down in the oddly humid heat, singing along to David Bowie’s “Five Years.” As Bowie and I hit the high notes, I felt a peculiar sense of triumph, as though I had done something to merit the luck of not having my home catch on fire.
By the time I got home Max had made dinner, which we ate on the deck. When no large fires made their presence known to us that evening, we left the go bag by the front door and went to bed. The air was still sticky and stormy. There was more lightning in the region overnight, but if it came to my house, I didn’t wake for it.
The wildfires that came to be known as the 2020 Lightning Complex fires started during these unusual August storms, but the lightning had struck deep in unpeopled places and so humans didn’t really know about them for another day or so. As I ran errands and felt alive, the fires spread.
In his book The Pyrocene, fire historian Stephen J. Pyne wrote that because fire moved through biomass and consumed life like it was hungry, fire—much like a virus—was often attributed the qualities of a living thing. The language widely used to describe fire further personified it as a thing possessed of violent appetites: fire devoured and raged. But, Pyne wrote, fire was not a thing; it was a reaction. The science of fire was at its core a simple equation: when fuel, heat, and oxygen met a source of ignition, fire happened.
There were generally two entities that caused fires: people (who in California in the twenty-first century were responsible for ninety-five percent of all wildfires), and lightning (five percent). Although technically lava and other geologic reactions could start fires, too, lightning had been the primary source of fire on the planet named Earth since it began. Lightning, with its force and unstoppability, was what made fire so powerful. It was the impetus of a raw element sent from the heavens, fire and brimstone, older than time.
When lightning hit a tree, it might cleave the primary trunk open like a wound and simmer inside it before shooting up the tree’s limbs and out into the air seeking further fuel. Or, the force of the strike might simply knock flaming bits of wood into the passing wind. Either way, the tree was transformed into a torch.
Over seventy-two hours that stormy August, more than ten thousand individual lightning strikes occurred over a landscape that was overgrown, dry from drought, and experiencing record-breaking heat and high winds. The resulting 650 wildfires that were big and serious enough to be named by the fire suppression authorities were simply a matter of odds, earth science at work. But they seemed to behave more like something out of myth.
Northern California was a very large place. When fire came to the northeastern side of the Sacramento Valley at the edge of the Sierra Crest—about a five-hour drive from my house—it delivered upon the watersheds and canyons of Butte and Plumas Counties twenty-one sizable conflagrations that came together to be called the North Complex. There the fire fed on ponderosa pines, toyon, and blue oaks, in the process killing deer and bears and sixteen humans.
Up in the emerald forests of Mendocino County, the August Complex fires began their ravenous progress toward the burning of what would become a million acres of trees, consuming the habitats of an untold number of spotted owls in the process. Near Silicon Valley, south and east of the city of San Jose, twenty fires that joined as the SCU Complex vaulted from grass to manzanita shrubs to oak trees, scattering in their wake feral pigs, mountain lions, and red-legged frogs.In those same mountains, fire flew with vigor through groves of thousand-year-old redwoods, up to pine ridges, then back downhill across coastal scrub and farmlands, all the way to the sparkling Pacific Ocean.
Between that valley and the ocean lay a coastal mountain range where forty-three years earlier my mother had given birth to me in a trailer next to a geodesic dome. In those same mountains, fire flew with vigor through groves of thousand-year-old redwoods, up to pine ridges, then back downhill across coastal scrub and farmlands, all the way to the sparkling Pacific Ocean. All across the northern half of California, fire forded rivers and freeways.
It surrounded small towns and lakes. It barreled through the biomass of the coast ranges, the Sierra foothills, the suburbs along the I-80 corridor, and toward the ruins of a town named Paradise, again. It feasted on woods that adjoined wetlands atop the San Andreas Fault.
And in Sonoma County and neighboring Napa County, locus of many prior burnings, fire came to the vineyards and dry valleys, to live oaks and dead tan oaks, guzzling up oily bay trees and unkillable broom, leaping across shingle roofs and over hot hills and tree crowns, through temperate rainforests, and into the woods a few miles north of where Max and I slept.
The season had begun.
Excerpt from The Last Fire Season by Manjula Martin. Copyright © 2024 by Manjula Martin. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon Books, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC, New York. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.