Here in northern California the heat is rising. You heard about the biggest fire in California history. But you might not have heard what those of us who watched that fire and it’s thunderclouds of smoke from our back porches felt. My own emotions surprised me.
Do we have a choice about our emotions? How we react to crisis? I think we do. But only insofar as we recognize those emotions, acknowledge them, process them. And for those who have lost what they value most—their possessions—and those others of us more ethereal, our peace, that process doesn’t feel controllable.
When fire, dramatic in every physical sense, comes through, we feel we are not participating in our lives; something else is running the show. We have to leave the places we know, sometimes in a very great hurry. We have to move on whether we like it or not. So I think we should just decide to like it, decide to see the half-fulness. It makes it a lot easier. Like fussiness. It’s much more fun to be not fussy.
Last Friday fires took off from locations in Mendocino County, which lies west of my forest cabin, not far from the Pacific Ocean. One started near Hopland’s Old River Road and One near Potter Valley’s Ranch Road. Both grew fast. The fires are named after the roads nearest their starting points. As we watched the source of smoke move slowly across our northern horizon in Lake County from west to east all week, we thought about those we know closest to the front lines.
We texted them, we Facebook-messaged them, we left them voicemail:
“You have a place to stay here;”
“Hey, come stay with us — dogs and cats welcome;”
“I can take one friendly horse;”
“I have room for your chickens.”
Ultimately we used all forms of social media, knowing our friends were on the move, unable to answer. “Has anyone heard from Denise? Did she get out?”
“Where is Cornelia staying? Did she take her giant puppy with her?”
When the first fires moved through Lake County, California in 2015, people thousands of miles away found themselves scouring the internet for lost pets hoping to connect people with the found pets they didn’t have time or internet access to link with owners. Someone set up a page calling it simply “Lake County Fires Petfind.”
Photos of lost goats, pigs, peacocks, chickens, horses were outnumbered by cats and dogs. Posts often included emotional verbiage about the wonderfulness of lost pets. Found or “spotted” posts often feature elusive animals someone couldn’t catch but were compelled to report seen trotting down the road in one memorable example. My favorite photo features a small Toyota pickup loaded with two cowering horses. The bed had to have been hitting the tires. But dang it, they gotten ‘em out.
Others merely opened their gates and let their horses free.
This was not an exercise. The Valley Fire roared through Middletown in September, 2015 destroying 1500 homes. In an area whose population is about three times that, the impact is … well, it’s an impact.
Like some mutation involving déjà vu and ptsd, these last few weeks everyone in this community of Lake County was either evacuated or was hosting evacuees. Everyone I know here was involved. And in a small town everyone knows everyone.
I am a few hundred yards from the mandatory evacuation zone so I hosted. Here’s where the term “Evacu-cation” comes in.
My guests included wine-grape growers, a tech-savvy internet consultant, a professional chef, two retired appraisers and four dogs. Yes, that adds up to a party. An Evacuation Vacation.
The term “Evacu-cation” was the brainchild of a young woman named Katie Riley. She stopped our stuttering. Thank you.
The winegrape growers brought a case of wine, the tech-savvy friend brought cigarettes and kept the air traffic scanner on all day so we could hear the conversations of pilots dropping water and fire retardant. And the professional chef, having sent home a campful of kids, brought lots and lots of sandwich supplies and a larderful of smoky pulled pork. Yum.
I sat on the couch and answered questions about where to find the forks (to the right of the sink … should I move the silverware to the other side of the sink?) and whether to let loose the dogs (“don’t. there’s a skunk living under the porch”) and also how to turn on the shower; which closet houses towels; where to put the fish tank.
I also had to explain to one 70-something sister that by “fish” her younger sister did not mean to challenge her decision to cook ribs for dinner. By “bringing fish,” she meant “Oscar,” her goldfish. She is bringing her goldfish, not a food item.
The foodies took over the kitchen, others did the dishes and I sat back and watched with delight.
Who knew that Suzy and Stan’s dogs like to sit on each other (Yes, this is the sister who brought her pet fish: Oscar, tank, water, everything.)
Meanwhile Chef Steve posted a selfie in my hot tub with a glass of rye.
And who the heck knew that you could listen to the conversations of those helicopter pilots dragging bags of water over the mountains?
It was a vacation for all of us, a giant slumber party.
Except for my cousin, who we’ll call “Xian.” This cousin was having none of the evacuation advisories. He had just started sanding the living room floor in the home my grandmother grew up in 100 years ago. When he heard about the mandatory evacuations and closures of all businesses, roads etc within the lines of demarcation, his response was simply, “Oh good, I get to keep the sander for one more day.”
His mom and sister and one of the dogs slept in my guest bedroom ten miles south of the family homestead.
My tech friend kept all informed by posting maps of cool sites like windy.com that shows an interactive map of wind directions and speeds with a slider for altitude. She reposted the Calfire updates and links to maps, maps, maps. Some maps are based on satellite temp readings, others show historic fire lines. Still others show real-time (updated every 30 minutes) current fire progression. She reposted dramatic footage shot by firefighters and professional photogs who sneaked inside the lines. She linked people to shelters in their areas and reposted requests for food, housing for pets, you name it. She was addicted. In a very helpful way.
Everyone found a niche, a way to help. And in our little corner of evacucation-land, crisis was turned into sheer pleasure.