When I was 5 years old my family and I lived in Saratoga, California, a small wooded city in the foothills of the Santa Cruz mountains, directly west of San Jose in the San Francisco Bay Area. The neighborhood was nestled into the hills and scrubby woods, and at the end of a cul de sac was our house, the back of which opened onto a ravine of old oak trees.
One day a group of us--my brothers and their friends, kids bigger than me--were fooling around in the woods, throwing things, moving branches around, running around. What I recall is hazy at best but I imagine myself standing and watching, wishing I could take part but also not really wanting to do any of those boyish things.
One of the bigger boys said he had something to show us so we gathered in a circle. My back was to a big tree with lots of thick brush behind. The boy held a short branch with fat dry leaves at its tips and out of his pocket he drew a lighter. I remember feeling excited and scared, a state where I’ve spent so much of my life. We all leaned in.
My brothers and I had been warned about fires--Smokey the Bear was a well known figure in our house. We had visited Yosemite and been to see the redwoods; we had been taught that only we could prevent forest fires.
The boy flicked the lighter and a small flame erupted. He moved the flame slowly closer to the branch, like a magician about to attempt a magnificent trick. And we all knew what was about to happen but still we were tense, expectant.
One big dry leaf lit up, then another, soon the entire branch was burning, the sense of excitement moved more squarely into danger and some of the boys started barking, “put it out, put it out.”
Was it summer? Probably. The grass at our feet was dry and when the boy--the firestarter--finally dropped the burning branch into the center of the circle, the ground beneath us caught fire.
Shouting, screaming, boys running. I think I started crying.
But, was I also mesmerized, or just immobilized? In any event, I did not run, I stayed and watched the flames growing and by the time I wanted to run, everyone else had fled, the fire before me had grown and my back was to the big tree with the scrub behind it too thick to penetrate. I was trapped.
What’s scarier than fire? With such swift devastation.
Someone must have gotten a parent, soon sirens were wailing and the fire was doused and I was fine.
Once the ground was put out all of us boys were gathered again in a circle this time with several adults in the mix, including my mother. We were told what we did was really bad, punishment was doled out, my mother also scolded my brothers for getting me involved, leaving me there alone with the fire.
The west coast of our country is burning. California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, too. Friends in San Francisco shared pictures of the sky over the city yesterday: deep, dark orange at 10 oclock in the morning. Pamela shared photos of her kitchen, so dark from the smoky skies that she had the inside lights turned on. Diane in Ashland, Oregon wrote that she and her mom had to evacuate the day before yesterday and wanted me to know that they both realized they had on their Secret City tshirts when they left the house. Octavio shared pictures from his place outside of Phoenix, huge plumes of smoke rising up over the desert. He and his family were on evacuation alert. Helen shared that she and Gonzo were still at their place near Bass Lake, but they’d been put on evacuation warning, too; the car and the motorhome were already packed so if the call came, they could leave immediately. Eugenia in Marin texted yesterday to say, “it’s 9am and it’s dark outside from the smoke.” Even in LA, folks are feeling the smoke in the air, in their lungs.
Seven people have now died. Hundreds maybe thousands of homes have been lost. According to the New York Times, “In California, fires have now charred some 2.5 million acres — a modern record and nearly 20 times what had burned at this time last year.” Entire towns in Washington are now ash.
What’s scarier than fire? The sudden leap from spark to flame and then ferocity of flame. Air gets added and then it grows. The roar. We are left with ash, smoke.
The world is elemental. We forget that, we build, we grow, we play as if we live in some kind of future-time but the rules of nature are ancient, eternal. There’s truth in fire. And we are mortal..