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The primal fear of brush fires

The primal fear of brush fires
Plumes of smoke rise from the Rocky fire after it jumped Highway 20 near Clearlake Oaks, Calif., onAug. 3. (Noah Berger / EPA)

I live in a fairly dense forest on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada. Several thousand houses and mobile homes dot the landscape, perched on half-acre parcels subdivided 30 years ago. Thus far, my neighbors and I have been spared a catastrophic fire, but this area may not have been the wisest place for residential development. Human activity can heighten the risk of fire exponentially, and there are a lot of humans here.

We are in the midst of a serious drought, making us uneasy. August, however, is always an uneasy month. Wildfires, to us, are what tornadoes are to people in Kansas. Fires are raging not far from me, on all sides, from all points of the compass, producing smoke, anxiety and destruction. The wildlife flees, when it can, and the people evacuate, taking their heirlooms and their pets as the flames draw closer. California smoke is choking Ashland, Ore., where tourists flock in the summertime for the annual Shakespeare festival.

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My sister calls from Illinois. She's been watching the news on CNN, which always does its best to make the already dramatic fires seem as intense and frightening as possible. My wife and I are not home, so she leaves a message, hoping we're OK, inviting us to come back east and stay with her until the danger passes. We won't take her up on her offer, but we appreciate the concern.

I am at my keyboard now because thunder awakened me in the dead of night, its ominous rumbling followed by flashes of lightning. Though fires in these woods can be traced to lots of sources — exploding meth labs, arson, careless smokers, a spark thrown by a chain saw, a hot exhaust pipe on a dirt bike — there is nothing more worrisome than lightning, especially in August, in the middle of a drought, and even more especially when that lightning is not accompanied by rain.

It's a little after 6 a.m. now, and I've been up three hours, unable to get back to sleep. The thunderstorm has passed, and it's as still as a tinderbox outside. I know, however, that this moistureless storm has spread fire in its wake somewhere, because it could not have done otherwise. If, as it appears, we have been spared an incendiary strike close by, that is our good fortune. Others will not have been so lucky.

These woods, here and in all directions, are thick with tea party adherents and libertarian cranks who want to break off a chunk of Northern California to form a new state, called Jefferson. It would immediately become one of the poorest states in the country, another of those red territories where everyone hates big-government bureaucrats. Jefferson would, of course, need massive amounts of help for any of the big fires that tend to show up yearly, help from the federal government, and help from the state of California, that much-derided place.

My wife passes by the door to the room where I write, muttering the words "I hope our house doesn't burn down this summer." I'm not even sure she realizes she's said it out loud. "No worries," I say to her, emptily, in the way we all do when we want to offer reassurance, when we want to push away the fears that we, ourselves, also know.

Fear of fire is primal, sunk in our deepest ancestral memory, but those of us who have spent any portion of our lives living in the high country between the foothills and the timberline are more acutely attuned to the threat that fire poses.

The trees and the abundant and abundantly flammable dander they shed ensure late-summer anxieties that grow worse as the world grows hotter.

The sound of helicopters overhead hint at fire nearby, and the roar of air tankers tells us that there's a bad one not far from where we live. So we eye our pets, silently rehearse the evacuation contingencies, and, if we're so inclined, add a fire-themed footnote to our more generalized prayers. In those prayers is the hope for water from the skies, from clouds that don't rumble, shed lightning, and then pass over leaving us drier and more imperiled than we were before.

Jaime O'Neill is a writer in Northern California.

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