On my eldest daughter’s first day of kindergarten, a column of smoke that seems to reach 10,000 feet high dances on the horizon with an imprecise cruelty.
I watch it as I shovel clothes and important documents — whatever the hell you’re supposed to grab first if a fire is bearing down on your home — into my truck.
That smoke is a study in warped perspective, the tin-colored column seeming to reach for the stratosphere as it undulates, as it sleepwalks. One moment, it seems a football field’s length away, then looks separated by miles of untouched terrain in the span of a heartbeat. A real-time hall of mirrors.
At the base of so much sky-smearing murk is the fire. It sparked about 15 miles away from me. Then it ran. Near-mythical winds are responsible. They surged from the east in 40 to 50 mph gusts, encouraging the heat, the size.
It went at a 5K pace at first, then leveled up to the brisk metronome of a collegiate 1500-meter race. It howled past my in-laws’ neighborhood, heading north through a trailer park just outside Ashland. It fed there and discovered its insatiable nature. Then it continued its sprint, ever nourished by the dry terrain and the wind and the early September heat.
Our power has gone out, so I can’t work; have to go in. It’ll be the first time since March. I’ve been at home since then because of COVID-19, a disease my wife will get in about two months. I’m a reporter, a career I will leave in about 9 months.
My neighborhood is under a level 2 evacuation advisory. (Essentially, be in the starting position of a sprint race, set to grab your important shit and go at a moment’s notice.)
I let my oldest sit in the front seat without her car seat so I can hold her hand. When I pull it away for a moment to fiddle with the air conditioning, to steer, to whatever, she demands it back. She’s scared. Of the smoke, of what it means.
The newsroom has a mausoleum quality to it, except for the scanner, mostly empty and echoing. I work and my daughter tries to entertain herself on my smart phone. I can tell her handholding preference isn’t done yet, but I need both my hands to write.
My editor tells me to get in touch with a man — a well-known advocate for the houseless — whose own home just burned down. I do. I text at first. He responds. Yes, his house did, indeed, burn down. Many others did, too. Many are still to come.
“What else is there to say?” he texts, understandably perturbed and distraught and uncomfortable at my SMS intrusion.
Still, he agrees to talk. We do. He is articulate and gracious and patient. I do not deserve one second of his time, yet he gives it to me freely.
I write. I publish. It and another story, a more academic, comprehensive one, are among the first records of the day.
My neighborhood’s level 2 evacuation advisory ratchets up to a level 3. Go, essentially. Now.
I’ve written about these level 3 advisories before. What they don’t tell you is the absolute disbelief that sets in when it’s you that’s being told to go. The skepticism, no, the atheism at such a declaration.
My daughter and I return home, grab more stuff. The dancing smoke column screams overhead. I hear muffled explosions and wonder if I just heard a gas station blow up.
My neighbors splash water on their house. I copy the act and eventually laaaaaugh at myself because it’s hot as hell and this hose water will evaporate in about five minutes but who gives a shit because, yes, this is pointless, but doing nothing feels worse.
A sporadic exodus of vehicles blaze past as my house soak continues. It’s a leadfoot epidemic, highway speeds on residential streets. We are collectively purging this place, this beautiful, quiet nook I once told my wife was a “great trick-or-treating neighborhood.”
The house wetting complete, I fall in with the leadfoot brigade and leave. I hold my daughter’s hand again and wonder if this is the last time I’ll ever see our house.
Later, in a strip mall parking lot, we reunite with my wife and try to find something for dinner. Almost everything is closed because of the still-dancing smoke column, the whole city under a level 2 evacuation advisory. I get booted from a Wendy’s, and not because I’m drunk or yelling. Because everyone here has leadfoot, too. Retreat is more contagious than the Omicron variant.
“Sorry, boss,” the manager(?) says. “We’re closing early.”
McDonalds is all that remains. A centipede of cars unfurls out from the drive-thru lanes and backs up past several nearby stores.
We drive and eat and make our way up into the hills. Darkness drenches our valley as fire tries to dry it.
My mom calls hotels and motels and stairway storage closets and everything in between and can’t find anything, anywhere, for us. She tells me this on the phone as I see a spot fire ignite down below: light within light that carpet bombs the night.
“Oh my God!” I yell. “It’s everywhere!”
My mom starts crying at the words. She’s so scared and so angry that she can’t be here.
We find shelter, my wife’s longtime friend who is also hosting her parents. The fire and dancing smoke devoured their home. Gone. Now they’re here with us.
We’re six months into the pandemic. I think about germs and fire and ponder which is scarier as I FaceTime with my mother-in-law, who has my youngest daughter, as we try to wind down in our host’s guest room.
My youngest daughter is trapped on the other side of the valley. My mother-in-law had her for the day and tried to bring her back when the fire hit the fan, but legions of smoke effervesced over the interstate in broiling screams that forced her to turn around.
Youngest starts crying as we hang up. Then I do, too. Because I wasn’t there to hold her hand like I could for Oldest. Because this kind of fire — one that destroys thousands of structures and leaves three dead — in the throes of a deadly pandemic feels like the universe is punching down.
In about 7 hours, I’ll wake up and drive to my neighborhood and see it’s still standing. The sky dwarfs the smoke; a welcome contrast from the day before.
There’s relief, but there’s guilt, too. More than a year from now, that guilt will remain, to an extent. I’ll have moments of actual physical ache for those who lost everything.
But none of that is my reality at the moment. Now I’m just burning through the remaining fumes of adrenaline as the familiar chatter of emergency scanner traffic chirps from my wife’s phone, courtesy of a live stream showing the battle against the flames. Blurry flashes of orange and red stampede through the screen’s symphony of streaming lag.
Crackly emergency radio voices sing me to sleep.