All summer long I was terrified that my house would burn down, in fact, not just my house, but my whole town.

Every day I scanned the weather reports, hoping against hope for rain. When I went on a trip, my husband had to stay home, in case of fire. He’d be home to fill the truck with some of our belongings and animals and drive my daughter out, if ordered to evacuate. Every time I felt a warm gust of wind, I’d look over my shoulder, as though an attacker were sneaking up on me. I’ve come to hate wind. It dries out my plants and desiccates the land. It blows away all the topsoil that neighboring farmers plow up; it blows pesticides, herbicides and pollen towards us; and it drives fire.

When I was a child, growing up near San Francisco, fire was not unheard of;  it was  distant, something that happened in the canyons of Southern California, when the Santa Ana winds arrived. I paid no attention to it, until a family friend lost her Laguna Beach home to a fire in the mid 1990s. Our friend, an elderly lady, barely made it out in time; cinders burned her clothes as she drove away from her house. The only thing that remained after the fire was a small safe. Around that time, I started hearing about an increase in Southern California fires, but like many others, I chalked it up to an increase in population; more and more people were moving out into the canyons, where fire is a natural occurrence.

Gated community that is burned down

Gated community in Talent, OR

Even with this increase in acreage burned, I still didn’t fear fire in large towns, but that is what’s happening now.

Parts of Santa Rosa, CA, population 176,759, have burned; whole neighborhoods were reduced to a powdery ash. Then Napa burned, and Santa Rosa again, then Paradise, then Talent, OR, and the list goes on. Some of the fires were started by downed power lines that the power company had neglected, and some were started by arson. Occasionally, homeless people accidentally caused a fire when they cooked over a campfire or small outdoor stove. When people heard that some of the fires were started by humans, they breathed a great sigh of relief that climate change was not to blame. But something moved those fires quickly, and something fueled them. One can blame climate change, or one can blame the chopping down of trees. Trees not only transpire water vapor and O2 into the air, they also weaken or block the passage of wind, so that when enough water vapor collects to form a cloud, that cloud doesn’t get blown away to rain somewhere far away (or get dispersed entirely). Cutting down forests does contribute to drought. There are many factors at play here, connected in more ways than I can probably understand.

Whatever the causes of fires, we try to do our part to reduce risk. We have a metal roof (also good for collecting water), we try to keep bushes away from the house, and we plant deciduous trees instead of conifers, which burn easily. If a fire threatened, we would keep everything wet by watering a lot, a practice we do automatically at our Montana home, but our town nearly ran out of water, so that is no longer a viable option. We don’t even have the water to fight a fire, if it does arrive.

Rhubarb plant close up

Ruins of houses in Talent, OR

This may sound like a lot of whining, but my intent is not to get sympathy; I want to convey what this risk, this constant apprehension, does to a person. It has kept me awake many nights, as I ponder and plan what to take besides bare essentials. I plan out how much time I would need to pack various items, and how much we could fit in each vehicle. Would the silver fit? My spinning wheel and spindles? Yarn? Books? How much clothing? What about my favorite broom, which was painted by a beloved friend? Or my mother’s crystal? We have three vehicles, but my daughter hasn’t yet learned to drive, though she’s old enough. She would have to simply drive the easiest car (the Volvo) without a licence, so I decided to teach her the basics, so she could at least escape a fire. Would we be able to catch and cage all the cats? I decided to take only one litter box. We’d need food for them, so a can opener too. And my daughter’s rabbit? She needs food too.  What about the paintings that my husband’s mother did? She was a wonderful artist. And my seeds, just some of them. Even as I sit here writing, and it rains outside, I look around and take inventory. I see beloved dishes that were given to me by my mother or grandmother, and my great grandfather’s rocking chair. The more I look, the more I see, the more I have to lose.

Art in ruins and ashes

Art in the ashes, Talent, OR

As I write this, I feel very selfish. I haven’t lost my home, while many other people have. The level of emotional devastation out there must be enormous.  So many people have lost their history, their family photos, the evidence of their life and travels. After the Talent OR fire, I went there to get my parents settled back into their home, which they had evacuated, and which they couldn’t move back into for a week. I went for a walk around the remains of the town, and along the road in front of piles of ash I saw handmade signs with photos of cats and dogs, with the caption, “Has anyone seen my pet?”;  here and there one could see little heaps of dry pet food, left by heartbroken pet owners in the hope of luring back their terrified pets, or at least keeping them alive. Some artist had posted a sign on the bulletin board of the local grocery store, offering to paint portraits of people’s lost pets. Everywhere I looked there was wreckage – block after block of twisted metal from unidentifiable appliances, blackened tree skeletons, hollowed out cars with melted tires, intact brick chimneys, lonely concrete yard sculptures, and the occasional bright red barbeque or picket fence. And ash everywhere. The work of man reduced to junk and ashes.

Dried cat food on the ground outside

Dried food left for lost cats, Talent, OR

People stood on the street in front of some lots, hugging each other, slumping in despair. Two young women hugged and sobbed. Some just wandered around on the sidewalk, no longer having any place to go. Kind souls left bottles of water and sacks of prepared food on the sidewalks in front of homes.  It wasn’t long before activists organized drop-off stations where people could drop off needed food and toiletries, as well as blankets and camping gear and diapers, and those in need could come pick the items up, as well as get help in filling out paperwork for FEMA, insurance companies, and help organizations. All that stood in between my parents, who are eighty four and ninety one, and that dire need, was one hundred yards. One can see the devastation from their front window. The firefighters were able to hold the line at Talent Ave, which is two small townhouses from their house. The fire came so fast that they had no warning at all, only a neighbor banging on the door and shouting, “fire! You have to leave now! I’ll take you!” They took nothing but their medications, some money, and the clothes on their backs. Even their bank burned down. If they had lost their home, I don’t think they would have survived.

Orange sky

I wonder how many people simply died of despair, not only in Talent, but also in Paradise, CA; Lytton, Canada; Napa, CA; Santa Rosa, CA, and many other places that have burned down. Some people were undocumented workers, who now had no home or access to help, and probably had to leave the country. Others had no fire insurance, or inadequate fire insurance. Some 80% of the children of Phoenix OR became homeless. Where have these people gone? And what happened to them? Did friends or family take them in, or are they living under bridges somewhere? How do the children do their homework? And what did all of these people do when winter came?

The area around Talent OR is still beautiful, especially at this time of year. The mountains are covered with orange, red, and yellow trees, and the madrones’ red trunks shine brilliantly. The air is thin and cool and heartbreaking. I feel as though I could peel back this layer of beauty and find the misery that lies underneath. Many of the people there are traumatized, as they are in many western towns. In addition to the anguish of having lost everything, there is the fear of what the future holds. Is this the new normal? How long will it last? Will it soon be overtaken by another new normal, one that is even worse? The weather people have new phrases, like ‘heat dome’, or ‘atmospheric river’. They need these words for the inevitable normalization that takes place. But if heat domes, in which the Pacific Northwest gets temperatures of 117F in June, become a new normal, how long will we even have vegetation here? How long can the trees and shrubs hold out? How long before the lakes and rivers just dry up? How long before we can no longer grow food here? We had temperatures that were in some cases 50 degrees above normal. On my own property we lost every single currant, most raspberries (some we had already eaten), all the gooseberries, all the jostaberries, and some strawberries. The plants themselves survived, but the fruits shriveled up. How many species are going extinct? I try to grow most of my food, not only for us but also for all the diverse creatures living in the garden. But there may come a day when it is no longer possible to do that in most of the western states. Already we have started to discuss where we could live; after all, we don’t want to be the very last to leave. Minnesota and Michigan look pretty good.

But isn’t it alarming that people can no longer count on their towns not being burned up in a wildfire? Isn’t it alarming that we find ourselves considering what states in the union will be habitable in twenty years? We quickly adapt our thinking to contain the new reality, and that may be necessary for survival, but something remains, memories, sadness, a small resistance to what is. We keep plodding forward, trying to ignore the trauma of lost homes and belongings, lost species, lost forests, lost destinations. Things that were at one time unthinkable are no longer questioned, but most of us know that something is wrong, that all is not well with our world. Perhaps it is time to mourn what was lost, to look at what is at stake and learn to love the world. If we don’t love it, we won’t do what we need to do to save it, and it may be desiccated by drought, or burned up in a fire.

A pond with ducks in it and trees

A world worth saving…..