Ash falls from the air like the first snow of a new flurry. The air is still and hot, but drier than uncooked rice. The smell is that of a campfire, but writ large, as if every campfire I’d ever built was drifting smoke over my home. I’m in my car outside my home, looking at a map of red and yellow circles. The circles indicate areas that either are on fire or were recently on fire.

To the north of me, less than a mile away, is the Tubbs Fire, which has pushed over the Fountaingrove hill, burning an historic barn and a hotel I once stayed in, along with too many homes to count just yet. While the wind has eased, the fire is still moving south, and my home is south of the leading edge of the fire. The math is simple as addition, but the implications uglier than a boxer’s nose.

Initially, when I saw people pull basic surgical masks down to smoke cigarettes, I laughed at the absurdity. A week later, I see it as a kind of wisdom. Even smokers know the air is awful. The N95 masks, which disappeared from shelves like footballs at Christmas, have become part of my outside routine, like putting on a jacket on a cool fall day. And even the tough guys who laughed off masks initially are wearing them now.

Southwest of me the Nuns Fire (Surely a convent didn’t produce arsonists, did it?) is wading into Annadel State Park, a place that mountain bikers cherish the way a young boy does a puppy. But cyclists aren’t alone in our affection for the park. It’s as much loved by hikers and equestrians. As that blaze crawls through the forest, it moves northwest, also with a leading edge headed for my home.

This is my second trip back since we evacuated more than 24 hours ago. Our departure was voluntary, if hasty, the sort of exit that you make because to do anything else as a line of orange descends a hillside mere miles away is foolhardy in a way that makes swimming with sharks seem only a little reckless. We packed clothes, a few toys, computers, four bikes. At the evacuation center we sat in our cars because we were completely parked in, unable to even leave to get coffee. When we were finally able to depart, we headed to a friend’s to rest and regroup.

An afternoon later a rumor begins to circulate that the fire to the south, Nuns, might merge with the fire to our north, Tubbs. Wouldn’t that be peachy? They could make out right on top of my home when they meet. Authorities put it down only to have it reiterated in a press conference hours later.

Strike teams stream out of the fairgrounds. I read the names off the trucks: Santa Rosa, San Rafael, San Francisco, South San Francisco, Daly City, San Bruno, Oakland, Berkley, Sacramento, San Jose, Santa Cruz, Monterey, Atascadero.

It is perpetually late afternoon outside. The sun, when visible, is red.

I stand at my front door, turning the key in the tumbler one last time. I’ve retrieved nearly everything I value. Missing in boxes since the move are my MFA thesis and all my creative work from graduate school. Safe elsewhere are family, animals, bikes and hard drives. As I feel the bolt slide into place I think to myself that no matter what part of my life burns, I’m ready for the fresh start.

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  1. Jeff Ochs

    Patrick, please let us know how it turns out. Here’s to hoping the house is spared along with your neighbors and what’s left of the area.

  2. Girl

    The community has really pulled together. As I live 2000 miles away, I’m hoping Bike Monkey will organize some rides to raise funds for locals affected by the fires. It would give me an excuse to come to ride, to visit, and to contribute in a small way. Since the hotels you mentioned are gone, I will likely stay with my parents (whose home was spared, fortunately). Having grown up in Santa Rosa, every time I visit it looks so different; more people; more developments. But now it will be for reasons far more troubling.

    Stay safe, Patrick.

    1. Author

      Bike Monkey had a potluck/food drive on Sunday. They are still collecting cycling items for local riders. Bike Monkey kicks ass.

      Glad your parents’ home was spared. Let’s ride when you return home.

  3. Les.B.

    You and the family are safe. One could make the point that that is the only important thing.

    In the coming months, no doubt the cycling community will come together in mutual support as well as the community as a whole. You can have some pay-back from the community you have played a part in nurturing.

    1. Author

      I want nothing more from this community than what they’ve given me: friendship and acceptance. Payback is what I aim to offer, not what I hope to reap. My fortune to help support my friends is immense.

  4. JRL

    I don’t know what to say, Patrick. The stories that have come out of these fires have run the gamut from tragic and heart-wrenching to heroic and selfless. I’m so sorry that this has affected you and your family, along with the countless thousands of others.

    For those of us that used to call that area home but now live on the opposite coast, it’s been a week of feeling powerless and helpless while the area and the people you love suffer through unimaginable anguish.

    Glad that you and yours are safe.

    1. Author

      We lost a fridge-worth of food. Damn lucky is what you call that. I’ve got friends whose homes burned. In the grand scheme I have nothing to complain about. The heroism my neighbors exhibited are the actions of normal people who care about their community. My love for this place has only deepened.

    1. Author

      I’d say words didn’t fail you. I’m gratified that you could find so many different dimensions in so few words. It’s the very thing to which we writers aspire.

  5. Author

    Everyone: Thanks for you kind words. I feel like I could have polished this for another week, but I wanted to get something up.

    We are back home, the boys in their own beds. I’ve moved most everything back home. I’d like to tell you I hate the drama, but last week I was conscious of every move I made. To be so aware of each choice you make is to truly live present tense.

  6. Pat O'Brien

    Just found out a neighbor of ours, Cody Ayon, is there from the Whetstone Arizona Fire Department fighting the fires around Napa Valley. He is the kind of young man you would want for a friend. If by some chance you should meet him, please say hi for us.

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