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.