Finding Light Among the Flames

The official “Evacuation Warning” came yesterday, the first in a set of commands that are simple in wordage yet portentous in meaning. The warning was no surprise. Annie and I have been closely monitoring the news ever since two of the 12,000 lightning strikes that hit Northern California in the span of 72 hours found tinder perilously close to our home on the banks of a river in a narrow valley that cuts through the coastal range. A third fire is burning only a half-hour to the south as the condor flies, but it was lit by a pyromaniac.

Since ignition, we’ve been watching online briefings held regularly by CalFire and the county sheriff’s department, reading social media posts, and exchanging what-do-you-knows and what-have-you-heards with friends and neighbors. No matter the source, the story remains the same: firefighters are working tirelessly and heroically but all three fires are spreading in what appears to be a relentless march to join forces. Containment and control are hampered by record-setting heat, rugged terrain, thick smoke that limits air tanker assaults, and firefighting resources spread thin due to the dozens of major wildfires burning concurrently in the state. To compound matters, meteorologists are now making ominous pronouncements. Starting Sunday afternoon, a new storm will hit with unpredictable winds and even more dry lightning.

When the “Evacuation Warning” came, Annie and I knew the official “Evacuation Order” (the final step in “Ready, Set, Go”) would soon follow. We gathered up memories—the irreplaceable touchstones to our ancestors and children along with inimitable paintings and photographs created by artist friends—and boxed up important papers, laptops, and prescriptions. Deeming housewares and clothes expendable, we left them in the cupboards and closets in hopes that one day a favorite fry pan would again host a Sunday omelet, a pair of broken-in boots welcome feet eager for a hike on a nearby trail.

With our memories and essentials packed and our Go Bags at the door, all that remained was waiting for the inevitable. In a rite that was equal parts honoring, bonding, and mourning, we watered the veggie and flower garden planted in horse troughs perched on bricks to keep the roots away from gophers. We admired the white cosmos and orange nasturtiums that brightened the greenery of lettuces, peppers, and squash, and wished them well, for they would be on their own now without regular irrigation or, worse, face withering flames without mercy. We took our two dogs who’d rather swim than walk down to the river and sat beneath the willows and sycamores that shade the bank to watch them play while we marveled at how incredibly lucky we are to have each other and the lives we have.

As I thought about what was, what is, and what might be through the lens of an inferno bearing down on us, my thoughts soon drifted from recollections of what makes a house a home—from voluble family gatherings, sweaty but rewarding work restoring the land, and writing stories in a study with an inspiring view—to remembrances of the creatures who share this special place with us. There’s a hummingbird who hovers above the river every day in the late afternoon to catch insects—yes, a hummingbird who’s a fearsome predator, not a nectar sipping showboat. A bright yellow and black kingsnake lives beneath the stack of firewood out back and keeps the blue-belly lizard population in check; she’s surprised the heck out of me with her silent speed more than once. And then there’s the one-footed crow who doesn’t view his physical impairment as any impediment to his ownership of the suet cake that hangs from a tree branch next to the back porch.

Of all the animals we live with, it is a mallard drake and hen who nest on the other side of the river that epitomize nature’s will to survive. The first time we spotted them paddling proudly from their shoreline nest, they had ten downy ducklings in tow. In the days and weeks that followed, the brood winnowed to nine then eight then seven then six as the youngsters served to sustain herons, foxes, and red-tailed hawks raising their own nestlings. Such is the circle of life, but despite the heartbreaking losses, the mallard pair never gave up, never gave in. When the drake and hen finally took wing, more than double their number flew right behind them, ensuring their labors had not been in vain.

This morning, the “Evacuation Warning” became an “Evacuation Order.” The wait was over. Time was up. We had to leave immediately. We loaded our bags and taped a note on the front door for firefighters, telling them thanks, that we’d cleared out, and they needn’t worry about us. We were among the fortunate, for not only were we able to escape safely, we had a place to land.

As I pulled out of the drive that leads to our home beside the river, I didn’t know whether we’d ever see it again. But I didn’t latch the gate behind me. I left it swinging freely, wide open to possibility.