My sister-in-law is a firefighter in Contra Costa County, what we call the East Bay. Her unit, like most others across California, was called in to fight the Wine Country fires to the west of her and the north of us. She texted that she’d spent two days in Santa Rosa “watching the world come to an end.” She is not prone to hyperbole.
The sky this week looked and smelled downright apocalyptic. The sun cast strange apricot shadows even at midday. The San Francisco skyline was mired in haze that wasn’t fog. It looked like one of those really hideous pictures of Los Angeles shrouded in smog.
Just as someone’s passing reminds us of previous deaths, current disasters bring memories of past tragedies. For me, it’s mostly how I’ve skirted them. I remember walking out to my car in Seattle one day in 1980 and running my finger through a grimy layer of ash from Mt. St. Helens. (Coincidentally, I was on a weekend jaunt with a high school friend in southwestern Washington, not far from the volcano, the morning of the eruption; to my eternal annoyance, I didn’t hear the boom because I was in the shower.)
In 1989, I worked for a magazine whose publisher had season tickets to San Francisco Giants baseball games. In one of the sweetest gestures he ever made, he distributed his playoff and World Series tickets to the staff. That was how I happened to be at Candlestick Park the evening of the Loma Prieta earthquake. When I returned to my Palo Alto apartment, the extent of the damage was a toppled lamp.
Now out of the Wine Country comes phrases like “cluster fires” and “zero containment,” phrases we are not used to hearing. The air here in the South Bay, just 90 miles away, intermittently smells as though our next door neighbors have a fire roaring in the fireplace. Despite the cancellation of weekend hikes we’d planned, and the potential postponement of this weekend’s football games, our lives continue unabated. Yet the smell is a constant reminder of others’ lives disrupted and discombobulated – and not just this week, but for years to come, given how much the Wine Country relies on tourism. Though much of it is untouched, who wants to drive through a moonscape on vacation?
It’s not that we’re immune where we are, I know. The foothills, full of dry brush and trees, are only a few miles away. So is the San Andreas Fault, for that matter. Our time may yet come. We sit here wondering how much time we might have, what we would save, and how the heck to corral feral cats that won’t even let us pick them up into carriers. (We’ve done it before, so I’m confident we’ll figure out how to do it again.) I wrote earlier this year about my brushes with death, and wonder if others are yet to come. I sniff the acrid air, and wonder.