‘Fire, Fire,’ I Heard The Cry

by Jonah Raskin, October 18, 2017

Fires are raging all around me in Sonoma County and there’s no end in sight. They’ve been raging for days and nights. The air is thick with smoke and I’ve been breathing through an old, blue bandana. It’s as foul as any air I’ve ever put into my lungs. Facemasks have been sold out for at least 24-hours and every time they’re back in stock they sell out again. I’ve been to all the hardware stores and have asked. “Come back later,” the clerks tell me.

It will take me days if not weeks to get my head around this disaster that has brought out the best and the worst in people. Some boast about their heroics, while others are quietly stoical. I suppose it feels good to escape from the fire, but I don’t see any point in singing one’s own praises. Some have lost everything. It seems best to help them and to extend one’s compassion.

On the first morning of the fire, which now seems like ages ago, I received a call from Cal Fire and was told to evacuate. I sat tight. Then I received another call and packed a few things and went to the Sonoma coast where I had supper with friends and strangers and then spent the night. The next day I came back home. My house was the same as when I left it, but it’s nearly 100-years-old and all wood and it would burn in no time at all if flames got close. I have packed some valuables and have stowed them in the trunk of my car, which is ready to go at a moment’s notice and with a tank full of gas.

Yesterday, I drove up 101, through Santa Rosa, to visit friends who grow grapes not far from the Sonoma/Mendocino border. On the way there and on the way back I saw the terrible devastation, especially around the Bicentennial Way and the Mendocino Avenue exits. The earth was black and buildings were barely recognizable as structures once built by human beings. It was a scene of devastation; it looked like the war zones I seen on TV news. My friends on the Sonoma/Mendocino border told me that they were “graped out.” Their crop had been harvested. It would be made into wine. So, they were fortunate.

The fire came close to my house.  Why it stopped a quarter-of-a-mile from where I live I don’t know. Fires must have laws that they obey that have to do with the supply of air and with fuel to burn. There must be some kind of logic to them, but they also seem to be illogical and irrational. They go this way and then that way, for no apparent reason. If we knew why they did what they did, perhaps we’d be able to prevent them from happening, though it does seem that the way we build our towns and cities, with houses, cars, stores and people all jammed together, is not the wisest of ways to avoid conflagrations.

I’ve lived with fires and with the fear of fires ever since I arrived in California forty-two years ago. I still haven’t accepted them as a fact of nature, though I know that we live in a land of fires—and droughts and floods. Disasters don’t just take place in New Orleans, Puerto Rico and Mexico. They’re right here in our midst. We live with them and sometimes we die in them.

I’ve spent part of the last day on a pot farm in Sonoma where no one evacuated, though the county told everyone on the farm to evacuate. No one stopped working. The harvest went on. The men and women, some of them from places as far away as Vera Cruz and Stockholm, kept at it and were paid $20 an hour. Other pot farms evacuated and weed went up in smoke and into the atmosphere.

I know that I have the jitters. I know that my anxiety level has been high because the immediate future is unknown. The fire might come knocking on my door, or it might skip my door. I have some friends who lost their homes in the big fire in Lake County, and others who didn’t lose their homes. I have received emails from all around the world asking about the fires in northern California. We’ve made the international news and we’ve been the subjects of nasty rumors, too. Indeed, rumors seem to spread as fast as wild fires.

What I don’t know is when the situation will end. Indeed, I don’t know when we’ll be back to normal and whether or not there is something once known as normal. I’ve heard it said that disasters—severe weather storms, hurricanes, tornados, blizzards, floods and droughts—are the new normal. If so, then welcome to the new paradigm. Keep your wits about you, have a suitcase or a backpack with essentials at the door, and stay in touch with friends and family. Whatever you do, don’t do it alone. We survive as a species, or we don’t survive at all.

I’ve written this dispatch at the edge of my seat, ready to take off at a moment’s notice. I don’t want to lose my home, but I know that if I do, I’ll start all over again.

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