Friday, October 13, 2017
Thoughts on the Wine Country Fires
Standing outside at 4:00 AM Wednesday morning, I was inordinately thrilled to see Orion’s belt just above my head, through the trees that overhang my house. It was my turn to get up, go outside on a blessedly calm morning, and smell the air for smoke, glance at the horizon behind me and pray there wasn’t an ominous orange glow signalling disaster, like the cotton candy hair of our President. There wasn’t, and I suddenly recognized the irony of being happy not to see fire anywhere near me while I gazed at the heavens and stood in awe of the indescribably gigantic orbs of fire in Orion’s belt and the rest of the universe, from which we are all descended. Wildfires humble you nearly as much as the heavens.
I live outside of Healdsburg, nearly equidistant from that quaint tourist town and from Calistoga in the other direction. The Tubbs fire (Is that really the most intimidating name they could give such a destructive and death-dealing fire? It sounds like it’s at Bed, Bath and Beyond. If only.) is about two or three miles south of where my wife and I live. Perhaps six miles to the north of us the Pocket fire is burning up Alexander Valley near Geyserville. Yeah, I’m scared. Though at the moment, safe and optimistic.
We began to pack our cars with valuables on Monday morning after our landlord awakened us and told us the ridge behind where we live was on fire. It’s forest from the ridge to our house. It was going to burn towards us. Gathering valuables and putting all of our animals in travel cages, I struggled with visions that most closely resembled Heironymous Bosch paintings. Yet a wildfire quickly brings one great focus. My wife Kathleen was the hero. I was more like Daffy Duck bouncing off the walls and repeating, “Woo Hoo, Woo Hoo, Woo Hoo!”
There was time. The winds had vanished. It was very still. We were outside, cars nearly packed, watering down everything like a bartender on a cruise ship. The smell of smoke makes you crazy. At about 10 AM, my landlord said that, “if I were you, I’d leave.” Kathleen and I drove into town to stay with friends in Healdsburg. Less than a mile from our house we had to pull our cars to the side of the road so that about five fire trucks could roar past us, on their way to fight our little fire up Young’s Road. I felt like applauding.
Our house survived that Monday night. The firefighters extinguished the fire about half a mile north of us, and the winds didn’t return. Tuesday morning we returned, and we’ve been here ever since. The cars remained packed. It ain’t over yet.
I haven’t been out to see the destruction in my community. I haven’t had the time or the desire. It’s been five days of sleepless nights and vigilance. I’ll see plenty of that destruction in the coming months and years. I don’t need to see it to know how terrible it is. I can smell it in the air. I can see it in the faces of folks at the grocery store, in the dozens of cars in the parking lots filled with belongings and pets. I can hear it in the planes and helicopters that are constantly flying overheard. I lived through four major earthquakes in Southern California. This is far worse. Earthquakes are the wedgies of natural disasters. A wildfire like this is a brutal beating.
There will be countless stories about these fires. Mine are trivial, but for my wife having to euthanize her beloved Arabian mare Lorian who was tragically injured when she reared and fell, refusing to be loaded into a trailer to be taken to safety, breaking her hindquarters. A three-legged horse has no chance against a wildfire, and a veterinarian, who had lost everything to the fire, her home and all of her belongings, rushed to help. Dr. Tere Crocker’s courage and compassion made all the difference in this horrible incident. Kathleen lost a loved one in this fire. So many have. The death toll is going to be staggering.
But I’ve been lucky. I’m only writing this because many people have reached out to me, worried about me, and concerned I hadn’t posted here in a while. Maybe not my most avid fans, but, nonetheless, concerned. All is well.
So many things run through your mind in these situations. I’m reminded that people we should genuinely admire—firefighters, first-responders, volunteers and law enforcement officers from all over California and Oregon and Nevada—don’t have letters after their names. Should you? Frankly, it’s embarrassing to see WSET after a name, or CSW, or MS or MW. Earn the degrees, follow your passion for wine, but stick the initials where they belong—up your box canyon. This is the kind of chatter that goes on in the brain under stress.
I came home from work Sunday evening late, angry at how crappy my weekend had been, how ridiculously screwed up the job conditions were those two days—essentially feeling sorry for myself. Now I can’t remember why I was so angry. I haven’t given work a second thought. Where I work didn’t burn down like so many wineries have. And speaking of heroes without initials after their names, what about the CalFire helicopter crews who ferried trapped vineyard workers on night pick out of the fires? Trump would have fiddled while those brown people burned.
I’m grateful for the network of friends who checked on us, for our close friends in Healdsburg who took us in without hesitation Monday night and fed us, housed our menagerie. How do you repay that kindness?
All of us will be talking about these wine country fires for a long time. Today is my 65th birthday. I won’t ever have to struggle to remember what I did on my 65th. I’m not celebrating. How could I amid all the loss and grief and pain and fear? It’s just my birthday. I’ve never felt smaller or less important than standing outside at 4AM gazing at the stars, happy to see them so bright and intense, burning into eternity.