Friday, May 16, 2014

when the fires come

When the San Diego wildfires burned in 2003 I was traveling in Mexico. I remember waking up at a hostel, going downstairs to the free breakfast with my dog-eared copy of Rilke's "Duino Elegies" in hand. There was a new batch of guests at the hostel, we introduced ourselves, idle chit-chat and talked about where we were from. When I mentioned San Diego someone said "Is your family okay?" I thought it was an exceptionally odd question and said I was sure they were. It was then I first heard my city was burning. I ran out to buy a phone card and find a pay phone to call home. My parents assured me they were fine, though several relatives had evacuated and were staying at their house. The fires didn't cross my mind again until I passed a bar that had a television showing the fires. But still, it was a distant thing, an impossibility.

In 2007 when the wildfires started I was hanging with my friend S.  She and I were sprawled out on my small blue sofa, spraying cold water into a fan to try to keep cool. The Santa Ana winds were blowing hard. We were watching news of a wildfire burning in East County but weren't concerned. We fell asleep in front of the sofa and I eventually got up and went to bed, leaving S on the sofa. At 5 in the morning my phone rang. It was my dad, telling me the fires were worse and I wasn't to leave my house, the mayor had essentially shut down the city. S and I watched the television all day. Outside ashes fell like snow and the air smelled of burning garbage, a smell that reminded me of Mexico. Later that day we received a call a friend had lost her home. Still, it was distant.

Tuesday a few days ago I was at work in North County. I was standing by the back of my truck, trying to mix together reds and blues to achieve a wine grape purple for cellar door I was painting. It was hot, stupid hot and windy. Crazy how our bodies respond. My body knew there was a fire burning before I even registered the smell. A blitz of adrenaline spiked through me and I broke out into a cold sweat and my nose automatically started sniffing. Fire. Smoke. The acrid smell of plants burning, the wind carrying a few scant ashes. I immediately threw my paints back into the truck and ran up a hill to see where the fires were. I saw smoke billowing in the east, a white-gray cloud rising. I called B, who said there were no fires on the news. I searched twitter and saw a wildfire was burning six miles east of me. Too close. Way too close.

I went to the backyard of the house where I was working and there, gathered in a line by the fence, all the Mexican workers--landscapers, painters, stone masons--were staring at the smoke rising.  A few were on the phone, their employers calling to ask them to go get animals, rescue housekeepers without cars, or to stay behind to hose down the dried hills abutting their homes. Later, while watching the news footage, there were shots from helicopters circling over the multi-million dollar homes. In the shots I could see landscapers with hoses, doing as they'd been asked, hosing down yards and roofs of homes that weren't their homes. It ached in me, these men in the line of fire, vulnerable but eager to do the work of community for a community that doesn't see them as a part of it. Even the coyotes and deer and snakes fled. The men stayed.

I'd made the choice to leave, beat any evacuations and evacuation traffic. Two hours after I left, the neighborhood where I'd been working was evacuated. There was a cry of concern about the horses and other animals threatened. People offered trailers, crates, transport for animals. I thought again of those who stayed behind; many of them live in fear, undocumented, too frightened to call for help. It ached in me. Something to explore, the human response to disaster, what (and who) is a priority for rescue. What (and who) gets left behind. I know that these same men who stayed behind are the the ones who will rebuild. They will clear the debris, shovel ashes, tear down the charred structures and haul it all away to start rebuilding homes that aren't theirs.

It never hit home before how fast and close these fires burn and what they reveal. H and I live surrounded by finger canyons, there is one at the end of our block. The canyons are deep, filled with dried brush and trees from the hard drought. We made the decision to pack emergency bags, just in case.

I've though about what to take with me in case of emergency for years but I've never packed it all up. I emptied a storage box in our office closet. A lifetime of journals and diaries, completely irreplaceable, my emotional growth map, from the very first journals I had in seconds grade, my cursive bubble-lettered, the pages indented with the weight of my pen. The high school journals full of poetry and discovery. The later journals, the first loves, the travels, the questions that plagued and carried me through my self-discovery years. All my writing, my writing about writing, my life in paper and ink. I packed one box of photographs. A few irreplaceable heirlooms. My collection of earrings. My passport. Our little jar of savings. I went to bed realizing I hadn't packed any clothing, not even one bra or pair of shoes. My priorities packed up in a green suitcase, a purple bag and laptop case. H had his bags packed, his Visa, passport and journals, a few articles of clothing. We know what we want to carry.

Abut an hour ago I unpacked a few things, but not everything. The journals are still in a suitcase. This fire season will be hard, no doubt, and I want to be ready in case of emergency. B moved in to our apartment complex a couple of months ago and lives 40 feet away. He knows and has leave to enter our house to grab our emergency bags if we're not home and disaster strikes.

An odd week of living. I had no work, everything was one hold as we monitored the fires and their paths. There was a brief moment of panic yesterday when we got news there was a brushfire burning five miles south of us but it was stomped out quickly. This morning we woke up to cooler air, a few clouds finally stretching out though the horizon to the North is still smoke gray. My body has relaxed out of alertness. Back to living normal.

Busy summer coming up. H is heading back home for a month to work. We have a bit of travel planned, a trip to the Bay Area for a baptism, back to Vancouver for a wedding and at the end of summer, a trip abroad with H's family. Busy busy. And my sister's any is due this summer. We're overjoyed and eager. H is out of school for the summer and excited to work on his new book as I trudge along in mine. The contemporary novel is pulling but the fantasy novel is asking harder. I love both and look forward to seeing what unfolds.

1 comment:

Marcos said...

Beautifully written, Lizz. I think you should re-purpose the first five paragraphs as a letter to the editor for the Union Tribune, or something. "Even the coyotes and deer and snakes fled. The men stayed... rebuilding homes that aren't theirs." It's a poignant point that more people should be exposed to.