Sorry to disturb, but sometimes that's what the writing impulse tells me to do.
As I write this, it's a warm, sunny, blue-sky day in my sleepy beach town of Ventura, California, and fire is on my mind. Fire is always on my mind when warm, dry, windy weather lingers on the coast. Subtract wind, and on days like this some neighbor is liable to joke, "Just another day in paradise." Not the height of hilarity maybe, but we live here, so we chuckle as if to say, Lucky us, other folks don't know what they're missing. Add wind, and it becomes purgatory, a place defined by waiting. Will we make it back to paradise or end up in the hot place?
A few months each year, our coastal corridor between Santa Ana winds and Pacific Ocean breezes becomes a potential firetrap. All it takes is one spark. The wind has been ebbing and flowing for a couple of weeks. The electric company keeps texting us to warn they might shut off power to prevent a power line or transmission tower from sparking disaster.
Southern California Edison's power lines were blamed for the Thomas Fire, which much of our town fled the night of December 4, 2017, including my husband, grandpa, and me. The Thomas Fire climbed over our hills to devour houses six blocks away. Over the next few hours we packed and evacuated to the home of my father's then-girlfriend/now-wife.
At the time, the Thomas Wildfire was the largest in California history. It took six weeks to contain, burned 440 square miles, destroyed 1063 structures, left hundreds without homes, and caused a mudslide that killed 21. At the time, it was a drama unto itself. Now it seems little more than the way of the future. In 2018, the Mendocino Complex Fire surpassed it at 455 square miles. Today many outside Ventura County draw a blank when I mention the Thomas Fire. Hell, it's the era of climate change, and everyone's got problems.
Last week, a small brush fire broke out near the Ventura County Fairgrounds, a couple of miles from the Spanish bungalow my husband, Dale, and I call home. I had thrown our doors open to dispel the day's heat, so the house grew smoky right away. I listened with dread to helicopters overhead. The Shoreline Fire only grew to an acre and a half. Yet Dale and I spent two hours in purgatory, sending nervous texts fueled by past trauma, preparing for the possibility of fleeing home again.
My 23-year-old sister texted this morning, to ask if I had a few minutes to talk. I texted I had 15 but if she needed more she'd have to wait till evening, because I was working. Like me, when she says, "Do you have a few minutes?" it's often a well-intentioned effort to slip a lid of self-control over her real request: "Can you spare an hour for my existential crisis?" The crisis might involve family, romance, school, work. In the end, the underlying questions remain: Am I losing my mind, my soul, my perspective? Why don't people get me? Why don't I get them? Why is it so hard to be happy?
My sister didn't respond to my text, so I called. She said she'd have to call back because she, our dad, and his new wife were packing bags in case they needed to flee the Easy Fire. It had only been an hour since her first text. I hadn't heard of the Easy Fire yet, though I live half an hour away. That fire kicked up this morning and by evening wind pushed it to more than 1,400 acres, threatening Simi Valley, Thousand Oaks, and Moorpark, where they live.
My father married just a month ago. Today I texted his bride to return her favor of two years ago, offering them a place to stay if needed. It might be pointless. With gusts to 50 miles an hour, there's always a chance the fire comes to our house.
Our lives are not always like this. Most days we do live in paradise. But sometimes I wonder—as our planet warms, as leaders set aside laws meant to regulate development and protect the environment—how long before paradise is lost? It's a sobering question when you consider Paradise is the name of a small California town that burned to the ground last year.
I texted Dale this morning to say my family might evacuate this new fire.
He texted back one word: "Jesus."
I texted back too many words, including: "It's like you think you're living in The Good Place, but maybe all that sunshiny weather is hiding something sinister...and not so hilarious."
He suggested we stock up on emergency supplies: "Water, food, you know, the stuff dreams are made of."
That's on my to-do list, a list I've regularly pushed down my calendar to make way for deadlines, obligations, invitations. But tomorrow I pay bills, and this time a new payee tops the list, before utilities, insurers, or creditors: the company that makes emergency go-bags.
Then we'll shop for the rest. Together. That's the word that brings me back. This is paradise not because of where we live but who we live with, people who share our problems in the middle of a crazy day. Our disasters are accessorized with go-bags for two. In a mad world, that's not bad.
My sister called back, stressed out. Not by fire, but because she, my dad, and his wife are in the midst of moving into a new home. Together. Let's just say, there have been arguments. They're in their seventies, she's in her twenties. They're retirees, she's a student. They're newlyweds, she's a third wheel. Cue the fire. Talk about purgatory.
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