Under the Heat Dome

We fled the California fires, and here we are

Photo by Ben Hoskyn on Unsplash

Living in Napa Valley was a dream come true, at first

In 2014 when we moved to the lovely little Wine Country town of St. Helena, we kept pinching ourselves. Here we were, going about our daily lives in the midst of a destination that people travel the world to visit. It was like the south of France, but with better coffee and nicer public restrooms. Year-round, morning and evening, we walked our dog along a levee trail that ran behind our neighborhood and led us through storied vineyards. One of the local bocce teams was sponsored by Francis Ford Coppola, who lives within the town boundaries, and he was a regular at the league tournaments. There were more wineries than we could possibly visit in our seven years there, although we did our best.

We’re native-born Californians who have lived through wildfire seasons in SoCal when the valleys were shrouded in smoke, the nighttime sky glowed at the edges from the lines of fire on the ridges, and ash dusted cars and floated on swimming pools. But we both spent our childhoods 400 miles north in the Bay Area, back when rain puddles still iced over on winter mornings and wildfires simply were not a thing. Moving to Napa County felt like coming home.

On a demonically windy night in October of 2017, our third year in Napa Valley, the Tubbs Fire erupted. That was the firestorm that spread through nearby Calistoga, south toward Napa, over the mountains to Santa Rosa and Sonoma, and became the deadliest wildfire in California history. The closest flames came within a mile and a half of us, but we emerged unscathed. Our cousins in Glen Ellen and several friends in Santa Rosa were not so lucky. They lost everything but their lives and pets. 

That was sobering. After the Tubbs Fire, at the school where I worked kids became fretful when it was windy and hot, and even more so on days when the local winegrowers were allowed to burn the piles of pruned vines from the previous year. “Missus Flynn, I smell smoke,” they would tell me, wide-eyed, their adolescent bravura crumbling under collective PTSD. I would reassure them, feeling semi-honest.

Every year following, fire season got longer. And worse 

In 2018 the Mendocino Complex Fire burned nearly 460,000 acres, setting another California record. The same autumn, the ironically named Camp Fire destroyed the entire town of Paradise. We weren’t in the direct path of either, but we huddled under a toxic pall of smoke for weeks, oppressed by a blend of dread and sadness. The next year, the Kincade Fire ate up over 77,000 acres in lovely Sonoma County, extending so far toward the ocean that previously immune coastal havens like Bodega Bay were evacuated.

And then came last year, the infamous 2020. The August Complex Fire in the Coastal Range burned through six counties and became the first “gigafire.” Other lightning complex fires devastated swaths of the East Bay and, further south, the Santa Cruz mountains. 

In the last days of September, eight months into pandemic lockdown, a fire started on Glass Mountain, right up the road from us. For the next 23 days, the Glass Fire roared through Napa and Sonoma Counties. The sky turned a ghastly shade, casting the whole Bay Area into a day-long twilight of an apocalyptic burnt-orange hue. The air quality index was in the high 600s. 

We packed ourselves, our dog, and our most valuable and portable possessions into our car and fled north overnight to our family in Idaho. There we sheltered, masked and socially distant from our generous loved ones, anxiously following the news and wondering if we would have a house to return to.

Five days later we drove the 600 miles back home. The superhuman efforts of Cal Fire and our first responders had kept our neighborhood and our sweet small town intact. But cinders and blackened leaves littered our street, and we were aghast to see that the fire had come to within a football field’s distance of us.

That put us over the edge

We had other reasons for returning to the home we’d kept and had rented out in Boise — family and finances among them — but the Glass Fire, which had burned up so much of our surrounding hills and our favorite hiking trails, cinched it. We were getting out. Idaho, we knew, is hardly immune, but its colder winters bring a definite and blessed end to fire season.

This spring we put our St. Helena house on the market. In June I said goodby to my coworkers, finished packing, and on June 26 we were on the road again, back to our bucolic Boise ‘hood.

And straight into the dome of hellacious heat that has locked down over the Pacific Northwest and spread into British Columbia. We haven’t experienced the ungodly temperatures of poor Portland, Oregon, which averaged an unheard-of 112 degrees over at least five days. But it has been in the triple digits here since we arrived a week ago, and there is no letup in sight. 

Southern Idaho does get hot in the summertime. But not this hot, for this long, until now. And it cools off nicely at night. Until now. The lows have only gotten down to about 73 degrees, for maybe an hour around 6:00 AM. It makes me wonder if indeed winter is coming. That’s new. That’s weird.

That’s climate change. And it turns out you can’t outrun it.

8 Replies to “Under the Heat Dome”

  1. Nancy Klein

    Very informative post about the fires in California and climate change. The earth is crying out and the politicians still dither. I am really worried about the future of our planet in a way I have never felt before. What kind of life will our children and their children have, given what is happening to our beloved planet?

    • Jan M Flynn Post author

      Right there with you, Nancy. It makes you wonder why the policymakers aren’t more worried about their own children and grandchildren.

  2. Anni

    Oh, Jan, I wept reading this post. It brought back memories of you fleeing to our house when a possible evacuation loomed, with your overflowing pickup truck, like the Joads, parked in our carport. And of our family in Redwood Valley, fleeing the flames that destroyed their homes and devastated their community in the middle of the night, with little else but their pets and the clothes on their backs. After a few years (and many battles over insurance claims and PG&E settlements) they are slowly rebuilding. But when we visit, while admiring the new, wide open view across the (scorched) valley, we remember, sadly, the lush green forest that once grew there, the cozy homes nestled in the trees… I have been thinking of you, seeing the weather maps with temperature readings that boggle the mind. And now you confirm my concerns for you, as you bake under the Heat Dome. We now have three large air filters in their shipping boxes in our front hall, after my stepson purchased two for their city apartment and the rebuilt home in Redwood Valley, and recommended that we also get one. He is planning for more wildfires and smoke this year, and surely worries about the health of our two year old grandson. Since he is an environmental scientist, we take his concerns seriously. I wish world leaders would do so as well.

    • Jan M Flynn Post author

      And how thankful we were that we had friends like you to shelter us (and feed us, and entertain us!) when the going got rough. We are lucky to have great AC, plus family who live on a nice little lake a 1/2 hour from us, and we have access to a pool, so we’re able to stay quite comfortable. It’s just that we, like you, grieve for what is happening to the West in particular and to the earth our kids and your adorable grandson will inherit. Wildfire smoke is definitely a problem in Idaho as well, so we probably should be looking into an air filter for our house as well. Thank you so much for reading, responding (and to Jarion for sharing with KK & Ken)!

  3. Kimberly Kay King

    Dear Jan – Kimberly King here, commenting from Port Townsend WA, where Ken and I retired to after we sold the B&B business in Poulsbo. Jarion forwarded this beautifully written letter to us. We’re sorry we missed you in St. Helena – we kept threatening to visit – Ken’s cousin and her husband just moved up here in February after a lifetime in SOCAL and Mendocino – Ken’s cousin was a Superior Court judge – in Santa Rosa…

    Glad you and Michael are well and with family in Boise. Don’t be strangers, come visit! We still have a “Queen Bedroom With Private Full Bath” available!

    All the Best to you and Michael,

    KImberly

    • Jan M Flynn Post author

      KK! What fun to hear from you — and lucky you and Ken, living in gorgeous PT. A friend and former boss of mine lives there with her husband in a wonderful house with an incredible, unobstructed view across the water. Seriously, it’s like the Nature Channel. She is one of the owners of Madrona Mind-Body Institute at Fort Worden, so if you haven’t discovered it yet and you’re looking for a great yoga or movement class, I highly recommend it and especially her (Renee Klein). I’ve been to a couple of her New Years yoga retreats, and Michael has made noises about wanting to try it with me — so perhaps the beginning days of 2022 will find us in your ‘hood, and we will absolutely come look you up! We too will have a Queen Br with a (sorry) shared bath, as soon as we get the bed set up. Cheers!

  4. Laurie

    We were in Oregon to experience the crazy heatwave first hand! Who can still doubt that climate change is real and terrifying?

    • Jan M Flynn Post author

      Yikes! I hope your Oregon family is getting through the ferocious heat as well as can be expected. It really is terrifying.

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