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  • Jan Flynn

From the Eye of the Firestorm

For the first time in a week, my husband and I woke up to clear skies this morning. We could barely smell the smoke, a reeking, breath-robbing blanket that has settled over us since Sunday night. Molly the dog got her first real walk in days.

The air in our ‘hood until today:

But we’re keeping our vehicles packed, ready to head out if the winds shift again. Just over the ridge west of us a new plume has arisen, spouting angry whorls of orange and gunmetal gray. Helicopters flutter in and out with their loads of water, looking like gnats taking on a thundercloud.

Our town, our neighborhood, our house have been spared so far. There is a certain twinge to this thought, laced with survivor guilt. We have done nothing to earn this grace except be out of the fires’ path, or missed by a random downdraft bearing burning embers. We know others who have not fared as well, escaping with their lives and little else, the homes they have lovingly built and tended to over decades reduced in an hour to ash and rubble.

On the other hand, we’re not out of the burning woods quite yet. Emergency nixles ping from our phones throughout the days and nights, and we remain poised on the edge of urgency. Anxious texts and phone calls come in from all over the country, friends and family who are watching the news feeds about the fires in Northern California and who fear for us. It is heartwarming; we feel supported, cared for, and not alone. But it’s tough to relax. We keep thinking of other items to shove into one of our cars, something else we’d like to save if we can. If we have to. Our house looks oddly barren, as though we’re in the process of either moving in or out.

Another nixle burbles from our phones, this one from the St. Helena police department: “No status change . . . we continue monitoring fires north and south of us.” My husband and I refuse to panic, but we will head out the moment things look dicey. Luckily we have dear friends near Marin and others farther south who have offered to take us in, with our dog and our two-car caravan of chosen objects and necessary papers. If worse comes to worst, we’ll have been lucky to salvage so much.

We haven’t gone this far overboard, but you get the idea.

But it’s not the loss of stuff that makes me teary-eyed in unguarded moments. It’s the thoughts that stop my breath: the thought of the firefighters and pilots and other first responders who have been on the line for a solid week with little respite, some of whom have lost all their belongings while risking their lives to save others’; the thought of the nurses and doctors who have been on the job constantly, staying with their patients who had to be rushed out of hospitals in the line of fire; the thought of our cousin’s home in Glen Ellen where we have celebrated several Thanksgiving dinners among the oaks and redwoods, now gone. Most of all it is the thought of the landscape, the drives and haunts and hikes we have reveled in, the stands of mossy, twisting oaks and towering redwoods, fragrant bay trees clinging to fern-covered banks, hillsides covered with grass like golden fur, the vineyards in fall color stitched among the foothills like a crazy quilt., the valley towns and villages tucked in amidst all the quiet splendor. So much of it seared, charred, lifeless.

For now. Life will return, beauty will reestablish itself, if allowed to. Eventually. But not in the same configurations, and perhaps not for a long time.

The pall of smoke to the west has subsided, or it has been blown away from us. I can hear the muffled rumble of air tankers and helicopters to the south and west.

But the wind is picking up again. We wait for a signal, and breathe carefully, taking nothing for granted, remembering to be grateful.

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