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  • Jan Flynn

Smoke Gets In My Head

Fire season is melting my brain

As a native Californian, wildfire season should be no surprise

I’ve lived here for most of my life. I raised my kids in the foothills of Southern California, where flames licked the ridges of the San Gabriel mountains every couple of years, sending lurid smoke billowing into the already polluted air and dusting everyone’s cars and swimming pools with a fine layer of ash.

Since I’ve returned to the northern half of the state, closer to where I grew up, fire season has become an annual, extended period of low-level anxiety and hair-trigger nerves, especially since the Wine Country Fires in October 2017 — followed by the Mendocino Complex Fire that started in July 2018, grew to be what’s still the largest California fire on record, and wasn’t contained until that September, but then was far surpassed in terms of deadliness and destruction two months later by the rather perversely named Camp Fire. That one wiped out the entire towns of Paradise and Concow.

The following November, the Kincade Fire, while relatively modest by recent California firestorm standards at just under 80,000 acres, had the distinction of being the largest fire ever (so far) in Sonoma County, prompting the evacuation of other entire towns (Geyserville, Healdsburg, Windsor) and obliterating some of the regions most cherished wineries.

Why would we expect 2020 to be any different?

Just because we’re reeling from a summer surge of COVID-19, wobble-eyed from six months of pandemic shut-downs, followed by reopenings, followed by re-shut-downs, and trying to cope with the kids starting school without actually going to school this week — none of that means the time’s not ripe for a hellacious conflagration. Apparently 2020 is bent on maintaining its reputation as the scariest year yet in the new millennium.

As I write, the LNU Lightning Complex (in fire parlance, with which Californians have become all too familiar, a “complex” refers to two or more wildfires that have joined forces, so to speak) is raging across parts of four Northern California counties, chewing through upwards of 200,000 acres. There are other fires raging in the state — within the last week, over 770,000 acres have burned statewide. But where I live, right in the middle of Napa Valley, the LNU Complex is our local catastrophe, the one that’s filling the air with smoke and turning the sunlight a weird, apocalyptic shade of orange.

As my husband just observed, everything wrong with 2020 is orange.

Friends and coworkers in the foothill communities have been evacuated. Some of our neighbors on the valley floor have packed up and headed out to stay with relatives in other areas of the state that are still free of smoke. I learned earlier today that one of the students at the middle school where I work lost his house to the flames.

My husband and I are keeping an eye on the Cal Fire website, on our local emergency website, on the Nixles that pop up on our phones, on the shifting winds, and on the alternately darkening and clearing skies. Meanwhile, we answer calls and texts from distant family and friends who are alarmed at what they’re seeing on the news.

We tell them we’re fine. And we are, mostly

In the past couple of days we’ve lost power for hours at a time due to rolling blackouts and Tuesday’s epic, freak, Old-Testament-level thunderstorm. We’ve got essentials and clothes and stuff for the dog packed up just in case we get the advisory to get outta town. My husband has once again made a video of the contents of the house. We’ve collected some of our most vital paperwork; the rest is in our fireproof safe. The gas tank in our car is full.

Other than that, we’re okay, really. We’re so grateful that we’re not in immediate danger and that we haven’t had to evacuate (yet). We’ve done what we can for now, so there’s no point in worrying. We can still work from home.

And yet. Being in a state of standby alert, while having very little direct action to take, has put my brain — at least the part of my brain that writes, or creates, or thinks about anything other than the semi-immediate threat — on the fritz. Turning my attention away from the fire, even though I can’t actually see it, is not only difficult, it’s a little crazy-making.

My work-from-home tasks today have taken probably four times longer to execute than they would under normal circumstances. It’s like I have to apply conscious effort to do things that I usually do by rote. Entering passwords, for instance, is a drain on my intellect.

And creative writing? Fuhgeddaboutit. My brain won’t play. After all, it’s had months of slow-burn catastrophe to process, like everyone else’s brain has, and however manfully (womanfully?) I try to approach the topics I’d planned on writing about, my gray matter balks like a mule. Leave me alone, it says, I’ve got enough to do. I try to reason with it, to reassure it like I do my anxious relatives: we’re fine, I point out, we’re not in any immediate danger. It’s not like we’re refugees or disaster victims.

Not yet, says the brain. But we’re victim-adjacent.

I soldier on, because what else is there to do? Writers write, right? But without my brain’s willing cooperation, it’s a losing battle. I gave up on working on my novel for the day, and thought perhaps I’d have more luck accessing some of the less recalcitrant regions of my cerebellum by writing poetry instead. Perhaps I could get in touch with some deeper, inchoate thoughts waiting to express themselves in luminous metaphors.

Here’s how far I got:

The fires are raging just past the next hill We’ve packed up our bags and I’ve taken a pill There is ash falling downwards, a silent gray snow If we hear the sirens, we’re ready to go

See what I mean? I give up, brain. You win. How about a drink?

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