Monday, July 28, 2008

Summer of Fire

I waited around yesterday for a visitor which turned out to be a great thing to do. Got the house straightened(always helps the mind) and when the smoke cleared sat in the yard and stared at green(there is a view where you can't see burn) and watered flowers and generally did nothing the whole afternoon. It was quite wonderful to feel so much space and time available and not be constrained by smoke and fire, danger and stress. When I came back in May, I began focusing on the kids and grandkids arrival at the end of June and put all my energy there only to see it go up in smoke. The two swings and the hammock sit unused until I plopped myself into the latter yesterday. We moved our family gathering to Stinson Beach and SF and it was a great time, but not at all what I had envisioned and hoped for. And while Una and Maya and children ran around the Exploratorium, I was on the phone hearing about the fire burning down a cabin at Sweet's and coming over the ridge at Richard's and supposing that when it hit the old Sims fire burn that it would be an unstoppable inferno. But no, strangely and anticlimactically, it lay down in the old burn and petered out.

There was space enough to write this:

I survived, although I feel like I know what it is to be on the edge of war, or in Katrina, or Iraq or in the midst of global warming as life diminishes. Katherine my neighbor said she felt privileged by this knowledge and grateful and I understood what she meant. It opens your heart. We have been overcome by forces beyond control, first nature and then the government. I had been wiped out before but was gone and returned to devastation. This time I was here while devastation whirled around me, turning the forest where I live black and brown. It is possible to see how dreams die and are swept away in an hour, or a day. The fact that you are alive and intact at the end of the day becomes the success you judge your life by.

The smiling young faces who came to man the fire lines once the bulldozers had pushed in the containment lines, which included hundreds of square miles of unburned forest, these smiling faces, for the most part, would not break the rules, refused to put out a burning tree, or the spot fire. Their job description was to protect human life and structures, for which we are grateful, but otherwise let the forest burn. And burn it did. And when it did not burn well, then helicopters dropped ping pong balls of flammable material into the green woods to get it started burning. They set fires with torches along the perimeter of the bulldozed lines. The smoke sent some of us to the hospital. Try sleeping at night when you can see flames from your bedroom window.

Glib phrases like "fire ecology" were mentioned, neglecting to say that the "fire ecology" practiced by settlers and Native Americans was done in November or early April or a dry spell in February. Nature, of course, had been involved more randomly with lighting. It was madness organized from on high. "We don't have the resources" was the mantra of firefighters we questioned about tactics. Why burn the 5000 acres of forest between two fires??? George Bush cut the FS firefighting budge by one third. When I asked at one of the town meetings the FS held, why didn't they get right on it while the fires were small and put them out. I suggested it would be more cost effective in the long run instead of waiting until it was big enough to call in the huge firefighting industry which costs millions and is privatized so people are fighting the fires have no interest in putting them out because then their job is gone, whereas a FS employee had a job in any case. I was told FS budgets weren't set up that way.

There were the older wiser firefighters who shook their heads at the waste, who told stories of how they used to go out with hoe dads and shovels and get it our immediately. They were willing to break the rules, to push back the logs from the container, to save the favorite tree.

Now they are all gone except for the new skeleton crew who just came in. Crews are rotated in and out at 2 week intervals. The backburns still smoke and smolder making the mornings hazy and unpleasant. Life begins to return to normal. I haven't been to the swinging bridge or any of the beaches. Don't want to see. Will count my blessings. The view which the new house was facing and which was threatened is mostly unsullied. The gratitude I feel comes, in part, from surviving. But is is more than that. It also comes from knowing I am not different than millions of others who have suffered through devastation and trauma--that it can happen to anyone. There is no privilege that protects a favored few. The sense that those tragedies that happen on TV happen to someone else is an illusion.

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