Writers on the Range: Apocalypse now, as fires rage through California
Writers on the Range
For Hollywood’s forthcoming film version of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel, The Road, the movie-makers should have done their location scouting here in California’s Butte County. If you’ve read the novel, you’ll recall that it describes the journey of a man and his son, two of the survivors of a calamity that has left the planet nearly devoid of life. There’s a big chunk of real estate in my back yard that looks like that right now, with ghostly ash-shrouded trees haunting the ridgelines and the buttes burnt black, one after the other.
For nearly three weeks, lots of Californians have lived with the kind of apprehension that people in Iraq have known for nearly seven years. It’s not that we’re worried about suicide bombers; it’s that hundreds of our neighborhoods look and sound like a war zone. Smoke hangs in the air, helicopters and air tankers rumble above our heads.
Four weeks ago, a big fire consumed more than 22,000 acres in the foothills here. That fire took no lives, though it did claim some 80 homes in an around Paradise, a town whose motto declares: “All that its name implies.”
But Paradise isn’t very paradisiacal this summer. Many of the retired elderly have taken to wearing surgical masks against the smoke. An inversion layer has kept the air still, which in turn has kept the fires from spreading, which in turn has kept some of the air operations from flying as frequently as they would otherwise do, to drop retardant or water on the flames.
The first of our local fires prompted an evacuation of the town of Paradise and created a state of persistent fear for thousands of people who know that a shift in the winds could bring fire to their rooftops.
Now, fire has returned, fire from the sky sparked by over 1,000 lightning strikes that ignited hundreds of spot fires in the tinder-dry hills and canyons. Some of those fires have been extinguished; some have spread. Out my window, as I type these words, the sun is blocked by thick smoke that covers much of Northern California, the sickly light through the trees giving everything a doomed look. If you’re looking for Hell’s landscape, the drive is short, and way too close to Paradise.
A few weeks ago, during that first fire, I joined a throng of evacuees, a caravan of cars loaded with hastily gathered possessions and nervous pets. Together, we fled our homes, unsure of what might remain when we returned. We were, in that moment, at one with the history of our kind, those millions of the imperiled who have been forced throughout history to run before the scourges men create or the fates decree ” floods, fires and wars beyond counting.
A few miles up the mountain, men and women are battling a fire that yet may overwhelm them and force us to flee again. People shut their windows against the smoke, but it seeps in, and a faint nausea comes with it. Sleep is fretful. Last night, restless with uncertainty, I got up to channel-surf in search of distraction. I found an old Czech film bearing the title The Fifth Horseman is Fear. Fire, Flood, Famine, War: When those apocalyptic horsemen saddle up, fear always joins the posse, from Baghdad to Paradise and back again.
But the situation here, as grim as it currently is, is the result of lightning strikes, not bombs, and our local fear is driven by nature’s caprice, not human enmity. We have lived on the edge of this peril for weeks, but the people of Iraq have known this kind of fear for a biblical number of years since we first dropped fire from the skies in an act we called “shock and awe.” The fear that has stalked us here on Paradise ridge was not loosed with malice aforethought, and it is hard to imagine the sort of people who would bring such a hell to people they do not know, even though we, ourselves, are just such people.
From here to Oregon, from here to the sea, from here to the state Capitol where the Terminator presides, the smoke hangs thick, a doomsday scenario out of a futuristic novel, or from the diaries kept in Baghdad by people who know much worse than we have known. And they have known it ever since we decided to do to them, on purpose, what has befallen us here in California ” the result of what is called an act of God.
Jaime O’Neill is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes in Magalia, Calif.
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