To escape from the smoke, we had to get closer to the fire. It’s a paradox that I did not dare try to explain to my eighty-four-year-old father back in Michigan. Since the early weeks of the pandemic, we’ve felt trapped as if in a bunker. In California, with the unprecedented fires, the environment has doubled down. I long for the return to normalcy, even if it is an illusion of clean air and blue skies. If we can get away to somewhere new, we can go back to our own preoccupations without the constant reminders that we are here. That we will be here, indefinitely.
In Oakland, with daily readings on the Air Quality Index exceeding 150 pm (particulate matter), I looked at the PurpleAir website and its map with updated sensor readings every ten minutes — from hundreds of meters — and found a rental house in the green zone (healthy air, under 50 pm), near Occidental. And yet, according to the map, the fire was raging somewhere north and east of our destination. We would be going toward the fire. This was the Walbridge fire, part of the LNU complex burning out of control six miles north. Was it a confluence of coastal winds and topography that nudged away the unhealthy air? I had no idea, but the encouraging light green shade of better air beckoned.
On our arrival, it was ninety degrees outside, airless as an oven, and the hills were shrouded in smoke around the trees at the peripheries of the property, which rose up to vineyards behind a wire fence at the edge of the yard. In that moment of reckoning, I began to wonder if, in our need to get away, we weren’t setting ourselves up for danger. I called the owner to find out how to get access into the house, and for info on what to expect regarding the fires.
Using the access code, we stepped into the house. Built in 1871, the cool drift emanating from inside convinced me it was air-conditioned. “It’s not A/C,” the owner, Ron said. “The place cools right down at night.” Having spent enough time in old houses in the summer, the concept eluded me. With three large ceiling fans going inside, the temperature was in the upper sixties. We didn’t have to open any windows, which would have been useless anyway, as they would have let the smoke in. According to the AQI the reading was, at that moment, around 150 pm, about as bad as in Oakland, and perhaps equivalent to Los Angeles before the Clean Air Act. Far too unpleasant to withstand for long (headaches). Ron said that if we did not feel safe, he would give us a refund if we wanted to leave and hadn’t touched anything in the house. This meant returning to our usual air in Oakland, where the by-products of several hundred fires hours away have converged undiminished, leaving a constant orange haze. But what about the roads out of here if we needed to leave? “There’s a spaghetti of roads,” he said. “At least here,” he added, “by evening the coastal winds have a good chance shifting, northward.”
I cannot help but feel some guilt in this possibly American habit of leaving a problem to escape it. The original builder and homesteader — the owner’s great grandfather — had done just that a century and a half ago when they left the Midwest to evade a band of marauding terrorists. I learn this from the historical information about the house that the owners have provided in a three-ring binder. In our exodus for a long weekend, aren’t we contributing to the problems of global warming that are having a direct impact on these devastating fires? Maybe, yes. We are doing nothing to fight the fire, just moving ourselves around the chessboard in such a way as to avoid their residue. We are looking out for ourselves while Rome burns. Regarding my culpability, we are aware that nothing this year is normal, and we are doing whatever we can to make it somewhat — not normal, maybe engaging — for our six-year-old daughter. And that means to escape.
It is the season of masks. As such, I have taken to wearing an N95 mask around my neck ready to deploy along with my standard-issue, handcrafted Covid-19 mask which I exchange before stepping in the doorway of a business. I’m not sure why the smoke should bother me that much, as it seems the same as when we go camping and are surrounded by campfires. Except that what burns in a forest fire is any and everything. Trees, houses, cars, and other, unconscionable things. And all that manufactured plastic that coats or is a component to everything.
In the nearby town of Occidental, we stop at a local gift shop. We thought that this shop, like most, was hurting for business. We must have looked like fine rubes with our salient deer eyes in the headlights (masked, of course). I try to get a read from the proprietor.
“Is it safe to stay?” I ask.
“It’s fine now,” she says. “But we had a scare earlier.” She mentions a nearby brush fire that we had heard about on the radio driving up. “Our cars are packed.” She delivers this information in a relaxed posture and seems unmoved by fear. At the edge of a county under warning, we only have a car and the bags we’ve unloaded at the rental, so we should also be ready to go.
After spending a few hours driving around and exploring, looking for a winery that does not require reservations — another casualty of social distancing, no luck — we return to our farmhouse rental. The sky has cleared late in the afternoon, offering pastel-hued clouds and fresher air than we’ve breathed in weeks. Like a memory is the windblown smoke and the conflagration a few miles away.
Wandering across the yard, what was once grass is prickly sticks on sun-beaten ground. On the half acre or so are ramshackle structures whose dried out wood siding is splotched with moss blossoms. From when this used to be an orchard, there are crooking, lichen-covered apple trees, weathered by heat and neglect, which still have apples that are crisp and a little sour. My daughter picks them, searching for the best-looking ones. On the rear deck of the house, I can squint and imagine myself in Baja, as the owners have made it an isolated utopia for the wander-lusting city dweller, complete with hot tub, string lights, and tropical plants. At the fence, soldiers of grapevines snake into a landscape that billows around us. In the evening, we can see the smoke on the horizon. My daughter, hearing coyotes call, answers back to them. I swear they are communicating.
Before I rented it, and maybe the real reason I did so, is that I sensed that this old house had character. When we arrived and saw it, wandered in the spaces, noted the high ceilings, the generous proportion of rooms, of places to sit and contemplate the landscape, I started considering the writing I could get done that I seem to have less time for in the city, surrounded as I am with the never-ending busyness of lockdown. And, when I read that the house was originally built in 1871, then destroyed in 1906, then rebuilt (so, yes, not exactly 150 years old), I could imagine the homesteader’s attachment. The charm emanated from every joint, every piece of cracked plaster, every cobweb.
I will admit the bed was an issue. I thought it too soft, and if I had to sleep on my side to prevent myself from disrupting the other members of my family, it was impossible for me to get comfortable. On my own, I would have sunk into the downy depths of the bed, spread-eagled, and snored to accompany the coyotes.
Awakening in the morning, the air carries the scent of a dairy farm underneath the smoky notes of the fire, and I put on my N95 and wander out onto the deck. Because of the source of the hundreds of fires, lightning strikes, I brood on what feels like a burgeoning apocalypse for our warming planet. The earth is trying to turn into Venus, and we are ushering it along.
As for not explaining our break to my father, I am 99 percent certain that if I tell him that we are merely six miles from the fire — whereas, when at home, we are at most maybe sixty miles from it — he will tell me, “Then you’d better get the hell away from it,” with an added non-sequitur I have learned to not take personally. “What on earth were you thinking?” My father in recent years is, however well-intentioned, often reactionary, which is when he doesn’t have all the facts. The first words in response to my situation I almost immediately, disregard. I hold my tongue.
I watch the fire north of us. Six miles doesn’t seem that far away, but at least I can now see it with the slight delusion of objectivity. Plumes of white smoke billow as if a volcano has released it. At the horizon, drifting in the trees is a thicker shroud of the smoke that had watered our eyes on the drive in. I felt at a safe remove, though I thought of the horror devoid of any relief that was consuming forests and houses north of Guerneville, a town I’d been to many times. Last year there were floods from the Russian River, and this year, the Walbridge fire. If it’s not for the ancestral ties, the beauty of the landscape, the 150-year-old architecture on the foothills of the Russian River wine country, what will keep people from leaving? Fire season is now an ominous and predictable annual event, a fifth season. It can feel like we are stuck in the ceaseless unchanging, knowing that something, eventually, must change.
Robert Detman has published writing in more than fifty literary journals, including the Antioch Review, New Orleans Review, The Smart Set, The Southampton Review, and The Tusculum Review. His short stories have been finalists for the New Letters Literary Awards and nominated for the Best of the Net.