Fire Season #4
“I’d put our AQI at "bloody sun,” the Badger said.
This is a free post from The Real Sarah Miller, my fourth about fire season which, unfortunately, is about all I can think of right now. People who can or want to pay can support this. Those who can’t or don’t feel moved to for whatever reason don’t have to. Everyone who reads this is appreciated.
I just want people to know what fire season is like.
Sunday, August 15
When I got up this morning there were no local fires, but the Dixie Fire up north was still going strong. Our air has been dismal and this morning it was worse than usual. I was making the same pear cake I made in a previous story and the Badger came into the kitchen for some coffee before going out to play disc golf, again. He looked out the window. “I’d put our AQI at “bloody sun,” he said. “Are you writing your story?”
I said that I was. “Actually can you look up the AQI for me?” I added. I was beating eggs. “I want to know if I can go swimming.” I will swim in anything under about 100. It used to be 70, but I have lowered my standards. Plus the Badger has been an inspiration, cheerfully disc golfing his way through any manner of atmospheric hideousness.
He looked at his phone for a minute and then announced, “Whoa, you can buy Santa Cruz coffee online.”
“Give me the goddam AQI,” I said. “Give me the number.”
“Ok, Ok,” he said. “Let’s see what we got here. One says 68... one says 186...and another says 281. You should make your story this week about how the AQIs are all different depending on where you look.”
As I feel the story suggested by the Badger has been told in the preceding paragraphs, I will instead tell the story of Wednesday.
Wednesday, August 11
YubaNet 1 covers all kinds of news for Nevada County but during the fire season, which is now almost half the year, it covers fires. I follow @YubaNetFire on Twitter, and at times, do so obsessively. Someone recently suggested this wasn’t good for my nervous system, which I thought was reasonable. But I find myself in a bit of a pickle here. When I hear sirens and the sounds of planes, my anxiety spikes. I have to look. I have to see what @YubaNetFire says (which hereafter I will refer to as YubaNet) otherwise I just keep getting more and more nervous. If there’s a fire near here, obviously, I want to know. I also want to know If there’s a fire near T. 's work, in fact, this prospect is almost more terrifying, because his workplace is in the forest, and our house is downtown, and right next to the freeway. That doesn’t mean that we are immune to fire. But it’s different from people in the middle of the woods. Except of course when it’s not. But still.
I checked YubaNet Wednesday, when I woke up. The Dixie Fire was huge and getting bigger, as usual, and there was no other fire news to speak of. I also read about the Taliban retaking Afghanistan in the wake of the disastrous American occupation, which made life here seem a bit like Candyland set at Club Med, if smokier, and with more “Blue Lives Matter” flags. I drove to Auburn to do a boring errand. Then I went to the local bookstore to get reading material for a friend of mine who is home with COVID (and toddlers and yes she is vaxxed.). She said she wanted something “easy to read but well-written and totally absorbing” and I tried to get “My Brilliant Friend” but they didn’t have it. I bought “Normal People.” I ordered “My Brilliant Friend” and texted her “I just ordered “My Brilliant Friend” for “My Covid Friend.”
Back at home I checked YubaNet, hoping against hope I would see nothing except the last tweet about the Dixie Fire. But there was a new tweet, a new fire (a new start, they are called) in Colfax, not far from the River Fire, which began on August 4th, lasted just a few days, and burned 142 structures. This new fire start honestly didn’t sound too bad. I wasn’t psyched about it, but it seemed promising that it would be a quick one. I decided to work out. And just as I got my stuff together to do this, I thought I’d check Twitter one more time, just to see how it was going. The fire in Colfax was indeed not a big deal. But that was the good news. The bad news: there was a fire between my house and T.’s work, with a lot of trees in between on either side. Why am I even mentioning the lots of trees. There are lots of trees everywhere, all of them dry as a bone.
I told myself to just keep working out, that when I finished two sets I could check again. So I worked out with a terrible pit in my stomach. But by the time I was done, the new fire also seemed to be dealt with. I took a shower. I washed my hair. I wash my hair a lot more than I used to these days, it’s a dependable, easy pleasure.
I did another errand that afternoon. I started to feel kind of normal. Maybe I am getting used to this, I told myself. And they’re really doing a good job putting out these fires. I can settle into this. It’s not that bad! Things could be so much worse, I thought, people all over the world have lived their lives through much worse, life is suffering, nobody ever promised you a rose garden, etc. I told myself all that, and believed some of it too. Except the rose garden part. I believe I was promised a rose garden, and I’d like my money back.
Back at home, I started to assemble some ingredients to make pesto. I’d never made pesto before in my life, I was going to make pesto! Then I heard a plane, and, I was pretty sure, another one. Maybe they were just going to the Dixie Fire, the ongoing nightmare, the known unknown? I looked at my phone, at YubaNet’s feed.
And there was fire number three of the day! OH JOY! in Brownsville, Yuba County, one county away, maybe 30 miles as the crow flies. This fire was hardly in my backyard, but it looked like it had the potential to be gnarly. It was blowing up very fast.
Now I want you to know that I did not think that this fire, the Glen Fire, was statistically likely to make its way to my door. There has not been a fire this year that came close to making it to my door. The closest fire I have personally experienced was the 2020 Jones fire, which, at one point, had a suggested evacuation zone about a mile from my house. I left town during that fire not because I was on the brink of death but because I didn’t want to wait around to be evacuated, even though I was aware there was a very good chance I would not be evacuated. And because the smoke was terrible.
As I understand it, there are three levels of evacuation: 1. Get the fuck out now. 2. Get your shit together but not all of it, please, and get the fuck out ASAP. 3. Get your shit together because if we tell you to get the fuck out you need to be ready. I was nowhere near any of this with the Glen fire, but it had the potential to turn into a super big ass fire, right near me, that would burn for weeks and weeks and turn into God knows what.
Now I was really nervous. I couldn’t stop looking at my phone. The pesto ingredients huddled around the food processor struck me as absurd. There were evacuations, and the evacuations expanded quickly. I made myself a gin and tonic and read a book. It was about Germany and Poland in 1937. Not terribly relaxing. I told myself I wouldn’t look at my phone for a half hour. When I did, miraculously, the fire behavior was “moderating.”
I started to make pesto. Pesto is really easy to make. My entire life I thought pesto was hard to make, but it just was so easy. My phone rang. It was T. The reception was bad, I couldn’t hear anything. I tried back and got nothing. I thought I’d better look at YubaNet. There was a new start, YubaNet reported. It was in a rural area right near where T. works.
My phone rang again. It was T. “Well,” he said, half laughing because truly this day had been so ridiculous. “There’s a fire out here.”
“I know,” I said. “I just saw it.”
“I’m going to stay here for a while in case we have to evacuate.”
“Ok,” I said.
“I need you to be strong,” he said. If he had to help his parents evacuate it would be bad if I was calling him every five minutes, freaking out, and this was definitely something I would want to do.
“I’m being strong,” I said. “I’m making pesto.”
“Good,” he said, and hung up.
I sat down at the kitchen table and sobbed for a few minutes. I thought about how being here was so much better than being at the Kabul Airport and felt bad when this made me feel a little bit better. I thought about how I felt sick from stress and what would it be like to be there, to have this multiplied by 1000, with no escape, and to have felt this way for years and years, or your whole life, and how much of it was the fault of the United States, which was, when you said it aloud, such a creepy phrase. “Those poor people,” I said to Ruthie, a dog. “Why is everything so terrible? What are we supposed to do with how terrible everything is?”
About a half an hour later I got another text from T. “My view from here,” it read. The picture beneath his message took about fifteen seconds to download, and I prepared myself for an image of a smoke plume coming up over the cedars and Ponderosa Pines surrounding his parents’ house. It turned out to be an open bottle of Sierra Nevada sitting on a picnic table. The fire wasn’t going to be a big deal. T. was having a beer with his dad. He said he’d be home soon.
We ate pesto. We drank Scotch, and watched “Never Have I Ever” next to an open door that let in the slightly cooler air mixed with smoke. I told T. that the guy who played Paxton Hall-Yoshida, a high school student, was 30 years old. I don’t care if he is 900. I love that show. It takes me away.
We fell asleep. I woke up at 4 AM gripped by anxiety. I woke up T. and said I didn’t know if I could take it anymore. “Everything is Ok,” he said. “Just listen to how still it is outside right now. Go back to sleep.”
YubaNet is run by an outwardly stern Luxembourgian named Pascale Fusshoeller. The U.S. government tried to deport Fusshoeller a few years ago after she ran a stop sign no one even knows exists and subsequent “investigations” revealed that her “immigration status” was not up to their “standards.” Very uncustimarily, everyone in Nevada County freaked out, made lots of phone calls to the powers that be, and she was, after a stint in jail, not deported. I used to work in the same co-working space with Fusshoeller. Even though my blue heeler Merle never did anything except beg for her food and get into her trash, Fusshoeller put her hand over her heart and took a step backwards when I told her Merle died. “Merle,” she said, and nodded reverently. A few weeks ago, during the first hours of the River Fire, someone complained that YubaNet was being “pretty slow to update” fire information, and Fusshoeller, who pretty much works as fast as she can, and on days like that, for many, many hours in a row, took a few seconds amidst the mayhem to respond, “Wow Thanks for that.” I laughed out loud, despite the awfulness of the day, picturing her beautiful scowl.