Fire Season #5
Pretty far from Ok, but also Ok
This is a free post from The Real Sarah Miller, my fifth 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.
It is Monday, August 23. This morning I saw, but did not read, an article saying we can expect fire season (fire danger, smoke, fires, power outages when PG&E cuts electricity on windy days to lower fire risk from power lines, and my neighbors run generators all fucking day, a nightmare) to go on into December. Hardly a surprise, but waking up to this and an AQI of around 200 was not great for morale.
Yesterday I sat outside with a friend during a few hours when breathing was uncharacteristically not that hard, and he told me it’s been about a month since we had good air here in Nevada County, California. This seems right. The Dixie Fire started on July 13. It’s now 724,000 acres, and 38% contained. (A note on containment: 38 percent containment can be very encouraging. For example, when the River Fire was 38%-ish contained (the River Fire burned about 80 homes in Nevada/Placer county at the beginning of the month), we figured they were probably getting somewhere. It wasn’t that shit was over, but it was probably headed in a good direction. However, the reason that 38 percent or thereabouts was encouraging was that the River Fire was in the thousands, not the hundred thousands, of acres. Also, the next day that containment percentage went up significantly, and the next day, it went up more. But the Dixie Fire containment percentage just inches up, and the fire keeps growing, though growth has slowed a little. This is not to say firefighters are doing a bad job or that they’re not getting anywhere. I’m just saying it’s a big fire.
Here is my personal fire situation: I am not in any current direct danger from an existing, burning fire, but my entire area (and area surrounding my area and area surrounding my area, infinity) has been and continues to be at high fire risk, which means that a fire could easily start at any second and get big fast because the timber and brush are all record-breakingly dry. We recently had a fire in Nevada County (River Fire, mentioned above) from which some of our friends evacuated, and which was scary. Since my last dispatch, a new fire has started, a major fire, the Caldor Fire in El Dorado and Amador counties. This fire is further away than the River Fire was, but definitely in our neck of the woods, and big, about 120,000 acres.
Every morning for a week I have woken up and said “Please God (?) let the Caldor Fire be at least a tiny bit contained” and this morning my wish was granted; it is about 5 percent contained.
Here is a tweet from my friend Amy Westervelt who lives maybe 60 miles from me, close to Lake Tahoe, that sums up my feelings:
It seems to me a lot of people think if you’re not literally evacuating everything is Jim Dandy. Someone wrote me the other day and asked if I was in danger from any of the fires and I said “No, not at this time” and they wrote back, “I’m glad you’re Ok” and I was like, “Uh thanks, but in the words of Marsellus Wallace, ‘I am pretty fucking far from Ok.’”
I will allow that I did not experience anything this week like the day we had last week, Wednesday, where four fires started nearby, one after the other. For that reason, I was able to have a lot of “when life gives you lemons you make lemonade” moments this week. None of these stretched into a whole complete day. But sometimes, for a few hours, the sky was kind of blue, the air kind of not that bad, and I was determined to live. There were even times when the air was horrible that I felt moved to do things like take a humorous photo of this husky that looked like it was driving an automobile.
One morning with the AQI at around 147 (Hazardous to most groups!) I thought to myself, “Well, it’s not like it’s 325.” (Hazardous to ALL GROUPS.) So I drove up to the lake by myself and swam in it, all alone. Fewer and fewer boats can get into the lake now, so it’s no longer full of their noise and their loud music and their general chaotic evil. I’m not going to go so far as to call this a silver lining to a massive climate-collapse induced drought, but I do not miss the boats.
The lake is so low it’s even hard for a human to get into it at this point. The dock is sitting on cement, and the boat slip, the end of which used to be in at least seven feet of water, is now in about eighteen inches of water. I wade in up to about my knees and then, standing at the very edge of the slip, crouch down and do an awkward dive/belly flop out into the deeper water, pulling in my stomach and keeping my limbs up so they don’t hit bottom. This method will work for about a week and then I’m going to have to step on gross slippery rocks, possibly sprain an ankle, who knows.
Swimming alone in the lake without boats under gray blue skies actually felt pretty good. I saw the little teenage mergansers and their mother. I saw the osprey. I saw Gary, the lake steward, sitting in his kiosk. He took my $2 even though the lake should have been paying me. He asked me how it was out there.
“It was fine,” I said. “Smoky. Ha. But I mean, what, am I never going to go swimming again?”
“I sit out here every day.” Gary shrugged and then scratched his tattooed forearm. “And I’m fine.” His big dog slumped onto a shaded patch of hard brown dirt and sighed. I don’t think Gary sits around moping about the fires or the smoke. I would like to be more like Gary, but I’m not.
By the time I got home the sky was gray again, the air sooty. Other than the savage heat pressing up against it and the feeling of stomach-churning horror looking at it elicits, a smoky sky looks a lot like a cloudy one. I decided to clean.
There’s a cabinet in the corner of our kitchen, home to dog food, dog medicine, paper bags, rags, mops, in short, way too much stuff, in too many categories. I made it look neat and relocated some items to more appropriate locations. This was satisfying, so I kept going. A friend came over and we sorted out the basement, something I’ve been meaning to do for months. It took us a measly hour and fifteen minutes. I should add that this was a “red flag day.” A red flag day just means that the already terrible fire danger is worse, because of things like wind and/or lightning. There was a lot of wind that day. I remember when I used to like wind, or even better, not notice it. The whole time we were working on that basement I couldn’t hear the wind or see evidence of it. I didn’t think of anything except the basement.
I wasn’t exactly happy, but I was suitably distracted, and I liked this, so much that the following day, I did the unthinkable. I helped a friend move an enormous pile of dirt.
Most people who know me know that I never do yard work, never lift things, never garden, never do anything vaguely manual out of doors. It’s not that I think I am above it; I am just incompetent. I have cleaned friends’ bathrooms, made them meals, driven them any number of places and taken care of their children but don’t ask me to help you lift, carry, or plant anything or, up until last Friday apparently, to move enormous piles of dirt.
What happened was I was visiting another friend when I happened to run into a woman who lives on her street, who I met recently and will call Agnes. Agnes was standing in front of her house next to a truly enormous pile of dirt. Here is a bad photo of it, there is no scale but I am going to guess it was 700 pounds of dirt.
Anyway, Agnes explained to me that this dirt was called Kyle Pile because she’d been working with a gardener named Kyle who had insisted she order it and then, and this is a longer story than will be told here, disappeared. Now Agnes strikes me as an extraordinarily forthright, determined and capable woman. But standing in front of the Kyle Pyle, she seemed diminished.
“I’ll come over tomorrow and help you move it,” I said. Agnes seemed ready to protest, but I said, “I want to do it. Honestly, you’ll be doing me a favor.”
How could she refuse me? The next afternoon, after having spent the morning making eggplant parmesan, I showed up, as promised. It had been a bad morning and it was not a nice afternoon. I have no idea what the AQI was. I’m going to guess 150, or maybe worse. I shoveled dirt into a wheelbarrow for maybe two hours. Agnes did all the wheel barrowing it into the backyard. It was kind of too low to the ground for me and hurt my back. She, on the other hand, was good at wheel barrowing and who am I to argue with raw talent.
My friend Mike lives across the street. After we’d been working for maybe an hour and a half straight he wandered over wearing an N-95 mask. “I was looking out the window,” he said, “And I thought, huh, someone who looks like a lot like Sarah Miller is across the street shoveling dirt, but it can’t be her because Sarah Miller probably doesn’t even know how to shovel — then I realized, OH MY GOD. It is Sarah Miller shoveling dirt. It really is the end of the world.’”
He helped us for a while. We got very close to done and then we all gave up to go drink sparkling rosé with Mike’s fiancé.
When I got home I told T. I had spent the afternoon moving a giant pile of dirt. He thought I was joking. I showed him pictures. The Badger showed up just in time for dinner. T. told him I moved a giant pile of dirt. The Badger also thought he was joking. I felt mildly proud of myself. We ate most of the enormous tray of eggplant parmesan and drank Scotch watching a pretty mediocre but entertaining show called “Hit and Run.” Every time we watch it I say “what’s this show called again” and T. and the Badger say at the same time, “Hit and Run! Jesus.” The show begins with a hit and run, but I still ask every time we watch it
Now it is Monday morning, my house smells like the inside of a hibachi and I’m having someone over for lunch. The menu: all the vegetables in my house that haven’t been eaten and rice. Chopping up all those vegetables will probably be the most fun I have all day, the closest I get to feeling alright, unless someone surprises me with another pile of dirt. Please do not take any of this to be some kind of endorsement of the resilience of the human spirit. My sadness is beyond measure. Writing down what fire season is like for me is the only action I can take at this time. I am unable to tell myself, as other people manage to do, that I am making a difference. The only thing that would make a difference right now would be active sabotaging of the structures that extract and transport fossil fuels, and also wood. That’s all the wisdom I have to share.
Post Script: The Dixie Fire is 40 percent contained. The Caldor Fire remains at 5 percent, and is close to Lake Tahoe. Our air cleared a bit at around 4 p.m. and I ran up to our local lake to swim. The water is even lower now, getting in was a trial, but who cares. I swam out to the middle and on the way back, swallowed some water and coughed horribly for a few seconds. A woman on the shore called out, “Are you Ok?”
“Oh yes,” I called back. “I’m totally fine!”