A Personal History of Fire

"A society built on quicksand, where everyone is getting new lives every day"Pico Iyer on California, The Global Soul

I.

First there is El Morro, 1993.  17,000 acres, 366 homes.  I am six.  My chief memory is of the word evacuation.  We are evacuees.  In exile under a ruinous red sun.  What fascinates me most is the blackened sky, destroying all childhood notions that at midday the world will be light and full of cheer.  On a yellow school bus I sit next to a classmate, a burly boy with ringlets and enormous feet, who sobs with his face pressed against the window.

Hot Santa Ana winds push the fire from El Toro Road to Emerald Bay, Crystal Cove, Laguna Beach.  Neighbours lose houses but ours is spared.  We return to it a few days later.  My world is now a wasteland, a wilderness of ash and miscellany: what remains.  We walk through people’s flattened living rooms, see the curled edges of furniture, the melted pots and pans.  Teacups and saucers, a frame, a telephone.  Detritus.

II.

After the fire, the dreams start.  A methodical prioritizing of possessions: what would you save, if you had time enough to plan? Ever after I’m haunted in sleep by the desire to rescue a favourite pair of jeans, a box of books.  My birth certificate.  You could say it’s a way of discovering what’s important to you, except that the desire is always irrational, impulsive.  In the dreams I wander the hallways of my parents’ house, trying to fit as much as I can into a suitcase, including bars of chocolate with old family photos.  Trying to hold on to something that might so easily disappear in a cloud of smoke.

III.

Then Gaviota.  After we move to the Ranch everything seems more fragile.  Impossible to forget that the land is master of itself, that we are insignificant creatures.  And besides, we are more vested, more rooted here.  My father jackhammered a place for us amongst these rocks, built a sense of belonging out of stucco, satio tiles, a wooden frame.

2004.  This is the weekend that I am graduating from high school but what I remember is a sense of homelessness.  For two days I roam the towns along the 101 in my two-door sedan, carrying an assortment of clothing in the trunk, a few stray objects, several notebooks.  For two days I am the sum of what is in that trunk.  Freedom, terrible freedom.

If we lose the house, I think, at least I’ll have my diploma.

IV.

“But in my own country, also, sometimes, I have an exile’s feeling.” Jawaharlal Nehru.

V.

I return to California after a year in a rainy country. I am not so distanced from it that I have forgotten; not yet.  I still sniff the air on hot summer nights and in wet November, when the English light the Guy, I’m a bundle of nerves watching the sparks from the bonfire.

We drive north from Los Angeles, listening to a country western station.  Near Santa Barbara, a voice cuts into the music, warning of a fire nearby.  We follow a line of fire trucks from Ventura; at Glen Annie, the northernmost exit before the no man’s land between Goleta and Buellton, they turn off and we see great orange flames on the hillsides.  The sky, even in midnight navy, has a strange glow.  Ahead of us is the ghost of a car, covered in ash.

The next day we try to read the haze.  The ash comes down like snow, so that in the afternoon you reach for my hair, pluck a few white flakes from the dark strands, say, it looks like you have dandruff.  On the radio, people are calling to talk about a power outage in town.  All the traffic lights are out, says one woman.  I’d like to see the National Guard home from Iraq so that they can deal with things like this.

Welcome to California, I say to you.

A place used to destruction.  She is systematically deconstructed, undone each year by the elements.  Ravaged by wildfires in summer and by mudslides and floods in winter.  Her spirit lies in her ability to stand shouting in the face of an inferno and then to go on after all that.  She’s a skeletal creature, really, reduced in every season to bones and faith.  Who are these madmen who live here?  What has possessed us?

“There is science, logic, reason,” Edward Abbey once wrote, “there is thought verified by experience.  And then there is California.”