Letter from California

Dwayne follows his black lab down the gravel driveway to greet us, using a maul as a walking stick. We are two wives in upscale casual clothes, with our geriatric dogs and preposterous notion of a holiday. He’s our age, wearing boots saturated with round-the-clock dust, and there’s something dazed and profoundly literal about him. He says he used to have seizures—15,000 of them, by his math—but he had brain surgery a year ago, “and now the world looks very different.” He blinks mildly at us from underneath his buzzcut.

His property sits atop Mount Veeder, and in earlier days, it was a mine and brothel. In a twist of the modern economy, it is now an Airbnb, our portion of which is a little red barn that sits along a row of crisped-black madrones. The air reeks of char. The Nuns Fire burned unpredictable swaths through these mountains just three weeks ago, but this spot looks surreal: green grass, varnished redwood fences, a row of bright-spot perennials hanging in baskets along the main porch. Ten feet outside the property is a fuming wilderness. Dwayne explains that beneath our feet is a mineshaft full of water, and across the road is a volunteer fire department. The tankers replenished themselves here as they fought to contain the flames, meanwhile wetting the structures to keep them from burning, and this is the only reason he and his mother are alive and renting us a barn for my birthday.

A few days ago, Dwayne assured us the fires would not affect our stay. Please don’t cancel. He left out the part where the drive would take us through the gutted town of Glen Ellen and a snaking mountain road lined with the ashen shells of cars.

To someone from a wet, green, East Coast state, the 2017 fires in Northern California and their aftermath shocked something inside of me speechless. It began with an absence of sound—the power went out around 1 a.m., silencing air conditioners and the ambient hum of an October night. By dawn, the wind had driven the firestorm across a six-lane highway and through a Santa Rosa neighborhood that would, for months, remain a scrape of dirt, charred foundations, and fluttering yellow tape. The same scene would repeat all across the Mayacamas Mountains, in towns from Fountaingrove to Glen Ellen. Over 5,000 houses and stores burned.

A fire is a horror that partially blinds the eye that sees it. It’s a little like looking at the sun. To this day, there’s an ash-white something inside my chest, and it pangs at the sight of debris, melted cars, piles of blackened materials that used to be a house. A fire’s most elemental power over the human imagination is to shock you with how combustible our entire life is. To show you not just death, but the insignificance of anything you’ve ever built.

Lying in the loft of the Airbnb, flanked by my nervous dogs, I watch a YouTube interview of a local man who lost everything but his cat. He said he woke to fifty-foot flames coming down the mountain, hurling heat, and he had time only to grab one cat, get in the car, gather his disabled neighbor, and drive away. Days later, he’s back looking for his other cats. But, the comments insist, he left them because he thinks pets are replaceable. Millionaires, they say, in $800,000 houses don’t deserve pity. The brush, they say, should have been cleared, and people should be blamed for their suffering.

If only people could be more like Dwayne. If only whatever dysfunction that defines us could be surgically carved out, leaving a more peaceable self. That our hands could pick up an axe and only ever see it as a tool. Furthermore, that we couldn’t even imagine how anyone might see it as a threat.

Put yourself shoulder to shoulder with people covered in dirt and soot, finding horrors around every block. Here is a stalk of mottled iron that used to be a staircase. In the lot next to it is a single pottery planter, in a cheerful aquamarine glaze, fronting an entire lot of incinerated wood and collapsed stone. Pottery and charcoal grills survive in pristine condition; someone’s gun safe, on the other hand, is a puddle of metal.

You couldn’t have destroyed these homes more thoroughly by detonating a bomb. Cadaver dogs nose through ruins for jawbones, bits of medical devices, any evidence of the deceased. And at the same time, you’re hacking up the airborne particles of someone’s board games and linen closets and pet chihuahuas. The air is stained the color of smokers’ teeth.

Now is a good time to ask, Job-like, “Why?”

In the years to come, the lawyers will answer it one way. The wind blew some power lines down in the middle of a drought. They ignited the forest. While the lawyers are hashing this out, Pacific Gas and Electric’s equipment will also spark the 2018 fire that demolishes the entire town of Paradise, and the company will declare bankruptcy in early 2019. But that’s not really the question, is it?

Conflagration has a provenance here, one so old it’s been used as a gateway to other answers. In the folklore of the local Pomo tribes, the creator Madumda wiped out humankind four times. We humans were finally getting along, not misbehaving as we had in the past, until one day we were very cruel to Coyote’s children. For that offense, Coyote climbed a spiderweb to the sky and lit our entire world on fire. The flames burned so hot that they consumed the tops of the mountains and all the water in the streambeds, and every last one of us. After a scolding from Madumda, Coyote started over from scratch: vomiting ocean water all over the land to make streams and food, and then recreating humans from pairs of feathers.

Here we are, it seems, on our fifth chance. Please don’t cancel.

This town, Glen Ellen, is famous for being the hamlet at the foot of Jack London’s hillside ranch, now a state park. In better times, it showcases 200-year-old homes nestled in a pleasant scrim of oak shade. So of course whole neighborhoods went up like a box of matches. Yet to dwell on the horror of its destruction creates a false fixedness around the experience, an impression that what happened is a static list of damage. By late October, people were already coming back, moving on. Or as a Glen Ellen church sign put it:


That autumn, residents were returning after weeks of evacuation, having done what they could, faced with no choice but to move forward. Fifty meters back from the road, one woman sat in the open air on her foundation, bulging into her elastic jeans and T-shirt, legs straight out, talking to a younger figure in Tyvek coveralls. Those clothes probably belonged to someone else until a month ago. On the other side of the foundation wall was a white pickup, and another work party stood at its bed, talking. Years of cleanup had begun, and the whole town felt like a worksite, oriented toward a single task.

The trucks, the people, the town, the crews, the volunteers: they seemed to be of one dusty color. It was the color of deep fatigue and shock and a dry well of tears, the composite color of the profound generosity of those weeks. People transported strangers’ steers and goats to safety, donated work and money and goods, and opened their homes. For months the highways would be full of power company trucks working to restore the grid, as well as dump trucks transporting debris. The local landfill would gain twenty years’ worth of garbage by spring as owners cleared their lots. People started the long process of getting permits to rebuild.

And not everyone could. To this day, nearly two years later, many under-insured owners have sold their land and left the area. I can drive Mark West Springs Road into the mountains among leveled plots now occupied by nothing but a few pickup trucks and fancy RVs. Left with nothing and lacking money to rebuild a permanent house in an expensive state, some people have opted to live in this odd situation between being a California landowner and being ready to drive away from the next fire at a moment’s notice.

That first and only night in Dwayne’s barn, standing in a last ring of greenery atop a scorched mountain in a snow of falling ash, I wondered morbidly who or what the ashes used to be. I knew there would be more fires and other disasters. Conflagrations, school shootings, border disgraces, floods—the world going on, while each of us carries our disasters inside of us.

I still wonder whether we humans are really on our fifth chance. Maybe it’s actually our sixth, or tenth, or more likely, our first and only shot at making do with the extraordinary blessing of whatever we have: a spouse who plans birthday trips, a surgeon who will try to stop our seizures, a good maul, or even just few strangers on our lawn, telling a few stories about their lives. What disasters, what miracles we are to one another.

Across the grass in the main house, a figure passed across a warmly lit window. I was too far away to see anything else, and after a minute, the lights went dark on Mount Veeder. It was time to sleep, or try.

Sarah Cypher