Earthquakes and riots. Drought and pestilence. Poverty and wealth, violence and isolation, all within blocks of each other.
I grew up in Southern California. It is not the land of paradise and dreams that so many have tried to portray. It is, in all honesty, a place I am happy to be from.
But you know what is worse than those ills I list above? Fires.
‘Quakes may represent more raw power, may represent Nature near her strongest, but they are…well…expected. They are simply part of the natural order of things.
Fires, though? Fires are worse. An out of control wildfire is chaos at its worst. It is almost a living, breathing thing…and is the closest I can come to a true “supervillain”. You cannot help but anthropomorphize a fire that is threatening you…okay, at least I can’t.
There is an inevitability to a wildfire, a creeping destruction that is as inexorable as it is unavoidable. What is even more terrifying is when the fire, at its worst, seems to follow you. I have been evacuated from a handful of fires over the years, and each time the fire shifted and forced me into a second evacuation.
Take a moment and picture that scene: you have to move again in the middle of the night…you have to explain to confused and scared kids — and confused and scared adults! — just why it’s time to leave again. At that point, the fire isn’t random chance, it’s pure malevolence.
I even “trained” — years and years ago, as part of a high school summer vocational program — in forest fire fighting. To learn and understand the physics of the fire, and the matrix of temperature and terrain and time…that didn’t help. Not a bit. Hell, it made the fire worse, because I understood the inevitability of the whole damned thing.
Over the last few days I’ve been watching California burn. Watching and remembering. Remembering those times I had to evacuate. Remembering sitting on my patio, watching the glow of a fire grow nearer, and debating if it was time to leave. Remembering the ash covering my car. Remembering the panic of the neighborhood, and the fear that was as thick in the air as the smoke.
Do you know what really sticks with you? Beyond the fear and dread, I mean. What sticks with you is the smell. We’ve all smelled campfires and fireplaces…many have smelled the smoke of a house fire. But a wildfire? That has a stench all its own.
I will never forget that smell.
My heart goes out to those Californians living through this literal hell. I know the feelings, and the fears…and the knowledge that there really is nothing you can do. You are at the mercy of the weather and the terrain and the fuel. You are at the mercy of a fire that wants, seemingly, only to destroy.
To put this in terms of writing: there is no agency here. There is no possible agency here. These “characters” have no choices to make that can impact the crisis. They have no ability to change things. They have, in fact, only one choice to make: stay or go. That’s it.
The crisis of this story will move and resolve no matter which they choose…and that powerlessness, as someone who has lived through it, is the worst thing of all.