Friday, August 5, 2016

The Flip Side of Paradise: Life in Fire Country by Alison Henderson

I grew up in Kansas then spent twenty-five years living in Minnesota. Over the years, I've learned how to prepare for and deal with tornadoes and blizzards. None of that prepared me for life in fire country. 

Since I retired at the end of 2012, and OG and I pulled up stakes and moved to Carmel Valley on the Central Coast of California, we've experienced several significant wildfires. Now, native Westerners are used to the annual cycle of wet and dry seasons, mudslides and fires. I'm not. Fire simply isn't the same kind of concern in the Midwest. Precipitation occurs throughout the year. The terrain is flat, and any fires are relatively easy to extinguish. Here, the same steep mountains, pine forests, and coastal scrub that make for spectacular scenery also make fires extremely difficult to fight.
Smoke line from our back deck several days ago



Map of fire 7/30/2016
On July 22nd, fire broke out in a canyon in Garrapata Park in Big Sur, about five miles south of Carmel. At first, I wasn't too concerned. I had no idea what happens when a wildfire has plenty of fuel and a mind of its own. I soon learned. It went from a plume of smoke on the horizon above the farthest visible ridge to a choking blanket of smoke, enveloping the entire community. As I write this, the fire has consumed 38K acres, destroyed 57 homes, and taken one life. By the time your read this, I'm sure it will be worse. We currently have 5,300 firefighters from up and down the entire West Coast working night and day, and the fire is still only 15% contained. We are told to expect the situation to last for weeks.

That seems to be to be the biggest difference between western wildfires and the kind of extreme natural events I grew up with. Tornadoes and blizzards feel finite. They're horrible, then they're done, and you start cleaning up. Huge wildfires can increase in size and ferocity every day for weeks, or even months. 

The effect on the psyche is much like being under siege. You try to go about your daily business, but nothing is the same, and reminders are everywhere. The sky is the wrong color; sometimes you can't breathe safely; and the house stinks of smoke. Everyone is stressed all the time, including the wildlife. The firefighters you see everywhere are saviors, but they're also daily reminders of how wrong things are.
Yes, that really is the sun.
 


This morning, after another difficult night that ended in a nightmare about a friend dying, I realized this is how far too many people in our world feel every day. Whether they live in crime-ridden neighborhoods in American cities or war zones half-way around the world, they suffer they grinding stress of living under constant threat. It's a testament to the strength of the human spirit that so many keep going, day after day, and still manage to find some pleasure or beauty in life.

It appears likely we have several more weeks of this ahead, but I keep reminding myself to shut up and smile. We could be in Aleppo.

Alison
www.alisonhenderson.com 



22 comments:

Jannine Gallant said...

I'm as used to the threat of wildfire as anyone can get, having lived in the woods of California my whole life. We've been smoked in many, many times, and it's always disgusting. This summer we've been lucky so far. (Knocking on wood.) Hoping they get it under control sooner than expected!

Liz Flaherty said...

I never understood my particular horror of fire (I've never been exposed to it) until you said that about our Midwestern natural events being finite. That's exactly it.

Hugs to you. Stay safe.

Barbara Edwards said...

Wildfire isn't a threat here in New England. Not like there. Hope everything stays safe and they put it out.

Rolynn Anderson said...

You've written well about perspective, Alison. And luck. We could have been born in a Syria and suffering nightly right now. Some of my most edifying moments came when we were on our boat at the mercy of bad seas that came out of nowhere (let's not even talk about a rogue wave). With seas like that in a little 40,000 pound boat, you mentally and physically have to bear it. Slog through it. My heart goes out to those who lost loved ones and homes in the fires.

Diane Burton said...

I hope you're still safe, Alison. I can't even imagine the stress you're under. You're right about the Midwest. Tornadoes come and go. Same with blizzards. Over and done with. Hopefully, the fires will be out soon. Hugs.

Tanya Hanson said...

Great post and perspective, Alison. Stay safe. One day the fire will be over and nature will sprout again. Hugs...

Alison Henderson said...

Jannine, I'm not sure I'll ever develop an acceptance of this as normal, but life does go on.

Alison Henderson said...

Liz, we had a serious house fire about ten years ago, and that was my first real exposure to fire. I still can't smell wood smoke without flashing back.

Alison Henderson said...

Barb, it's new to me, too, and not much fun.

Alison Henderson said...

Rolynn, I'm actually much more frightened by the power of the sea than by any terrestrial event--probably the result of spending most of my life landlocked.

Alison Henderson said...

Diane, we're still perfectly safe, but after a couple of clear, clean afternoons, we're heavily smoked in again this morning. I'm starting to get nervous because our daughter is coming for a visit a week from Sunday. The fire will still be burning, but I really want her to be able to have a good time.

Alison Henderson said...

I'm sure looking forward to that day, Tanya. Thanks.

Alicia Dean said...

It's mind boggling how ferocious and destructive those fires can be. It's really difficult for me to comprehend because, living in the midwest, I've never been exposed. I'm so sorry, and I hope they get it under control soon. I did deal with a house fire when I was 11. Our entire house burned to the ground and it was devastating. Forty plus years later, I still can't think about it without a bit of sadness and loss. Stay safe, my dear!

Margo Hoornstra said...

Facing adversity in any form sure does put the important things in life in perspective. Like you, being from the Midwest, blizzards and tornadoes don't faze me, nor do floods. I've have first hand experience with all of them. Fire though, seems somehow less forgiving. Hunker down and stay safe, Alison. And add my hugs to the list.

Vonnie Davis said...

I think of you and OG every time we watch the evening news. I worry. Which is useless, of course. I can't do anything to help. Fires are hungry, fickle entities that shift and devour at whim. I can't imagine the stress of waiting, wondering how close will it come? Will we have to evacuate? Stay safe.

Alison Henderson said...

Alicia, we had a serious house fire about ten years ago, too. Although it didn't destroy the whole house, I still can't bear the smell of wood smoke. The power of these enormous wildfires is almost inconceivable. They take on a life of their own.

Alison Henderson said...

Thanks, Margo. We're perfectly safe at the moment and expect to stay that way, but the smoke is so bad this morning that we're definitely hunkered.

Alison Henderson said...

Thanks for your kind thoughts, Vonnie. I certainly don't want to worry you! The fire is voracious, but the firefighters have made good progress directing it away from us. We're in no danger of having to evacuate. Unfortunately, it's still growing bigger every day.

Brenda Whiteside said...

Born and raised in the west but having lived 18 years in MN, I know exactly what you mean. I never thought of comparing the threat with a fire to those other ongoing tragedies. Thinking of you and the wildlife.

Alison Henderson said...

We're doing our best to keep the birds and deer watered, Brenda.

Leah St. James said...

Very strange...I posted a comment yesterday but it's not here! Argh. Although it was while my laptop was beeping a low-battery warning at me.

Anyway...I've always been horrified by the wildfires out in California ever since I watched a documentary series back in the '70s (I think) about a family that lived out there. I think it was called "An American Family" and it ran on PBS. I vividly remember them fleeing from fire and it scared the you-know-what out of me. Stay safe, Alison.

Andrea Downing said...

I dread the thought of wild fires. Most of the year I live on the tip of Long Island, in the pine barrens. We've had wild fires but they were short-lived; with the crazy way the weather is going, who is to say there won't be another fire, barricading us in with no place to go except into the sea? The rest of the year I'm out in Wyoming near Grand Teton and that, of course, has its fires. One can but just pray and get on. Stay safe.