Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Make It Rain by Jerry Allen Zellers                                                                                     Dedicated to my dad, Scott Zellers, the bravest man I know           
It was a hot, dry year in a long line of hot, dry years stretching back through the past decade, and we stood at the peak of a fierce drought.  The priests of meteorology were predicting heavy rainfall for the winter, and we prayed to El Nino for salvation.  I took a dive into the pool.  Floating on my back, I gazed up at the sun through the fingers of a mighty oak tree.
I was on the deck, facing westward, when I caught my first glimpse of the smoke - a thin, grey column rising small but ominous over the ridge against the clear blue sky. A column thickening and turning black before my eyes, reaching from beyond the hills.  I sent a text message to Dad’s phone with a picture, getting Mom’s response that they were on their way home, about five hours out. 
Then she called. “The fire is on Butte Mountain, so as long as it’s on the other side of the river we should be safe.”
“It looks so close.”
“If you want, you can call Cal-Fire.  They’ve probably got a lot of planes out right now, so they should know what’s going on.”
“Alright, I’ll do that.”
Butte Mountain is about ten miles northwest as the crow flies, on the other side of the river canyon dividing Calaveras from Amador County.  Cal-Fire confirmed what Mom had said.  Taking one last look at the smoke and mounting the quad with a jump, I drove back to the house, my mind spinning like a cog seeking broken teeth.
Lunchbox, my sister Rachelle’s boyfriend, arrived. He described what he saw, an isolated but burgeoning fire in the canyon spewing copious smoke and the early stages of aircraft intervention.  The sky was turning red and yellow as we spoke, with the sun falling and the smoke rising.  I caught my first whiff of brimstone, carried on a bitter and merciless wind.
The power went out.  I called Mom again; who told me the fire had jumped the river.  As the last rays of the sun stretched futilely over the land, I took the quad to the hilltop again, beholding a terrible sight.
Flames were coming out of the canyon, sinuous, undulating yellow teeth devouring green earth in the shadows of the setting sun.  A choral drone echoed inside my skull, dreadful, as if the flames spoke – as if they were alive.
Mom and Dad got home at a little past nine and we shifted gears. They had seen the fire coming up the canyon as they came down the mountain.  A glow emanated over the ridge, and the air was rich with the scent of carbon.   Dad took the truck out on the back road, presumably to shut off the water to the forty acres and check the status of the fire.
We shuffled and struggled to prioritize by lamp and candlelight, stampeding through the living room/kitchen chaotically like servers in a restaurant.  Mom suddenly stopped, smiled, and pointed at something.
A praying mantis was meditating on the couch, still and chill.  Mom gazed at it with unabashed wonder, as if, for a moment, everything she and Dad had worked for over the past thirty years wasn’t in the path of destruction.  It was a snapshot of hope in a montage of futility.
I tried to catch the four cats, starting with Runt, one of the oldest and most docile.  Mom brought Mr. Brown Pants, one of two baby goats, from the upper pasture.
I grabbed my guitar and two boxes packed with Buddhist texts I acquired working for a non-profit Tibetan book bindery. I gathered enough clothing and hygienic products to last a week or so.  
Dad had pulled the truck up next to the gate to the horses’ pasture and hitched up its trailer.  Mom and I hauled the unwieldy cage with the cats from the front yard, stumbling and cursing with them all the way.  I returned to the house to finish packing as Mom helped Dad with the horses.   A few minutes later, Rachelle, Lunchbox and I lined up with our cars behind the trailer.
“We’ll meet at Raley’s!”  Mom shouted, driving the truck loaded down with dogs in the cab, the goat and cats in the bed.  There was no room for Cyclops and Baby Bee, the oldest of the horses, in the trailer.  Separated from his family, faced with bewildering abandonment, Cyclops let out a heartbreaking scream, and my hair stood on end.
Mom led Rachelle and me down the driveway to the highway.  We turned right, bypassing the fire by crossing the canyon into Amador at a higher elevation.  Dad had announced his plans to stay, so he wasn’t with us.  Dad was gearing up to face the dragon, and no one could stop him.  I wasn’t leaving him, so I pulled over at the turnout before the canyon, turned around and drove back.
I saw Dad in the front yard with Lunchbox in the heavy rain of ashes. Dad gave me an inscrutable look as I approached.  His dark blue eyes made me flinch, and his red skin, burnt from decades of working outdoors, was a constant reminder of how lazy I was in comparison.  His head, large and round, sat on wide shoulders, and his biceps were the size of oak tree limbs.  As with Mom, I felt insufficient in his presence.  His gaze then turned to the west, and he said, “Basically, the fire is here.”
Dad commanded Lunchbox and me to hose down everything.  “See that leaf pile right there?” he said to me.  “Drench it.”  Lunchbox took the fire hose and walked around the house, spraying it down over and over again.  I soaked everything in sight into the early hours of the morning.
I slept a few hours until sunrise and started in on moving dry rotted wood away from the house to the front yard and soaking it.  The sky took on a deep reddish-yellow hue as smoke grew closer and thicker, blotting out the sun. When I saw a Cal Fire plane bank sharply overhead like a fighter jet out of World War II, I imagined the pilot shouting to me, “What are you doing?  Get out of here!” The air was bitter and coarse, like burnt toast.  We couldn’t stay.
I had no room left in my car when Dad came across the front yard with his Fender American-made sunburst Stratocaster, an electric guitar he’d bought when we were kids and all talking about forming a family band.  “You got room for this?” he asked.
“I’ll make room,” I promised, and I did.
We departed in a convoy.  I visualized the fire ripping through the house, the teakettle flying through the kitchen and the granite floors rising and separating with the heat.  I visualized the chickens jumping from the roost in flames and Cyclops and Baby Bee running through the pasture, dodging falling trees, terrified.
We took CA-49 to the vista point at the top of the hill.  I could see smoke rising in thick black columns all along the river canyon, overtaking the sky. It was surreal that part of that smoke could be from our house.  We headed down the hill to our people.
We began to put the pieces together. We could now trace the fire’s growth.  By the end of the day on Wednesday, it had grown to 1,200 acres, and had jumped to 2,600 by 6:00 Thursday morning.  By 7:00, it had broken 4,000 acres.  It doubled, and then tripled, to 14,000 acres as firefighters struggled to squelch spot fires igniting constantly ahead of the blaze on bad back roads and uneven terrain.
In the early afternoon, the entire town of San Andreas was evacuated.  The fire had torn its way through half of Calaveras County overnight, coming to knock at the door of the county seat. Many evacuation orders were lifted shortly after, but it reached an arm southward toward Angels Camp, where many residents and their livestock had fled to the fairgrounds serving as the main evacuation center of Calaveras.  Mokelumne Hill, Glencoe, West Point, and Wilseyville were all evacuated as the fire stretched east and west along the canyon, and the population of the park surged, with tents popping up on any available patch of grass.
The next morning, we packed up, cleaned out, and left.  There were scorch marks on the land right outside of Jackson, then some more by Electra Road near Butte Mountain.  I crossed the river and ascended the hill.  Coming up on Moke Hill, I could see into the canyon, stripped bare and ravaged.
What do you do when the fire’s coming at you?
You crank that valve, raise that nozzle, and make it rain.
Make it rain.

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