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
“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
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
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
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
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
“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
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.