By Pam S. Dunn
Sarah and her husband were looking at retirement property on California’s central coast when they heard the Butte fire had jumped from Amador to Calaveras County. When they left Thursday morning, they thought the fire was out, but by Thursday evening the town of Mokelumne Hill had been evacuated. By Friday, they began making phone calls, and Sarah’s friends told her that their neighborhood was in flames.
After years of working in stressful jobs, they were living the back-to-the-land existence they’d always talked about. At first, she had the energy of a Gold Rush settler. She and her husband whacked and burned, recovered from poison oak rashes, dealt with star thistle, chaparral, and an overgrown ten acres that needed reclaiming. When it snowed in those days, it seemed a mere skiff, a dusting on the ground that vanished the next day. They’d remained full of rural romanticism. Washing lettuce leaves one at a time. Swiping earwigs and sow bugs down the drain.
In later years, she’d proven not up to the toil. Everything began to weigh on her. Their particular elevation seemed to be nice only in two seasons, spring and fall. Lately, you could snap your fingers and miss the mountain’s golden poppies and the fall’s autumn colors. During the summer fires, she drove though billowing smoke and hot ash, flames on both sides of the highway. In the winter, inching along S bends around wrecked and stranded vehicles, she feared that sudden slip that would match the skip in her heart. The loading of wood into the stove, vacuuming spider webs, canning garden vegetables, and listening to O.E.S. bulletins about the latest wildfire or winter storm—it hit her in a horrible sort of way that there was no point to any of it.
The last time the power went out, her husband carried the flashlight, revealing an aged, craggy face she didn’t recognize. The flashlight’s beam played around the room, bringing out the shapes of things. Then he went out to start the generator that ran the pump and refrigerator. She realized if he died, she would be cut off, helpless. It must have been at that moment, when she began to doubt their retirement plans.
In September, it was over one hundred on California’s central coast. They’d looked at several retirement communities that day. Back in the hotel, she googled the latest Butte fire results. Fire had a different language. Containment in percentages. Fire lines. Nights you prayed for cool downs so the firefighters could get an edge. This time, the fire was raging in the Jesus Maria canyon—moving so fast and hot, the flames were chasing people from their homes.
On television they watched firestorms that looked like tornados. Homes they recognized burning, trees exploding like bombs. When they arrived home on Saturday, gray smoke and hot ash billowed across the road, the sky streaked red and black. Fire trucks parked everywhere along the main highway. Helicopters carrying water buckets churned overhead. The road going to their home was blocked.
“Did you have animals?” the Red Cross worker asked them. “No, just stray cats,” Sarah answered. Both of the cats they’d brought with them from civilization were gone now. One got old and died and the neighbors’ dogs killed the other one.
The next day they told their insurance company they had no idea if they would be coming back to anything. Then Sarah and her husband went shopping for a cell phone and clothes. Everything they owned was in their suitcase. Oddly enough, they had their swimming suits.
The few friends they contacted reported the same thing: their homes were gone. They began to fear the worst. They ate at cafes and watched the television hoping for some change that would slow the fire’s path. Of course, their particular area had weather cycles that were impossible to predict. Five years of hot weather and drought when the foothills went up like flaming fireballs and the rainy seasons, torrential rains, impassible roads, and floods in the lowlands. This last season with no spring and a foot of snow in April. At the motel, she thought about pulling the covers over her head until the fire burned itself out, when she might venture forth again without this painful fear lodging in her chest.
It was a week before they were finally allowed onto the property.
Along Mountain Ranch Road, the land was burned, homes were gone. The town itself had survived. Their hope began to build. And then three miles beyond, they entered the canyon areas. The blackened trees still standing. Homes turned to ash. At the end of the gravel drive, sitting on metal rims, their truck looked like a heap of junk, the tires vaporized. The storage sheds and pump house were nothing but rubble. Sarah was too stunned to speak. The accumulations of a lifetime were gone. She could make out parts of things: the couch’s springs, the wood stove, a hulk that might have been the kitchen range. Everything thing else had been turned to ash or was buried underneath the ashes. Charred and blackened, the wood stove had been hurled to the ground.
They looked at the outline of their house.
“It’s burned down to the J-bolts sticking out of the foundation,” her husband said.
She stood looking at all of her world. She tasted dust and smelled the burn. And yet, oddly, she recalled why they had bought the place, what it had meant to her. She began to cry and her husband came to her and hugged her close.
They would start over.