Thomas is the name of the now monster 270,000 acre-and growing-fire that began burning Dec. 4 when the Santa Ana winds, as reliable as any other weather pattern in southern California, began to blow. Now, two weeks later, the winds continue to blow and the fire continues to burn. The numbers are impressive. More than 500 houses lost in Ventura alone, more than 1000 buildings total burned, the sad and tragic loss of two lives, one a young firefighter who came to try to tame the beast and lost the fight. From Fillmore in the south and east to Santa Barbara in the north, the Thomas Fire is a Greek tragedy, an epic woven deep into the fabric of our own folly and ignorance in California. It is the cost of living in a place where rain is relatively scarce and where environmental policy is haphazard at best.
I wrote about the fire for the first three days it burned for the New York Times as a stringer. I do not feel compelled in any way to write a narrative of the destruction and the anguish and revisit again what I’ve already recorded.
This is merely a reflection of the time and an attempt for me to make sense of who and where I am today.
I have no barefoot days memories. I don’t look back at growing up from the age of 10 onward in California as particularly brilliant or lovely. My adolescence was marked by my parents’ divorce, yet it was in my adolescence that I made my closest friends, two of whom I am still quite close with because one is my wife and the other is my friend, Keith, who lives 90 minutes away. These are the people that keep me here. They have to be–there is no other reason to stay.
On a friend’s Facebook post, I wrote recently that there is a poetry in the scorched earth that the fire leaves behind. It is, somehow, complete. Utter destruction leaving nothing, not even grief. It is beyond that. It is beyond imaginings of hell. It is empty, vacant and stark–a reminder not of randomness, for there is nothing random about the complete lack of attention paid to 50 years of dry brush ignored and forgotten, but of willful, slothful ignorance.
For the past two weeks, the school where I teach has been closed with the exception of three days and during that time, I’ve been forced to deal with some realities of where I live. I listen to the prattling of “there’s been nothing like this before,” by those younger than me and by some who should know better. It is true, this fire is among the top five largest, maybe number one, and certainly among the most destructive.
And it is owed to man-made conditions, though I’m afraid we won’t look at the correct reasons for it. There has been no attempt in more than 50-years to remove, clear or burn under control, the brush that nature has chosen to clear for us. It was never a question of the drought we face as a state–drought is a fairly persistent norm in this part of the world, just read the almanac and the history. We do have rainy years, but they are not average or common. What is average and common is the exact cocktail of perfection that came together Dec. 4 and began burning: high winds, high temperatures, low humidity, abundant fuel, steep and rugged terrain. Those things are more or less ever-present in southern California, this just happened to be a fine collection of every ingredient–the best of the worst.
As a boy in the San Fernando Valley, I remember in the 1970’s and 80’s Christmas days that reached into the mid-80 degree range. I remember one Christmas, I think it was 1976, when I got a new bicycle and went out in the morning to ride it with a sweatshirt on. I came home 20 minutes later, sweatshirt tied around my waist, wind blowing ferociously and utterly unable to do anymore, throat unslaked by moisture of any kind. One of my most common memories of my childhood in this place is being thirsty. Always.
If I think about southern California as place, that is, as landscape of home and a place that, as the author wrote, bred me, then I am despondent. I am an alien here and I have never belonged. The scorched earth is not just poetry, it is metaphor. There is nothing here. So many have convinced themselves that this place, because it does not have cold and snow, is somehow worthy of admiration and even worship. The Hollywood machine and the media giants paint images of a Shangri-La that doesn’t actually exist and never did.
This place is dry, vapid, rough-hewn from a desert climate that sits astride the Pacific, giving the illusion of perfection and swallowing up dreams like a dragon. The fire is merely a natural progression, a kind of linear trash removal that acts as both destroyer and sanctifier. Rebuilding is absolute and necessary for all in Thomas’s path–in every fire’s path. And the process will begin again.
The stories that moved me as a child and into adulthood, books by authors who wrote of place as a character, a holy ghost that brings peace, sanity and redemption– from Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to Norman Maclean’s A River Run’s Through It, do not apply here. There is no redemption in the desert of fire, not for me.
My redemption here comes from the people I’ve met and know here. My family, my friends that have lifted me up and given me grace when I least deserved it, home when I was looking for one and peace when I couldn’t find any, are why I am here. I fell in love with a California girl and she and I had a daughter who is a California girl. While I have found no peace, no joy of place for more than 40 years, the peace and joy I have found is with the people I love here. You all are what give me hope and give me reason to stay. And I know for many of you, your love of this place, its ferocious elements and powerful lure of natural beauty are very much endemic to you as the tumbleweeds and the rolling hillsides. My love and admiration for you is in that very part of your soul.
I will leave southern California one day because it will be cheaper to live somewhere else. I don’t own a house here anymore and of that, I am glad. But in my heart will be the distinct clarity of friends and family, people whom I love who remain special to me not because of where they live, but because of who they are.
The fire melts away all pretense and shreds me down to my very core. It isn’t just the flames, but the hot dryness and intemperate winter–of weather forces that move like monsters on the thin air and leave me to pay attention to something else, someone else–for without the people who live in a place, the place-no matter where it is– is nothing.