Northern California is on fire right now. One of the fires is 10 times the size of Manhattan, with a burned area equal to the size of Rhode Island. At least 771,000 acres have burned so far.
This satellite image from yesterday shows the heat of the fires surrounding the Bay Area as seen from space:
I wrote this essay last year, but it’s on my mind again now:
One summer thirty years ago, while I was living in Michigan, I found my friend Jeff glued to the 24-hour news channel. His parents’ house, atop a hill in Los Altos Hills, California, had been on TV. I’d spent spring break with him there one year. It was a lovely house, full of art his parents had collected on their trips around the world: a gracious, welcoming place, with views all around it.
The house stood near an open space preserve, where Jeff had once seen a bobcat. Deer often wandered his parents’ neighborhood. Red-tailed hawks circled overhead.
Jeff had seen his parents’ house on TV because a wildfire was racing across the open grassland. Only one road led into his parents’ neighborhood — and it was blocked by firetrucks that could not drive into the narrow hiking paths of the nature preserve.
Jeff’s dad had left for work early that day. Jeff’s mom was trapped at home, watching the smoke boiling up over her house. She planned to jump into the pool if the fire came. While she waited, she was spraying the citrus trees and rosebushes with a garden hose, trying to wet everything down so it wouldn’t catch a spark. Luckily, in the end, the fire was extinguished before it reached the houses.
That was my first experience with fire season in California. I didn’t even live in California yet.
One morning in 1991, while we were in Paris to celebrate my birthday, my husband picked up an International Herald Tribune. A paragraph-long report said that wildfire raged through Oakland, California, the city across the bay from our new home in San Francisco.
We scoured the city to find a copy of the San Francisco Chronicle. The photos showed smoke towering miles high over the Oakland Hills. The hillside houses looked like matchboxes in comparison.
When we returned from our trip, friends who lived in Oakland told us about the fire. One friend in the Rockridge neighborhood had evacuated. Mike lived not far from Mountain View Cemetery, which lay between his home and the fire. He hoped the graveyard would provide a firebreak. For days he lived on a friend’s sofa, calling his own home phone over and over. As long as the answering machine picked up, he knew his house remained standing.
In October 2017, I woke in the night and smelled smoke. There was only a tickle in the air, but something, somewhere, was burning. I looked out all the windows, but didn’t see an orange glow in the sky. Wind rampaged around the house. I slept fitfully on the sofa for the rest of the night.
In the morning, the news reported a fire far away in Lake County. It expanded as it spread into Napa County. Another fire started in neighboring Sonoma County. The fires were more than 70 miles away. I didn’t know smoke could travel that far.
In her home in Santa Rosa, California, my friend Kim packed the most important things in her life and prepared to evacuate. She spent days sheltering in a local high school gym. The power had gone off at her home, so she didn’t even have the reassurance of calling the answering machine.
At first, no one could really believe that a city could burn down. Unlike Los Altos Hills, there was no massive grassy park nearby. Unlike the Oakland Hills, Kim didn’t live in an overgrown neighborhood with winding roads too narrow for firetrucks. She lived in a suburban neighborhood, in a grid of streets.
In the end, Kim’s home escaped the fire. Neighborhoods surrounding hers weren’t so lucky. She drove through the devastation to find her house still standing. Although she’d closed the windows before she fled, everything inside her home was covered with fine grit — the ashes of trees and homes and wildlife and 22 people. More than 5600 structures were destroyed by the Tubbs Fire.
In November 2018, a failing power line in Butte County, California sparked the Camp Fire. Driven by 60- to 70-mile-an-hour winds, the fire spread so fast — devouring 10 miles of forest in 10 minutes — that people were trapped in their cars as they tried to escape. Some people panicked and abandoned their vehicles to try to outrun the flames on foot.
The fire burned for 17 days. The smoke it generated was visible from space. That smoke flowed through the Altamont Pass, 150 miles away, into the San Francisco Bay Area. Because of a weather pattern called an inversion, the smoke, trapped by the hills surrounding the bay, settled to ground level.
For a week, San Francisco had the worst air quality in the world: worse than Beijing or Mexico City. Worse even than in the fire country itself. The air became visible. It glowed a malevolent yellow as sunlight reflected from nearly invisible particles in the air.
Many places gave away painter’s masks to prevent people from breathing in the ashes and grit in the air. Then we were told that painter’s masks didn’t actually screen out the smallest particles, which could lodge in your lungs and could not be removed. People were warned to stay in their houses. Theaters closed. Schools closed. Businesses closed.
The empty streets of the city looked like the apocalypse had come — and we were 200 miles away from where the fire was burning.
In the end, 85 people were killed by the Camp Fire. The entire town of Paradise, California was scoured from the map. Twenty thousand people were left homeless.
Fire season started early this year. Last weekend we had several days of lightning and thunder. Almost 11,000 lightning strikes hit the ground, sparking hundreds of fire. 560 fires are burning in California now and 119,000 people have been evacuated. Five people are known to be dead, with others missing.
Before the Camp Fire, I never worried about reading an Air Quality map. Things don’t look too awful along the coast right now, but red indicates unhealthy, purple is very unhealthy, and maroon is straight-up hazardous. The people — and firefighters — who are dealing with the worst air quality are also dealing with heat above 100 degrees.
The pandemic complicates everything, of course. People are afraid to go to shelters, where they might be exposed to the corona virus. People who are already out of work and living on fumes are now faced with staying in hotels — if they can find one that’s open — and trying to feed themselves when restaurants aren’t serving inside and it’s not safe to breathe the air outside.
Firefighters are stretched thin, trying to keep their distance from each other to stay healthy, breathing toxic air that makes them more susceptible to Covid. Despite that, firefighters are coming from around the country — even from Canada — to help. In another year, the president might declare a state of emergency and try to help those who desperately need it…
Last night the fog came in off the ocean, which raises the humidity and can help to slow the fires. We are months away from our rainy season. I don’t know how this is going to end. I don’t know how it can end. I just know that California will not be the same when it’s over.