Tag Archives: fire

Our Times

The air is clearer this morning, but still infused with enough particulate to qualify as unhealthy on the air-quality index. Someone quipped last night on social media how perverse it felt to celebrate the improvement of the air from very unhealthy to simply unhealthy.

These are our times. It is not the End Time or the End of Days, the apocalyptic doomsday foreseen by many religions, but it is the end of an epoch for humankind, the last steps of a long march across the planet during which we Homo sapiens appropriated all the planet offered for own comfort and aggrandizement and left in our wake a swath of vanished species, wastelands of depleted resources, and teeming warrens where millions of our fellow humans live in scarcity, poverty and oppression because the most powerful among us care next to nothing for the least of us.

This is our legacy – a ravaged planet, species-cide, and obdurate indifference.

Clearly, I am not feeling great today. If you indulge me a moment of complaint, I will tell you of the foul, gray, chalky air that encompasses my cabin on the hill and how my body bemoans the necessity to inhale this sludge 15 times a minute. The eyes water and itch. The nose fills. The head aches behind the eyes.

I recognize the weakness of these grievances. Annoyances, really, compared to the afflictions and sufferings of so many others. My house stands, not reduced to ash, as hundreds have been up and down the coast. The Covid has not claimed me, as it has 200,000 of my countrymen. There is food on the table, and more in the freezer. I have resources that many other don’t. Yet, my whinges are also warnings, flags flying ahead of the coming storm. I said the other day that what is happening in California (and now Oregon) is a harbinger. Listen to the canaries in our coal mine. What do you hear?

Another era is ending as well – my own. The state of affairs in which I find myself is evidence we are not the drivers of our own destinies. The times choose us, not the reverse. Life is random. At best we hold the reins as the years gallop onward, guiding the steeds in one direction or another but never managing to break their stride. Some of us are born in war and poverty, others into peace and prosperity. The circumstances of our birth contribute almost everything to the consequences of our lives.

The same is true of the end game. How and when we leave the planet is as arbitrary as how and when we arrived. Chance is the great master of fate. An unfortunate few drop dead early, victims of genetics, violence or simply actuarial realities. The rest of us ride own, falling off at increasing rates to tumors, expired organs, overworked hearts, underworked muscles and, more and more, worn out brains.

I’ve reached an age where my past throws a long shadow. I am well and I am as fit as a man of my decades could be, yet I am dying – as I have been since Day 1. Our first breath is also the initial step toward the last. The infernal pandemic and the California infernos raise my awareness of the tick-tock of the biological clock. It is the tinnitus of our time, the sound of the passing of days whose primary purpose is to get through them.

Someone commented on one of these scribblings that I don’t seem like myself, and she urged me in so many words to break free of the funk she saw me in and find the version of myself she thought I’ve lost. She misread what I said. I am neither sad nor depressed. I am chastened. Six months mostly in the house, a month of lightning, fire, and smoke. A rearrangement by chance, by random interference of circumstances and consequences, of everything I spent a lifetime arranging. No, I am not sad or angry or disillusioned – at least for myself. I have not gone missing. In fact, in the last six months I have found more of myself than I knew I had.

Red Dawn

The party’s done. The bacchanalia that was California, the orgy of consumption, the decades-long bender of natural exploitation and the wanton disregard for the consequence of our excesses is over. Don’t point your fingers at us, because what happens in California never stays here. We export our culture, our technology and our food. Coming soon to you will be our apocalypse.

The hangover is painful.

The day dawned red today. Where there was supposed to be the waning blacks of the night, there was red. Where there was supposed to be the wash of the morning grays, there was red. Where tones of blue and gold once tinted the sky, there were shades of red. A red dawn so dense, so foreboding that even now, an hour past sunrise, the streetlights remain lit, reminders of the darkness we have brought to our land.

We partied like there was no tomorrow. There was, though, and it is today. The fires to the north, the east, the south and, even, as improbable as it sounds because I live twenty minutes from the beach, to the west; the post-A-Bomb-ish pryocumulus towers rising six miles in the sky; the homes turned to charcoal; the animals, wild and domestic, murdered by our greed; the dystopic scenes of backpackers, jet skiers and campers airlifted by twin-rotored Chinooks. This is the tomorrow we thought would never come.

Red in the morning, sailor’s warning. So goes the mariner’s adage, an alert of rough seas to come. The addition of a vowel changes the admonition: Red is the mourning.

Human beings, by nature, are deniers of the negative (as are all creatures). This is how we get through the day. Most of us don’t greet the morning worrying about eventual illness or certain death or improbable tragedies.. We plan to finish our days as we start them – at home, amid our comforts and our companions. As such, we have denied, either from convenience, neglect or simple stubborn adherence to a belief that tomorrow is somebody else’s problem, that we have damaged the planet to the point where its instinctive revenge is to kill us and drive us from its terrains. Fires, drought, storms from the sea, rising waters. This is the tomorrow we created. This is nature’s planetary payback.

I am as guilty as anyone. My car, my home, my travels consume fossil fuels. I assuage my concerns by recycling milk cartons, buying kale from local farmers and not turning on the heat so early in the winter. If I am not Nero fiddling amid the embers of Rome, then I am the man who tuned his violin. Together, we are an orchestra of shame. I don’t know how we stop. I don’t know if we can.

The Fire Among Us

California is burning again, pockmarked with infernos sparked by lightning or fallen power lines or acts of human stupidity, and fed by the hills of golden grasses and groves of oak and the wood-framed houses of humans who wanted to live in the community of nature but never sought nature’s permission, and blown across glens and canyons and dry arroyos and even six-lane slabs of freeway by winds that descend from high deserts carrying the breath of the devil.

We knew it was going to happen, as it did last year and the decade before that and the century before that. Each year now, though, seems worse. There is less winter rain to green the land, the temperatures rise sooner and higher than what was once considered normal, and the flames sprout earlier.

Fingers point everywhere.

Climate change holds back the rain, flings heat at California and parks truculent high pressure systems over the coast, hovering on meteorological maps like the massive inter-stellar ships of alien invaders.

Government shares the blame for allowing suburbs to be built on lands where wildfires burn with regularity, for permitting builders to enrich themselves and families to mortgage their futures while ignoring one of the few certainties in California: What burned once will burn again.

Then there are the utility companies – PG&E most guilty among them – that opted for shareholder return over investment in maintenance, a choice that guaranteed transformers and towers and thousands upon thousands of miles of high-voltage lines that could not withstand the fierce vagaries of Western weather. A line drops, a transformer pops, a fire starts. If I maintained my home as PG&E protected the power grid, its roof and walls would have collapsed.

Finally, there is us, we Californians, who want to live in our version of paradise, gladly shelling out $1.5 million for a three-bedroom rancher in a leafy suburb, but flinch when confronted with the reality caused by our occupation of a terrain so arid, so temperamental and so inhospitable to human life that before we paved it over, put in the plumbing and pumped Freon into our homes that the Spanish found hardly anyone to murder and enslave when they arrived. Now there are just shy of 40 million us. We’ve overrun the place. There’s not enough water to quench our thirst, not enough power to keep our lights on, not enough space for us to grow unless we further push into Mama Nature’s diminishing territory.

What’s the result? Mama’s mad, folks. It’s payback time.

The sun rose deep red today, angry, it seems, by the effort it needed to pierce the smoke in the air. In my small cabin on the hill, the windows are open so cool morning air can flush out the heat from last night. The fresh air comes with a price: the smell of smoke and flecks of gray ash.

We pack several bags, an evacuation kit – documents, passports (almost useless these days), some cameras for me, a laptop, medicine. The bags sit by the back door, an unwelcome reminder of what we’ve become: fugitives from the world we created.

On the Job: A Rainbow Burns

Barbara Meislin

I’ve met countless hundreds of people in my many years of journalism and photography, but few possessed the uncomplicated goodness and sweet soulfulness of Barbara Meislin, the Tiburon writer and singer best known as the Purple Lady. Following the death of her young daughter, Meislin dedicated her life to bringing happiness to children. Her symbol was a rainbow; everything else in her life — clothes, cars, garden and home — was purple.

Yesterday morning, the Purple Lady’s home, a large, airy structure astride a hillside above San Francisco Bay, burned. The flames took almost all she owned, leaving her — as is the cliche in these events — with little more than memories of the 43 years in which she made that home distinctly her own.

I photographed Barbara in her home a couple of years ago for a Marin Magazine profile of her. She told the writer, while speaking of her daughter’s death, “Loss can be an incredible teacher. Often, the highest and best teachers appear when one’s loss and sorrow is the deepest.”

Prophetic words indeed.

Barbara MeislinBarbara and I became friendly acquaintances and I would see her occasionally during my jaunts around Marin. She is a bright spirit and any encounter, like one a few weeks ago at Ruth Livingston’s gallery in downtown Tiburon, made me feel good.

Standing in her driveway yesterday talking to neighbors, firefighters and a reporter, Barbara was a portrait of sadness. As much as she mouthed words of hope — “I’ll have to rebuild this house,” she told the Chronicleher eyes, moist and red, spoke of the ache in her heart. She was dressed in blue.

Clutching a box of tissues and an orange in one hand, Barbara talked distractedly, her thoughts spilling out as they occurred — how the fire started, why didn’t 911 answer, the narrowness of her escape and the fate of her many, many photographs.

It was a familiar scene for many journalists, but not one I’d witnessed for many years. As a young photographer, and later reporter, I’d stood on many sidewalks outside burned homes or across from crashed cars and seen the very same face Barbara was wearing — drawn, vacant, a bit confused about how all that was good suddenly went so bad.

Later, as I became an editor and traded in the streets of journalism for its desks, others went to the scenes and returned with the stories that, to the cynical — and, sadly, there is much cynicism in the news business — seemed cliched, tired and repetitive. I confess that, at times, I was one of those.

I often tell people who ask what I do now that I’ve returned to my roots — writing and photography. But, in truth, the roots go deeper, extending into a belief that itself has become a cliche: That in everyone there is a story. That in the ordinariness of life, we find the extraordinary. That people are, for better or for worse, endlessly fascinating.

As I drove away from Barbara’s house yesterday, the golden sweep of the Marin hills and the Golden Gate unfolding before me, I noticed I smelled like smoke. I thought again of this wonderful woman, standing tearfully in her driveway, grieving in public, and marveled at the privilege I have to share the lives of others.