How We Escaped the Worst of the California Wildfires

Maybe no one is ever ready for an emergency. August 18th was our thirty-first wedding anniversary. Kathy and I were still debating what we would do to celebrate when the sky behind our house turned Technicolor red and orange. My first thought was how much it looked like the burning of Atlanta in “Gone with the Wind.” A movie. Not real. Yet tiny white flakes—ash, not snow—had been fluttering down for hours, and now the odd charred black leaf was coming too, batting against my face. It was real, but it couldn’t be happening to me.We had learned from earlier scares that the first few hours of a fire are a chaos of conflicting instructions. Evacuation orders had been issued and cancelled, then issued again. Kathy and I scuttled around doing what last-minute fire prevention we could in the dark. We dragged bits of brush away from the house, so that stray embers wouldn’t ignite them. But what to do with the cans of gas for the generator? We shut all the windows and inside doors. But do we lock the outside doors, or leave them open for firefighters? And what to take? Laptops, cell phones, and power cords; passports; our little stash of cash; a tent (we forgot the blankets and pillows); and some senseless things, grabbed in a panic, like a bag of coffee beans. Otherwise, not much more than the clothes we stood up in and food, medications, leashes, and carriers for the animals.No two evacuations are the same. For us, animals were the great complication. It would have been hard enough to deal with our four cats and two dogs. But Kathy volunteers in wildlife rehabilitation, taking in orphaned and injured animals until they are ready to be released. We boxed up five baby raccoons—after something of a fight—to take back to Native Animal Rescue’s headquarters, in Santa Cruz, but all we could do in the moment for the two fawns we still had was open the doors to their pen and hope for the best. (Kathy would come back two days later, to catch and transfer them to another rehabber, in San Jose.) The two feral cats who lived under the shed, however, evaded all efforts to trap them. They would have to take their chances.And then there were the horses. Like most horses in the Santa Cruz Mountains, our two were rescues. The joke you always hear is that rescue horses are free because the costs come later. It certainly felt that way. Smarty, a quarter horse, had no intention of being loaded into a trailer in the middle of the night. It took a lot of shoving, begging, and frayed tempers to get him in. With Ray, the mustang, we didn’t even try. He’d been badly beaten by owners and trainers in the past, and, even in the calmest conditions, would not go near our small trailer. So we walked Ray out, a mile or so through the woods and then along the road, to a ranch where, hopefully, someone could come with a bigger trailer and get us.We sat in a dark field, the cats yowling, the horses eating, the dogs thinking it was all a great adventure. Behind the ridge to the west, the sky flared red whenever the wind blew, then died back down to a dark gray-blue. By 2 A.M., the road had gone quiet. All was strangely calm. Maybe it would turn out to be a false alarm after all. Maybe we would dodge the bullet again. But maybe not. Around three, we called Emily Clark, who volunteers with one of the emergency-response teams. We barely knew her, but she’d already called us more than once, offering to drive an hour or so up to Boulder Creek with a big trailer for Ray and lead our little convoy to safety. It now felt like time to accept her offer.I’m no horseman myself, so they gave me the easy job of holding onto Ray’s lead rope (passed through the trailer’s window) until he was on board. Surprisingly, he did as he was told. Thinking we were done, I stopped paying attention, whereupon Ray decided to back out again, pulling the lead rope and my hand back through the steel bars on the window. When a twelve-hundred-pound horse decides to go somewhere, there’s not a lot you can do to stop him. But they’d told me to hold onto the rope, so I did, until someone, I’m still not sure who, yelled into my face to let go. Fortunately, I’d known enough not to wrap the rope around my hand. There were rope burns and a surprising amount of blood, but nothing broken. A reminder that professors are not always the sort of people you want around in an emergency. My net contribution was to take two of the helpers away from loading the horse so that they could bandage me up. By the time they were done, Ray was in the trailer. At 7 A.M., we were on the road.We had always known that something like this could, and probably would, happen. In 1860, when the brand-new California Division of Mines and Geology sent the botanist William Brewer to study the state’s woodlands, he wondered whether Americans should be living here at all. Heat waves, he wrote, melted the fat in uncooked meat until it would “run away in spontaneous gravy.” Forests turned abruptly into “great sheets of flame, extending over acres.”Before Europeans came, Native Californians had found ways to cope with this reality. Many moved seasonally, partly to avoid forest fires. As much as one-sixth of the state was deliberately burned each year, simultaneously removing fuel for wildfires and creating new environments for grasses, acorns, deer, and quail. Most obviously, perhaps, people generally didn’t live in places like the Santa Cruz Mountains, where food was scarce and fires frequent.Hardly anyone did, in fact, until the eighteen-seventies, when demand for timber to build new cities made the hillsides profitable; the rebuilding of San Francisco, after the earthquake in 1906, turned Boulder Creek into a boomtown, with an impressive twenty-six saloons, gambling houses, brothels, and hotels. Almost every redwood tree in the seventy-mile stretch between San Francisco and Santa Cruz was sawed down—by hand. Once the trees had gone, so, too, of course, did the fire risk and most of the people. Eventually, the mountains started filling up again. Roads, bridges, dams, and electricity opened up the forests to commuters who couldn’t afford the Bay Area, refugees in search of beautiful views or alternative life styles, or both.This quiet migration of hundreds of thousands of nature lovers has created one of the most unnatural landscapes on Earth. We have sunk wells everywhere, suppressed fires until the forest floors are thick with fuel, and run high-voltage cables right above them. The 2018 Camp Fire—which burned two hundred and forty square miles of northern California, caused an estimated $16.5 billion in damage, and killed eighty-five people—was sparked by a Pacific Gas and Electric power line. According to Cal Fire, the state’s fire-protection agency, one in ten Californian houses are in high-risk areas.We knew most of this when we relocated from Chicago, in 1995, but no one ever suggested that wildfires made the move a bad idea. They were just background noise, like winter rains and earthquakes. Since then, though, one big thing has changed: the fire season is now seventy-five days longer. Coastal California has a Mediterranean climate, with hot, dry summers and mild, wet winters. It used to be that forests would not dry out enough to make fires a major risk until July; by October or November, the rains would arrive, largely ending the season. Not anymore. Our first real scare, in 2008, was in May. The house has been threatened by fire each of the past three years, every time—except for the latest—in October or November.This year’s fire came after three days in which temperatures had topped a hundred degrees. Then, in the early hours of August 16th, a lightning storm blew in from the Pacific. Earlier that night, while enjoying a socially distanced birthday party on a beach with two friends, we watched its approach. Lightning was obviously not good, but there was no hint of what was coming as we drove home through what would, in two days, be the center of the blaze. A couple hours later, we were awakened by great sheets of bright white light, crashing thunder, and gales that bent the hundred-foot pines at impossible-seeming angles. It rained for a few minutes. And then, as suddenly as it had begun, it was over.Throughout the state, lightning touched the earth nearly eleven thousand times in three days. By the first morning, the fires had begun. The flames had neither a single source, from which they would spread as winds and topography dictated, nor a distinct perimeter, where they could be fought. Instead, hundreds of separate fires burned, merging together and splitting apart, a many-headed hydra defying standard firefighting tactics. Normal fires are named after their starting point, but this one needed to be called “the C.Z.U. Lightning Complex fires,” after Cal Fire’s abbreviation for its entire San Mateo-Santa Cruz unit.The world is getting hotter because the atmosphere and oceans contain more carbon dioxide than they used to. Air bubbles trapped in polar ice show that, during the coldest spells of the last eight hundred thousand years of ice ages, carbon-dioxide levels typically fell in a range of a hundred and eighty to two hundred parts per million; in the warmest interglacial periods, they might rise toward three hundred p.p.m. But that was before we started burning fossil fuels. Since 1958, when the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was first consistently measured, it has been increasing a hundred times faster than when the world warmed up at the end of the last ice age. In 2019, the concentration reached 409.8 p.p.m., a level not seen in three million years.No one can say categorically that fossil fuels caused the C.Z.U. fire, but too many of us are living in the wrong places, and the weather has gone wild. It used to be that hardly anyone in the mountains had air conditioning, because we rarely needed it, but every year now brings perhaps a dozen days in the nineties. The winters are getting drier, yet they also deliver storms of the sort we’d been told should only happen once a century. Everyone here is used to mudslides, in which saturated soils slither downhill and block roads, but in January, 2017, it rained so hard that we also got slip-outs, in which the dirt under roads liquefied and the roads simply disintegrated. When scientists talk about climate change making parts of the world uninhabitable, this is what it looks like.Our initial plan was to set up camp with the cats, dogs, and horses at a showground eleven miles from Boulder Creek, but by mid-afternoon orders came to evacuate that, too. We ended up at the BackStretch ranch, in Aromas, in the farm country twenty-five miles farther south. Kathy had once volunteered there, and thought they might take in Ray and Smarty. In fact, its owners—Dennis and Janece Barwick—took in not just us and five of our friends but also a couple dozen other refugees, with their own array of animals. Coops full of dazed-looking chickens were unloaded off pickup trucks. Horse trailers were converted into kennels for multiple cats. Temporary corrals were thrown up for irate donkeys and peculiar-looking ponies. It could be hard to hear over the braying, whinnying, clucking, and barking, but everywhere dogs were sleeping through it all, in the dust. I felt like I had wandered into one of the migrant camps along Route 66 in Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.”We pitched our tent in a shady spot between some picnic tables, a standpipe, and a portable toilet (a better location than it sounds—no one enjoys hunting for the bathroom in the darkness of a ranch at night). Meanwhile, Dennis and Janece worked the phones, ordering extra hay for horses, rustling up R.V.s to put humans in, and organizing neighbors to bring over meals, clothes, and bedding.There is something awe-inspiring about kindness on this scale, and it infected everyone. In those first few days, most of the volunteers who usually worked at the BackStretch were off doing animal rescue in the fire zone (one of our Boulder Creek friends, a good man around a horse, ended up in a hospital with blood poisoning, after being bitten by a cat he was saving); and, without being asked, everyone just pitched in and took over. Every day, a thousand gallons of water had to be delivered into horse troughs, a ton of hay into feed bins, and two tons of droppings carried away. Droppings were my job—even if I could not be trusted with a lead rope, I knew a thing or two about shovelling up. I will never again grumble about the meagre amount that Ray and Smarty generate.On the face of it, evolution favors selfishness. Animals that focus on staying alive, well fed, and sexually active—that is, ones that act selfishly—have more chances to pass their genes on to the next generation. Other things being equal, selfish genes should, therefore, outbreed altruistic ones. Yet they clearly do not. Humans have somehow become animals who shovel up others’ dung, rescue their cats, and keep flames from their homes. To explain this, evolutionists who call themselves “group-selection theorists” say we need to think about culture as much as genes. Biology, they point out, has given us brains so powerful that we can work together to put men on the moon and build quantum computers. Much more than any other animal, humans depend on group coöperation to flourish, which means that, for us, natural selection operates at the social as well as the genetic level. The more a group’s members help one another, the better the group as a whole can do—and so, at the group level if not at the genetic, natural selection rewards humans who show humanity.Not that this makes us all saints. For every Dennis or Janece who stepped up in the crisis, some old friend fell strangely silent. And then there are the outright sinners, such as the illegal pot-grower charged with setting a fire near Big Sur, the man arrested for stealing the wallet of a firefighter who was battling the C.Z.U. blaze, or the bright sparks who set San Bernardino County alight with a smoke bomb intended to reveal their unborn child’s gender. Ask any refugee from the flames: ain’t no dungeon deep enough, no hellfires hot enough, for free riders, villains, or fools. But group-level selection turns enough humans, enough of the time, into righteous enforcers of morality that altruism is, on a very deep level, part of who we are.And not just us: anthropologists studying a fifty-thousand-year-old Neanderthal skeleton, from Iraq, found that, despite being deaf, possibly blind in one eye, and barely able to walk, this man had lived long enough to allow multiple injuries to heal, reaching the ripe old age (for a Neanderthal) of forty-plus. Even the soberest scientists conclude that he must have received constant support from able-bodied friends and family. Neanderthals, like us, were humane, yet even chimpanzees and bonobos, our closest genetic kin among surviving species, show only the slightest traces of altruism. Animals like Dennis and Janece are very recent sprouts on the tree of life.We camped out at the ranch for two more nights. It gets cold before dawn in coastal California, even in August, and the ground where we pitched our tent was anything but even. We repeatedly rolled off the blow-up mattress that Dennis and Janece had lent us, waking up on sharp sticks and lumpy stones. On the fourth day, Emily, who had come to our rescue with her big trailer, called up and insisted that we, the cats, and the dogs join her and her husband, Bruce—and their own cats, dogs, and horses—in their house. Because we had no idea when, or even whether, we would get back to our home, we felt that we couldn’t impose on them for long. A friend and her husband offered us the use of a little cottage in their back yard whenever we needed it, and other Samaritans stepped up, too, but Emily and Bruce wouldn’t hear of us going through yet another relocation.And so we stayed on, with our own bedroom and bathroom, in Emily and Bruce’s beautiful house, with its ocean view. Ours was a five-star, white-privilege evacuation. Even the cats calmed down in the comfort that Emily and Bruce provided. We had wonderful company, long conversations, fine food and martinis, faster Internet access than at home, and a big-screen TV—on which we watched, night after night, California burning, a plague slaying thousands, the Gulf Coast flooding, rioting in the streets, and a President, seemingly bent on banishing our better angels, sowing discord from the White House.It is hard not to feel like these are the end times. Yet, if a career in archaeology and history has taught me anything, it is not to underestimate the human capacity to adapt, to innovate, and to find solutions. On average, we live thirty years longer today than our great-grandparents did, grow four inches taller, and earn six times as much. (These are global averages: in much of Africa and Asia, changes have been even faster.) In 1900, few men and almost no women had a say in choosing their own leaders. As recently as 1960, the year I was born, nearly half of the people on Earth still could not read or write their own names. The human condition has improved more in the past hundred years than it did in the previous hundred thousand, and, for all we know, the next hundred will go better still. 2020 does not have to be the new normal.Although only one person was killed in the C.Z.U. fires, and the flames were stopped some yards from downtown Boulder Creek, nine hundred and twenty-five houses did burn, leaving perhaps three thousand people homeless. Six of those houses belonged to good friends. You can no longer tell yourself that this isn’t really happening when you’re holding a friend who’s lost everything. I can find words for an essay like this, but not for a moment like that.In the old days, the only way to know if your home had burned was to wait until the roadblocks were removed and then drive up to see for yourself. It’s hard to imagine what it was like rounding the last bend. I suspect there are no atheists in a forest fire. Now, though, you can follow the fire online, on maps updated multiple times a day. If your house turns yellow on the map, up to twenty per cent of it has burned; if red, it has gone. No news really is good news. Gradually, as we compulsively checked the maps, our confidence grew that we were going to make it. By the end of the first week, the firefighters had secured a line along the Route 9 corridor, a mile or so from us.We got back almost exactly two weeks after we left. Our place looked pretty much as we had left it. Someone had been inside, opening doors and knocking things over, but nothing had been stolen or vandalized. The garden was dry and shrivelled, but mostly still alive. Despite fourteen days without water, the tomatoes and basil were, in fact, going gangbusters. The feral cats had not only stuck around but brought a friend to stay with them. Even our disasters were vaguely comical: three wild pigs had taken up residence in the yard, cooling off in a trough and uprooting everything else. So we set to work, cleaning out our stinky fridge, fixing the damage the pigs had caused, and preparing for next time. The fire season is barely half done and it is a hundred and eleven degrees outside.
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