“Can we go to the new playground?” my 6-year-old son Jude asks one day at after-school pick-up. It’s early November 2018 but still unseasonably warm in Northern California – perfect playground weather.
“Of course!” I exclaim. I’m older than many of the parents around here, so I can be a bit of a try-hard when it comes to spontaneous fun.
The sky is sunny with puffy clouds. Jude is climbing on a spiderweb structure when I am startled by a stray comment from a parent by the swing set.
“Paradise was wiped off the map this morning,” he says dispassionately, like he’s reading a stock chart.
I have never heard of this fictional-sounding place, even though it turns out it is – was? – just 50 miles away.
Maybe he’s talking about a role-playing game, I think, and get back to oohing and ahhing over Jude’s excitement over the too-safe carousel, the funny little hideout, the two-person swings.
The next day, a few parents are sitting at a picnic table outside Jude’s school, chatting as our kids dart between redwoods.
None of us really knows the others. These little sessions are still like a pop quiz of whose children should be friends, based on whose parents could maybe like each other. I shade my eyes from the too-bright sun as I watch Jude, the only boy in a group of girls.
As we talk, the air changes suddenly, like a storm is coming. The sky blackens and eerie shadows fill the playground. Smoke from the fire that destroyed Paradise is pouring into our river valley. A thick gray smear eclipses the sun, now a vague dot in the ash cloud.
No one speaks for a moment. One mom breaks the silence.
“If the fire comes here – there’s only one way out of our neighborhood. What if a tree falls on the road?”
Another silence follows.
Then each of us mutters something meant to be encouraging as we gather up our own and leave.
A breathtakingly fast fire
Click – “Fire Captain Says Wildfire Destroyed Calif. Town.” Click – “Father Sings to Three-Year-Old Daughter as They Evacuate California Fires.” Click – “Wildfire Growing at a Rate of About 80 Football Fields per Minute.”
The November 2018 fire in Paradise, driven by bone-dry vegetation, low humidity and high, northeasterly winds, was breathtakingly fast. It killed 85 people in a matter of hours.
Many Paradise residents couldn’t or didn’t know to evacuate until it was too late. Others got out of their homes in time only to get trapped on a road blocked by fire.
I can’t stop reading the news, picturing the people in these stories. It’s too easy to imagine my family in that situation.
Paradise is eerily close, and disturbingly similar, to our town – another small, sweetheart destination in the Sierra foothills, a peaceful place to raise children.
I cling to small differences: We’re about a thousand feet higher in elevation, for example. But it’s not enough to keep me from waking up at night.
Ash coats the roofs of our cars, our winter squash, Jude’s wagon. Persistent smoke prompts daily health warnings to stay indoors.
“We had indoor recess again today,” Jude tells me.
His class collects donations for the kids who’ve been affected by the fire. The boxes fill up each day with toys, books, and clothes.
One day, we’re driving home from school, smoke still blocking from view the rolling hills beside us.
“I don’t want there ever to be any more fires,” Jude says from the backseat.
His voice is calm but the words tear at me. In this moment I hate the beautiful home and life we’ve built here.
“Oh, me neither,” I say with fake-calm camaraderie. “Unfortunately, though, there probably will be more fires in the future, so what matters is that we know how to be safe, and if we need to evacuate, we’ll do that. And we’ll be OK, because all we really need is each other and to be safe, which we will be!”
The smiley emojis are so clearly present in my speech that I almost convince myself.
But I don’t feel that full-throttle confidence, not really.
Paradise has broken that because at 41, I’ve learned that it doesn’t always matter whether you get out the front door in time. What matters is whether you can actually make it out of town.
A secret escape plan
“Are you guys going on a bike trip?” our neighbor asks.
“No, I mean, yes. I mean, not that we’re really planning, but you never know,” I reply.
Things are getting awkward. Our family likes to bike, so bikes on the back of the car aren’t all that suspicious.
The truth is I’ve been keeping the bikes locked on top of the hatchback (a pretty restrictive move – you can’t even open the trunk) because the thought of getting trapped in gridlock while fleeing fire has been keeping me awake at night.
But I’m trying to keep it a secret so that a) Jude doesn’t get traumatized by my neuroses (founded or otherwise), and b) our neighbors still think we’re rational, reliable people they can turn to in need. Not frantic types who overthink every possible way an evacuation could go awry.
Fortunately, now we actually are going somewhere, so I’m hoping we can stop worrying about bike racks and what the neighbors think of us.
Soon after, we’re waiting at an airport shuttle stop, decked out in our N95s, ready to escape. Like many others have done lately, we snap an #airmask selfie. I tighten the metal clamp around Jude’s nose, but the gaps around his chin make the effort seem futile.
When the bus arrives to whisk us away to the airport, I try to guess who’s coming or going based on whether they’re wearing a mask.
When we arrive at my aunt and uncle’s home in the wonderfully wet North Carolina, we’re thrilled to hear it could rain all week. On Thanksgiving day, we offer thanks for the torrential, merciful, rains that we’ve heard are falling in our hometown, too.
By the time we head home, fire season is over, the rainy season has begun, and we can officially go back to our regular lives.
For a little while, at least.
A new mother-son pastime
I learn that, scary as it is, it’s natural for fire to happen here. Some of the area’s most wondrous species of flowers only germinate after there’s been a fire.
But climate change is causing tinder-dry conditions, hotter summers, and warmer winters across the Western U.S. Fire suppression and development that balloons into wildfire-prone areas are compounding the threat – to the point where fire “season” is no longer the right word for what this is. These days, it’s more like a marathon that runs from Memorial Day or so to, in some years, Thanksgiving.
When spring arrives, I still feel haunted by what happened to Paradise. Late at night, I think about the doctor who said she’d always felt comforted by the thought that, if you were going to die in a fire, the smoke would knock you out before any flames could – until she was trapped in her car, surrounded by lightning-fast-moving fire, and saw why that would not be the case, here. And I think about the people whose lives were saved by a bulldozer driver who plowed a path of safety for them to escape and lost his life in the process.
I get a text from a friend. “Yikes,” it says. It includes a link to a news roundup featuring California’s many fire-prone cities. Two hundred or so California towns have been officially designated as highly vulnerable to major fire. Our town didn’t just make the list – it’s highlighted as a prime NorCal example.
I struggle to respond to my friend’s text. It’s not clear what we can do with that information. Should we move?
In Paradise, perhaps surprisingly, that question is still being asked. Few people even had homes to come back to. Those who did still face other challenges, like the fact that no one will insure their property or that they no longer have many neighbors. Still, some are rebuilding. The local paper is full of the high school sports teams’ news and practical information on which government buildings have reopened.
For now, many of the rest of us are staking hope in the efforts taking place all over the state to protect our communities from fire – like the $170 million in grants the state is giving out to help residents protect their homes by maintaining defensible space, a perimeter you keep clear of vegetation to help slow approaching fire and give firefighters a fighting chance to protect your home.
“A weed-whacker? That’s a weird present.” Our 8-year-old neighbor smirks, his blond tangles bouncing in the light spring breeze.
“Yeah, right?” my son agrees. His yearning to be like his older friend is plain as he shrugs away the Mother’s Day gift he himself helped pick out.
Lopping invasive species has become one of our favorite mother-son pastimes. Every time we clear a section of our gully, we talk about all the fun things he can now do in the space: more freely explore “Crystal Cove,” home to mystery rocks and tiny flakes of what may well be gold (this is Gold Country, after all). Discover new things like the apple tree we’ve never seen until now. Daydream about a treehouse where he is already plotting future sleepovers.
We haul the yard waste bin to the street. It’s staying light, later, but we’ve been so busy it’s dark by the time we head in for dinner.
After staring dreamily into the dinner candles for a moment, Jude says in a sleepy voice, “Bodie can put his whole arm through a flame. Can you believe that?”
A new normal
Now it’s fall again and fire season has returned. “Don’t you love the power outage?” Jude asks a family friend who’s visiting for dinner. We’re dining al fresco on the porch, with our jackets on, because there’s more light outside than in the kitchen.
We’re in the dark after a high-wind forecast prompted utility PG&E to cut the power in our county and elsewhere, an outage that affects roughly two million people across the state. High winds like these, together with faulty electrical lines, sparked the fire that engulfed Paradise.
Jude’s school closes for three days in a row one week, two the next, and so forth – so far the school has clocked nine shuttered days in one month. This freedom to run around with the neighbor kids all day and stay up late thrills him.
But we grownups worry about what it means that these multi-day outages are becoming a new normal, one that lacks the infrastructure to support school, work, and the local economy. Many homes here rely on well water, which requires power to draw from, so you can’t even flush the toilet when the power is out, let alone put out a small fire should one spring up. The outages are also hard on people who live alone, particularly seniors and people who are sick. People are snapping at each other when they show up to work in dark, cold offices, at teachers who can’t help that school is closed, at restaurant servers who can’t take credit cards, and at other drivers in the darkened intersections.
It’s not going to be easy to get California out of this mess. It’s going to take systemic work to combat climate change and restructure the way we get and consume power. But for now, I like to think we’re doing some good by simply rallying around one another.
One night, we gather with the neighbors to march through the cold wind to one of the few downtown restaurants with a generator. The menu is limited – sorry, kids, no fries tonight – but the warmth in that room makes us all feel brighter. I pull Jude’s chair closer, pushing his hair behind his ears so I can see his eyes.
“I love you,” I whisper-sing, kissing his forehead. “Love you too,” he says, wriggling out of my reach to get back to his friends and their paper airplanes.
Later, as we’re walking home, the three boys run ahead of the parents, plunging into the dark without flashlights. They’re not unnerved by the pitch black sky; they’re exhilarated by its mystery and enchanted by its wondrous blanket of stars.
And for this moment, I am too.