We experience a distinctive kind of vulnerability living here in drought conditions at the edge of the brush and chaparral. I snapped the above ominous-looking photo on Thursday afternoon while we were driving north on Highway 101 near El Capitan. The fire had not yet reached the road, which was shut down in both directions just a few hours later. Pushed by howling winds and fueled by miles of dry vegetation that has not burned in decades, the Sherpa Fire is now at 7800 acres, with 45% of the perimeter contained. It is still burning fiercely, and apparently 1900 fire fighting personnel have been dispatched to the scene, all of them heroes to us. (I have found this InciWeb link to be an excellent source of regularly updated information.)
It’s frightening and humbling. Fire reminds us of the ephemeral nature of things, of what matters and what does not, of how little is within our control. We have been very fortunate here at this ranch. The fire is quite a bit to the east, and the wind has been pushing it away, not towards us. We certainly see the smoke, feel the anxiety, and know that we are always at risk, for that is the nature of living here. But we appear to be out of the path of this particular fire.
I have been thinking, though, about the phenomenon of fire in California and how many people have had formative fire experiences. Even among those of us spared the loss of life or property, we share a common residue of images and emotions: hills in flame, blizzards of ash, fear, evacuation, and at some point a necessary letting go.
My own daughter will never forget the children in tears on the school playground as the 1993 Laguna Beach Fire seemed to be encircling them. Many classmates and neighbors lost their homes. Eleven years later, smoke plumes from the Gaviota Fire rose visibly into the sky while she was in the midst of high school graduation ceremonies at Dunn School in Los Olivos. In both cases we were exiled from our houses with whatever possessions we happened be carrying or wearing that day.
My friend Julie remembers being evacuated for a week during the 1990 Painted Cave Fire, watching the flames and feeling curiously detached. “At one point,” she told me, “we were allowed to go home and had a half hour to gather our belongings. We ended up taking only a very few special things, important papers, and animals. In the end, it was a Zen experience. We gave up everything. And then we got it back.”
Another friend, Genevieve, was evacuated from her home at Midland as fire rolled down the mountains during the Mare Fire of 1993. She took refuge in Saint Mark’s church in Los Olivos and watched the sunrise for the first time in her life. “The proximity of fire strikes a primal nerve in us,” she concluded. Maybe it is some ancient recognition that we are part of a cycle much greater than ourselves.
Because the current fire is blazing in the vicinity of the infamous Refugio Fire of 1955, I am particularly interested in the memories of folks who were here at that time. One of them was Lincoln Hollister, who was seventeen at the time. He recalled:
Yes, I was with a crew keeping the fire away from the Arroyo Hondo house and the barn. I was with another guy between the barn and the highway. Glowing embers were flying around and starting fires wherever they landed. Some actually blew out to sea! We were battling these little fires with wet gunny sacks. The main fire was starting to cross the east Arroyo Hondo ridge, up high, when suddenly the whole canyon from about the barbecue pit to the crest, just exploded in a ball of fire, from west ridge to east ridge. This changed the wind direction, as the air was sucked into the huge ball of flame. Where we were, out in the field south of the barn all the little fires we were trying to put out suddenly started running towards the barn. Smoke filled the air and visibility dropped to zero. We put bandanas over our noses and ran in the direction we were headed, toward the barn, locking arms. Then a bit of clearing happened, and there was a ranch flatbed truck with people on the back. We were pulled up onto the truck and driven out, passing a fire department engine that was headed to where we had just been, to save the house and barn. My father had arrived at the intersection of the Arroyo Hondo Road and 101. He was relieved to find I had gotten out on the truck!
If you’re interested, here’s a link to a 1950s film about the Refugio Fire. It’s called “Watershed Fire” and it’s a classic. I shared it with Lincoln, and he mentioned that he saw his Uncle Jack Hollister, then state senator, about twelve minutes into it, in the discussions about re-seeding. He also recalls helping to stop traffic at Gaviota and turn people back when the 101 was closed.
“I was used for the back fire operation at Gaviota pass,” he added. “I was given a stick with a flare attached at the end and told to just run through the grass, with fire billowing up behind me. I was almost seventeen at the time…too young to be officially drafted as a fire fighter, but I was around to help as needed.”
Anyway, as I sit here in my comfortable house looking out onto the brown hills and tired-looking orchard, I know a battle is being waged nearby, and I hope it ends well and soon. I have the luxury of being philosophical because we are not in immediate danger right now. But I know that everything changes, and possession is an illusion, and new growth will come, but fire is a premonition of all that we must lose.