Burned

NCAR fire smoke photo by tim roessler timothy roessler

When the evacuation alarm sounded we were already packing.

Saturday, the sun burned unusually hot for March. A dry wind had blown steadily, chapping lips and blowing caps into the street. On our way home, we saw a column of grey and brown smoke rising over the hill to the west of our house. 

We said: Not again. 

And, we said: already? 

In the spring? 

Snow fell just last Monday. 

As we drove up the block to our house, men stood in the street staring hard at the billows of smoke. With the fire that close – a mile at most and the wind blowing in our direction–we figured we’d pull some things together and track down the cat. 

Just in case.

In tense situations, I shut down, focus, and fall into a kind of tunnel vision. I become formal with an occasional tinge of irritability. Even if I say so myself, I’m good at projecting calm while getting sick children to emergency rooms, sopping up my friend’s blood, dealing with heart attacks, that kind of thing. But:

“Any idiot can face a crisis; it’s this day-to-day living that wears you out.”

Anton Chekov

Filing taxes stresses me out much more than evacuating before a life-threatening inferno. Who knows why?

We packed the cat, the overnight bags, a bin of photo albums, a case with our important documents, and left. I immediately pulled into a huge traffic jam so slow that it took 25 minutes to drive three long city blocks. (Preppers, take note: Plan your escape route ahead of time. And maybe buy one of those heavy-duty scooters.)

table mesa traffic jam photo by tim roessler timothy roessler

Once safely out of reach of the traffic, I looked around at all the people walking, driving, shopping, and going about their usual business. As if nothing was happening. I felt like a sailor washed up on shore from some cataclysmic shipwreck only to be greeted by a fat man in shorts licking an ice cream cone. 

It would be ridiculously melodramatic to make a big deal out of my little evacuation fandango. We were at home, luckily, so we could grab our things. The wind changed direction. Firefighters had the experience of the all-too-recent Marshall Fire to draw upon. The weather cooperated, and the emergency teams won effective control of the blaze in a day.

What’s more, my experience is common. Nearly every week a flood hits, a tornado strikes, a hurricane blows, or a fire incinerates acres of land. 

Because of climate change, we’ve all pitched our tents on the slopes of a volcano, whether we like it or not.  Without knowing it, I’d made an unconscious bargain with the universe: if I live in a generally safe place, I should enjoy security. If I don’t, for example, live in a flood plain, or by the ocean or deep in the forest far away from help, I should be okay. If you build on sand, that’s on you. If you build on rock, then you’ll be fine.

That’s not the case anymore. The unspoken bargain changed. I look at the pines and spruces and waving grasses differently now. The jade mountains with their rose-colored outcroppings hold more than scenic beauty.

Nomad

As I drove away, I imagined all our things going up in smoke: flames eating my books and CDs, roasting my cameras and photo albums, incinerating the grandfather clock my great-grandparents brought over from Scotland, the hand sewn quilts my mother made, and the toys and paintings from my children’s early years. 

The chance that they would turn into cinders and ash saddened me, but a small part of me felt relief. Finally. Rid of all that stuff.

It forced me to consider: What do you really own? And: What’s truly valuable?

I had to answer that you don’t own anything, you only rent it, and you pay the lease with your time and labor.

What determines value is the difficulty of replacing something. Irreplaceable items are the photos, for example, or the object that holds some meaning beyond itself.

More than that, though, I remembered Bruce Chatwin’s writings on nomads. Perhaps we’re not meant to own more than we can easily move ourselves. Perhaps agriculture was indeed the primal sin, the Fall from the Garden of Eden.

What do you need more than a sturdy pair of boots and the right clothing for the weather? And nomads make beautiful art, some of the best in the world, but they’re able to carry it with them, either in their souls or their packs.

I was happy to return to my house with its comforts, its chairs and books, my daughter’s prints, and my son’s piano.

But I’ll never look at any of it in the same way.

And I’m keeping that go-bag packed. I’ll need it.