Like half of northern California, I woke up Monday morning to the subtle smell of smoke. Outside the early morning eastern sky was an unearthly frosty pink. I got a cup of coffee and went back outside to watch a blood red sunrise over the hill dull as the moon. Highway 1 was eerily abandoned.
In Fort Bragg the air hung heavy and acrid. There was Columbus Day lull but our sleepy town saw a steady trickle of refugees from what they were calling the Redwood Complex Fire. There were lines at the gas stations and general uncertainty among the travelers about which highways were open south.
Over the course of the day the broad story unfolded and particulars trickled in. High winds had felled power lines across three counties and dropped them into the dry kindling of a long hot summer. In Mendocino, fire had sprouted in 30 or more locations from Potter Valley across Redwood Valley and past Willits into the big green of the Jackson Demonstration State Forest.
Along Highway 20 there were fires on the long Willits grade, feeding and blossoming and growing together. The guard rail posts were burning like long strings of birthday candles.
I holed up in Starbucks and watched, a little unbelieving, as the grim news dribbled in. By late afternoon we knew that there ten dead in the fires, and 1500 buildings destroyed in Santa Rosa alone. Two women had run from their burning house and were found laying on West Road in Sonoma County with third degree burns. Department stores, box stores, and the elegant houses of prosperous Santa Rosa were blasted away in an explosive racing flame driven by high gusts.
County by county, in Mendocino, in Yuba, Napa, Sonoma, Humbolt and Butte the roster of catastrophes spread like spilled red ink across the map of northern California.
As the strange day passed, Fort Bragg marinated in a gray acridity. Starbucks would be intermittently packed, and then would empty out.
Survivors wept quietly and told of lost houses. Tourists wondered and plotted courses south. Cell phone service was grievously uncertain.
Across the street in the Safeway parking lot in an entirely civilian pickup truck Olivia Hayward and Tyra Tompkins were doing a solid business taking donations. Early in the day they must have collected twenty bags of dog food. Across our little town there was a kind of abstracted waiting that was the exact opposite of anticipation. We knew it was bad, but on the smoke-enshrouded island of Fort Bragg we were holding off on gut reaction until we had a gauge of the magnitude of the thing. We knew it was big, but….
As the pictures started coming in from Santa Rosa on the incomparable MendocinoSportsPlus facebook pages it became clear that Santa Rosa was way ahead of our reaction. The before and after pictures showed sunny streets and schools and neighborhoods blasted into black twisted wreckage. It looked like a war zone. Or post-war Dresden.
The almost incalculable wealth and prosperity of bustling striving thriving Santa Rosa California had taken a massive hit. A municipal economy that had generated hundreds of thousands of fortunes and created vast wealth was felled like a giant by a storm of surging, raging fire.
Californians live on the fine edge of the continent. We know in our hearts that in the extremity of our non-negotiable commitment to being in the best place, we also live on the razor edge of potential cosmic disaster.
The rest of the country has been waiting for us to fall into the sea since I was a beardless youth. Californians live with our earthquakes like they were unruly in-laws. We build our houses on cliffs prone to mudslides for the fantastic views. We build them in or near dry forestland. We push and hustle and prosper and accommodate our psyches to the possibility — the inevitability — of the profoundly catastrophic. That’s just us. We are on the edge and we embrace the edge. We ain’t goin’ anywhere. We roll with it. It is the high price of living in paradise.