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Fire Fire Burning Bright

Wednesday, October 11 — According to Saint Anselm of Canterbury, while faith naturally precedes reason, reason can expand upon faith. Normally I don't rise monk-like in the chaste four a.m. dark to contemplate neo-Platonic Christian scripture, but these are irrational times: fires burn out of control in Redwood Valley and Santa Rosa, on-ramps are closed, the white masks commonly worn in Tokyo, Beijing and open heart surgery are impossible to find. I'm in San Anselmo, and must be at the Healdsburg printing press at 8:30 sharp to pick up the newly minted AVA. For months now my weekly trip has been burdened with nothing more flagrant than heavy traffic between Petaluma and Windsor. At first I reckoned the 54-mile jaunt to be, at 7:00 a.m., a mere 45-minute cruise that would bless upon my imperfectly grateful soul what Archbishop Anselm might have termed, "the delights of contemplation." But on my maiden voyage big-rigged reality crushed the slender stem of my naiveté. Due to more people and cars than the 101 corridor can handle, early morning traffic from Petaluma to Windsor is sluggish, thuggish and otherwise immoral; add diabolical flames carving a path straight to Armageddon and it's the Long March Redux. My trusty internet guru-cum-traffic calculator claims that 101 is choked with refugees, smoke and idle engines. My natural paranoia sends me scurrying out the door at 6:30, allowing two hours to arrive at the staging area. Besides the occasional police car with lights flashing zooming past, the ride to Petaluma takes 27 minutes. It's getting hazier, the hills shrouded in a smoker's cough. In Santa Rosa the smoke is so thick in places it's hard to see the buildings on the other side. CHP vehicles with red lights bouncing block several onramps. I feel a gambler's rush: we're on 101 north now, all in, until the big wheel stops spinning. Burnt-out shells appear like ghosts in the dim. Fire trucks and equipment move in dust-caked daze in both directions. By the time I pull into Big John's Market off of Dry Creek Road, I realize it's taken only 55 minutes from deep San Anselmo to the drop zone. A record time that is almost unbelievable given the disaster sweeping through much of Santa Rosa, Calistoga, Fountain Grove and beyond. On Healdsburg street corners people clutch blankets and king-size pillows. An acrid film coats the tongue and likewise stings the eyes of the heart. As I wait to buy water, a couple tells the cashier that they've just lost everything except their truck and the clothes on their back. Smiling bravely, they choke back tears, and then say they've booked a room at the Mendocino Hotel. Mendocino, jewel of Nature's Crown, is now a place of escape. I would like to offer some comforting words to the victims, but can only look out at the descending storm of fire and smoke: we're all refugees now.

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