On Saturdays, I often use this space to go off-topic, leave books and publishing behind for a day, and turn my attention in other directions. Enjoy.
I noticed the cars lining the road next to the marina, but I was too busy paying attention to the helicopter flying low overhead to realize they were connected. Of course, spectators. Almost unwillingly, I pulled over also and cut the engine, scanning the ridge opposite.
Oh yes, lots of angry fire and plumes of smoke from the whole hillside, alight. A Cessna marked the cloud of smoke with a red line of surpressant dropped from its tanks.
The helicopter came down next to the boats in their berths, dipping its water carrier into the bay, then rising again in a big circle into the sky to drop what looked like a little spritz onto the burning grass and shrub.
A fellow stood on the median, a camera with a huge lens resting on a prodigious beer belly. There were several other fellows with big cameras, and a satellite truck down at the turn in the road. A woman had her little girl by the hand on the sidewalk, watching.
Grassfires are common in this part of northern California, but when it’s dry they can spread incredibly fast. When we lived downtown we stood out on the street one night, watching the ruby and garnet and amber flames shoot up from pines just up the hill from us.
I thought I could feel the heat from the fire, but maybe it was just the excitement of a hot and frightening night, and the fire was contained. But I knew it was close.
I was at that house downtown when a pretty good sized earthquake hit, pinning us where we were, staring at each other in that timeless way you get vaulted right out of yourself when a sudden event erupts in front of you. It cut through the moment like a bolt of lightning, rendering meaningless everything you were doing up until that moment.
There was no damage, but I’m not so sure your psyche recovers that easily. Coming close to death, or even the intimation of death, can change you. It might seem like it’s just a few days or weeks, but don’t you think something else is left behind?
We have a practiced response to fire, because it’s part of our day-to-day lives. The community marshalls its resources and springs into action. You have to act fast because the nature of fire is to spread, looking for fuel.
It’s like the body, fighting an infection, or a country repelling an invader. The fire must be brought under control. This is a suburban community that borders parks and wilderness areas. Wild turkeys roam the trails a mile from our house.
It’s true for us, too. When something sets off our alarm, we mobilize all our resources to respond to the crisis. It’s the way we’re made. Like the day in summer in one of our little village-towns, losing track of a child in the crowd, nowhere to be seen.
In a crisis your senses intensify to an inhuman level, you can see things you don’t usually see, even while your heart pumps in overdrive, you see a fleeting figure heading away from the fair with a little boy in tow.
You can respond in Matrix-like “stop time” to seemingly transport yourself, on fire, right next to the woman and to take his hand in yours and lead him back to his mother.
Maybe fire is the red force, the drive to make a place for yourself at the table of life. Having a passion, really caring deeply about something bigger than yourself, being connected to life—that’s fire at work.
I got back in the car and wondered how prepared we are, if the fire were to spread this time? What internal resources do we have, that we can call on in a moment, to meet the crisis?
The crowd of spectators on the sidewalk was still there when I left.