Jess’ World, Book 2
Themes of family, homelessness, community activism and a little magic for a middle grade audience (9-13) This Jess book is inspired by my family’s recent evacuation with details harvested from our experience during the CZU Lightning Complex Fire August, 2020
Pieces of our summer fire story, August 2020:
After 4 evacuation moves, resettling, accepting welcomed help from son and daughter-in-law, newly married who live in town near the wharf, we have returned home. They had given the kids and I their cottage for two weeks, found shelter with friends. Now they can return home, too. I can’t sleep. Fire dreams. I keep checking the windows for sparks in the dark night. It’s still smoky and I expect them.
As I washed the ash from our concrete deck, I found burn marks from leaves that came from the sky, embers. Let’s hear it for Glen’s fabulous idea to engineer and build our cantilever concrete deck. A wooden deck may have caught fire. And the house? It’s very smoky here. I brought an air purifier home. Have two more ordered. Yesterday helicopters thwacked all day dumping water a little north of here. Unsettling. A wildfire 50% controlled burns nearby, as it does for thousands of people in our community. Climate change refugees, people say. The fire is active. It haunts us like a hot threatening ghost with terrible breath.
Others share my unsettledness. My area, with half-mile proximity to the fire line, has had evacuation orders reinstated with a warning, meaning things could change and we’d be asked to leave again. The only public access road remains closed for fire fighting. We did not have any fire around the house. We are cleared for repopulation but not allowed to use the roads to return. Not allowed to drive home. Equipment, mop up, fighting the fire line and utility access requires our road to remain free from local traffic. We got permission to use a private access, Back Ranch Rd running from Highway 1 along a ridge parallel to ours. Granddaughter and me in one car, her Dad in his. We met with boundary guards, a contact name assigned by the sheriff officer a note secured in my damp fist. We were told to be stealthy, stay home.
We drove 5 minutes home on the closed road seeing no cars, trucks or people, no signs of fire or damage. The fire action was at the western end of our road. Our road looked bigger, wider, scraped free of leaves and debris just days before the fire. It was eerie, yellow orange sky, red sun, as helicopters overhead dumped water scooped from the ocean over the ridge. A war zone. How dare I compare this to that?
Less smoke as we drove into our neighborhood, a peek at the ocean, but no breeze. The house is smoky, uninhabitable, yet hubby has been here for two weeks holding back the fire line with neighbors. He used to be a volunteer firefighter, one of the trained team. He felt safe.
Grandson and dog were already home. Hubby arrived in town when he heard our area was open and picked up our cooler, chicken food and bulky things and got groceries and headed back up with his helper, our grandson. His truck is marked with a code allowing re-admittance. A secret he’s not talking about. He was here the entire time, up at the house. (His is the real story.) My son the kids’ dad helped clearing brush and raking a line in the soil with hubby. He’d come to get his car. But didn’t realize the road closed, the map hid that fact from us. So neither his car or mine, both packed to the roof as we were un-evacuating, were allowed up. We had to return to the cottage at the beach (fortunately, still vacant.) We’d packed all our food in the truck now up at the house in the mountains. Hubby had food, eggs and milk in the cooler, left-over take out from last night, my morning tea. I turned a corner. Finally shed a few tears and that made me angry.
The map indicated our area was open. I packed up. Betrayed by Cal Fire, the Sheriff, the damn map-makers, my funk turned activist. They must not treat people this way. I am caring for children. Others are too. Some people don’t have a generous son in town with a cottage. Where are they? At the fairgrounds in a tent. Offering a false sense of hope, is a tease. You can go home, but sorry you cannot drive on the only road in. This wasn’t the first time I called, emailed messaged Supervisor Ryan Coonerty, a poor overworked guy, what could he do? So I called a distant family connection battalion chief, talked it through, on behalf of anyone using these maps as a lifeline, checking them dozens of times a day, the overlays on damage, loss of structures and repopulation. They were developed for public to receiving information. They shouldn’t make a grandma with two kids and a dog check out of her lodging, pack up… be turned away. We knew we could repopulate. We heard it on news, twitter, the maps showed us. We are good citizens. This isn’t right.
Can you please fix this? I asked. Desperate to get home, I lost track of reason. He gave me a contact at the sheriff’s office. Not to repair the map problem, lack of access, improve communications with the public, but to get me and my family home. A Private Deal was not what I was after, I wanted someone to understand the role of the maps, the way we all look to them, feel when access is offered but denied. We are on the edge I’d said. I’d hit the end of my leash. It’s graphic, I said, there on the map. I obsessed about their mistake. A fix was not to be. But silencing me was.
So the next day, I accepted the favor. I went home. But I hid it from my neighbors, the sheriff said only us, no one else. I’d abandoned the people I had been in communication with by email several times a day for the past two weeks. Has it only been weeks, seems like months? A week ago hubby was up home with other renegade brigade members and he came to the road boundary to pick up food, the chickens and the cat. I brought the car full. The cat was at my Mom’s wouldn’t come our from under the bed. He said it was safe at home, I should send the chickens. By the wharf fenced in little dirt patch by day and moved to a garage at night was hard to manage any longer. We thought we’d be home soon, hugged one another and waited. But the fire continued. It’s human nature to imagine things getting back to normal sooner rather than later. I learned that watching pandemic behaviors. Enough of this! I’d grown impatient, buttons pushed and I wanted the generous newly weds back in their cottage.
Happy to see us, hubby was surprised and relieved when we arrived, told it could be days before we came back. But he had food. We had phone and power. He told us story after story, talked about taking more fire safety measures and told more stories. He had an adventure, many of them. We were both tired. All glad to see him, bury our noses in his smoky clothes, beard and hair. Granddaughter took a bath first thing. She washed our car next to her daddy as he washed his. I washed the ash off the dying plants and patio and watered the garden. We can’t say I’m home, can we? Neighbors might call for a special favor of their own, could be an official retaliation of some kind, lengthening the time of the road closure. I let it go. Decided to be happy to be home and all safe. No fresh vegetables but a fresh box of tea.
I unpacked the car. Watched another helicopter bump along the ridge, grateful to have a home. I pulled my old lady card for a special favor. That’s what it was, right? I don’t do it often, hardly ever. I worried about what the neighbor’s would think. Then found out that they were up here, too, hiding out, special permission for all is hardly that. What sheriffs do is control the situation. Thank you for helping us regain a small bit of control.
3 thoughts on “August 2020”
So glad you wrote this. Painful. Powerful. Truth.
It seems so long ago now – but of course it was just a few months back.
Love you so much…
I feel inside it now, while before I only heard the news stories, and reports from my sister. Thank you!
Brought me back to an unsettling time, yet in a comforting way. Fresh clean air never felt so good.