Thursday, October 31, 2019. It’s raining in New York as I write this at 7 o’clock on Wednesday evening. The temp is running in the low to mid-60s and the weatherman is forecasting more rain tomorrow and maybe temps in the 70s on the last day of October, 2019.
The subject on the minds of a lot right now is California and the fires. There were none serious when I lived out there throughout the 80s and early 90s, although I had heard many stories of massive damage in the past. Years ago I read a piece in the New Yorker which began with these words: “California is a natural disaster area prone to earthquakes, floods, and fires.”
The author arrived that California’s proneness to “natural disasters” set the tone for life of inhabitants in such places.
Living out there at the time, that idea fascinated me. When I first experienced the famous “Santa Ana” winds known affect the moods of people, I was surprised to notice no changes of mood whatsoever. I did mildly experience the earthquakes although I was never in a dangerous spot other than some shaking and rattling and pool water wafting.
And as for fires, I’d heard of the Bel Air fire in the early 1960s where many people lost their homes, burned to the ground. My friend Brooke Hayward, then married to Dennis Hopper, lost their house in Stone Canyon and everything in it. With the winds, the fires travel quickly and quirkily. By the time the fire is on its way, so suddenly, people abandon their houses with little more than keys to their car.
You have to see it, to really believe its effect on your sensibilities. I witnessed a smaller version in the early 80s, when on a sunny weekday, I had run an errand and parked my car on the corner of La Cienega and Santa Monica Boulevards. Getting out car, facing the Hollywood Hills, I saw a sudden burst of flames on part of a house on the hilltop! And then there was some wind, maybe even breezes fanning the flames, as two people ran out of the house.
Suddenly the wind picked up some flames, and as if animated, they rolled into a fiery ball that then bounced into the air, making an arc, and landing on the rooftop of the house next door. Within a moment, the flat rooftop of that house was in huge flames!
All of this happened instantly, as if the fires were landing on explosives. Both of those fires were soon under control that day, but the suddenness, to the eye, was alarming to a point of hysteria.
This is what Californians both north and south are facing as I write these words. It has now been days and there is no sign of letting up. Paige Peterson, who wrote about her hometown of Belvedere a few weeks ago, had just returned to New York from there this past Sunday. The winds and the fires were already in force but by Sunday night, however, and her mother, still living in Belvedere, texted her the following:
“I have never seen winds like this in the 93 years I have lived in California. Never. I have never seen fires like this. Never. We won’t have electricity until Friday, which means we will have been in the dark for a week. It shows how ill prepared we have been for a disaster of this magnitude. This is global warming. And it will continue to happen over and over again.”
That’s today’s report from Paige’s mother — Connie Wiley, the former mayor of Belvedere — who has been living with no heat or electricity for five days. Her distress is painful and upsetting, and Paige’s instinct is to return to California as soon as possible.
But there’s really nothing Paige can do for her. PG&E has turned off the electrical grid to prevent high winds from toppling tree limbs onto live power lines and starting more fires. Not a popular decision, but a smart one — the Kincade Fire, less than an hour from Connie Wiley’s home in Belvedere, has burned more than 76,000 acres. At least 189 structures were destroyed, forcing nearly 200,000 wine country residents to evacuate. And entire counties are now in the dark.
The National Weather Service has issued a wind advisory for parts of Sonoma and Napa counties for the next few days, with the strongest gusts expected at night. The increased wind will create “rapid fire growth potential.” This is bad news on top of bad news: The fire is now only 15 percent contained.
Some gloomy perspective: Northern California endured hurricane-force gusts last week. This week’s surge — with wind gusts expected to reach 50 or 60 mph — will be the third windstorm in a week. The increased wind, the Weather Service cautioned, will create “rapid fire growth potential.” Officials said they expected the Kincade Fire to burn until at least November 7th. Note: at least.
Paige reports that back in Belvedere, until whenever, community centers are open for residents to charge their phones. That has created an old-fashioned gathering of neighbors. A resident arrived at the town hall with her hair dryer. Neighbors have brought ice for her mother’s ice chest. And because everything in the refrigerator and freezer has to be cooked and eaten, neighbors with gas stoves have been making and sharing meals. When 75-mile-an-hour gusts pushed her mother’s outdoor furniture into the Belvedere Lagoon, neighbors fished it out. In what may become the deadliest fire in California’s history, small town American values are alive and thriving. We could all use more of that these days.