Monthly Archives: July 2008

Firefighting

Part of me wants to sit and write forever – typing my digestion of this past week, month, year. Another part of me wants to sit in a silent room– having nothing to say, nothing to write, nothing to do.

Tonight I’ve settled upon my red pajamas, renting Juno and eating a dove bar for dinner. I did start writing some yesterday, noticing there’s the writing I feel I should do – updating friends and family on the fire – and there’s all the words underneath. I’ll probably make a series of it, as the onion reveals itself. I beg your patience with both the wordy waterfalls and days of silence in between.

I just re-read the last fire update I sent. Now it feels so dramatic. The big, bad (and yes, still burning) fire that had all our fingernails chewed down to the quick has, after an exhaustingly watchful week, moved along from Big Sur with (relatively) little fanfare. This is in no way intended to diminish to the 27 homes lost, or our northeastern neighbors who are now evacuated, but when it seemed like the fate of the entire coast was at stake, to have the highway back open in the span of a mere week seems altogether anticlimactic.

The statistics feel worse than the fire. Apparently by the time this is all said and done (probably not until the winter rains) this will be the largest wildfire in California history. It’s a few fires actually, that have joined and will burn more than a quarter million acres. In all honesty, that means nothing to me. It’s a vast sea of wilderness that my brain can’t wrap itself around. When I look at the fire maps I see fragments of Bambi flash through my memory reel and I imagine the distress of the deer.

Hearing about landmarks, big and small, help my mind and body understand. I can picture the garden at the zen center vividly – memories of my fingers in soil beds that are now smoldering, black mounds. Sula’s house, where I sat with her over a long tea, talking about the joy of mixing paint colors and how Big Sur swept her off her feet so many years ago. Feeding her horses lunch and imagining myself living there too, in the little Airstream on the ridge. All those paintings and teacups and books – the accumulation in the life of a dilettante – now ash and dust.

View from the highway July 3rd

** View from the highway July 3rd **

When I first saw the fire up close, on evacuation day, I was surprised at the force of the effect. I sucked in breath and sobbed. The line of flames burning down the ridge looked like a scalpel, with neither malice nor care, cutting through the vulnerable skin of a friend. And we had to leave, not knowing if we were in for an appendectomy or a heart transplant.

The week away was a blurry flurry of websites and phone calls and meetings. Everyone insatiably hungry for information, most of which told us only to keep waiting. The people who know things announced it would be at least a few weeks before we could return home. And as abruptly as the evacuation came, one evening (Thursday? Yesterday? A year ago?) they announced the road would open to residents the next day. This was more shocking to me than the evacuation frankly. Great for Big Sur businesses and obviously a good sign the fire was well contained along the coast, but I couldn’t help feeling like I’d just worked really hard getting comfortable in an uncomfortable chair, and now I had to go find someplace else to sit. I could understand the joy of friends who could finally go home, but I had no home to go to. The place I was planning on moving to survived by the hair of its chin, but the owners have decided not to rent it for awhile. So now what?

I began to feel all the stuff behind the stuff. How becoming absorbed in managing a community website was simultaneously providing me with a point of focus and a container, giving me purpose and sense of earning my space in the village. How the fire was giving me a good excuse for eating badly, feeling sorry for myself and playing hooky. And now the containers and urgencies were falling away, and my community was scattering back up on their ridges, each immersed in their own fridge clean outs. (I have to make mention of my friend and fellow fire gypsy Linda’s perfectly written account of re-entry – http://survision-bigsur.blogspot.com/.)

I’ve spent the time continuing my coffee shop wifi tour of Carmel, feeling out the not knowing in the occasional courageous moment. Not knowing always seems to come in equal parts pain and freedom. I’m still searching for my bootstraps after days full of tears and frustration and naps. But angels abound, and in the span of a day I’ve secured Big Sur house-sitting gigs through the end of August and Yossi signed a lease on an apartment in Marin.

  **the view from my front door**

**the view from my front door, July 16**

(Aside: There’s an overwhelmed little girl in me who wants everyone in the world to know that her old hometown flooded, her new hometown burned, she’s homeless, alone and her dog died last week. But what more to say than the picture of this moment – I’m nestled under a homemade quilt in a private guest house over a glimmering, enormous ocean, sipping wine and feeling taken in and loved everywhere. Don’t let me get away with the poor me routine please.)

When I finally drove back to Big Sur this weekend, I nervously wondered what our new landscape would have to say, but it wasn’t anything like seeing the fire. I just stared at the hills in awe and curiosity, not the least bit sad. Where I saw the fingers of flame coming down to the road is now a giant, ashy mountain. In the right light you have to look twice before you even notice it isn’t green. The trees are still intact in many of the burn areas, where the fire didn’t crown and just burned through the understory. (I have a newly enhanced fire vocabulary.) If anything, Big Sur just looks even more dramatic than before.

What most residents see is a much-needed, healthy clearing – and the makings of a winter full of mudslides and road closures. Not to mention all eyes are still on the half of Big Sur that didn’t burn, as we glance at the calendar and count down 100 more days till fire season is over.

It makes most people wonder why on earth anyone has perched themselves up here in this place. I know painters who stay for the limitless landscapes. A friend told me today her neighbors wanted “country without the rednecks.” Henry Miller said it’s where he learned to say “Amen.” For me, Big Sur is a teacher of the lessons I’ve signed up for. And whether it’s flavored with pain or freedom, it always whispers in my ear “this is how big my love is.”

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Fire Update – July 3

It’s been a helluva week. Lots to tell…

The short version update as of this morning:
– EVERYONE in Big Sur was evacuated yesterday. Both sides of the highway. This is the first time this has ever happened. We’re talking about a stretch of Highway One that is more than a 90 minute drive.

– Yossi and I are safe and sound, in Carmel, staying with kind strangers who have offered a room of their home to us in downtown Carmel as long as we need it. I’m sitting at a Carmel coffee shop waiting for the morning’s fire update to post on the website.

The longer version:
This whole week has been one giant roller coaster blur. It’s giving me a whole new appreciation for living in the moment (and how difficult that can be!) I think part of me has been slow to send updates because it’s all so dang overwhelming.

As you know Yossi and I were already planning on moving, which in most ways has turned out to be the hugest blessing. It put us a week ahead of the game. Friday and Saturday we packed up everything from the house and found a place to move to. Until Sunday that is, when it was announced that the place we were moving was under evacuation advisory. So we just decided to move everything into storage and figure things out day by day, which is what we’ve been doing ever since. Monday we found a guest house in Big Sur to stay at for the week, and then landed a house-sitting gig, also in Big Sur, for July 5-21st. We were sitting pretty until yesterday morning (was that just yesterday?) when our host knocked on our door at 8 to give us the news that we were under evacuation advisory, and half of Big Sur was under mandatory evacuation notice. Ash was falling like eerie snowflurries everywhere, and though we were only a few hundred feet from the ocean we couldn’t see the water for the smoke. We (again, miraculously ahead of the game), secured a place to stay in Carmel for the night.

I spent the morning updating the surfire2008.org site with the evacuation news (which came from the “official” sources about 3 hours after the news of it had already spread everywhere), packing up the last bit of stuff from our old place (all but our poor, now certainly doomed plants,) packing up computers and files at the Big Sur Arts Initiative office and then sitting down for more web updates at noon, to find there was now a mandatory evacuation for all of Big Sur. Communication was now really breaking down all over town. My favorite story is one of a local hotel, who evacuated and closed without having let half of their guests know. Not even a note on the door. The community hotline wasn’t working because it was evacuated too. And fire was now clearly visible from the highway in several places.

Yos and I sat down and re-grouped. Most people we saw were in good humor – in a weird way, it was a sweet afternoon. Big Sur people are generally well-connected to each other, supportive, self-reliant and prepared. So even the incredibly fast turn of events wasn’t panicking people. Since we were already all moved, we wanted to help where we could, so we went back to our landlord’s place to help them get their stuff out and help him prep to defend his house. By the way, many, MANY people in Big Sur, including many close friends of mine, are still there. Mandatory evacuation doesn’t really mean mandatory, it means that once you leave you can’t come back. And people are invested in defending their homes. And nobody is trusting the fire incident command team that has come into town to fight this fire, because they don’t know the terrain, homes or people. Many poor decisions have been made and opportunities have been missed. And the official fire communications team can’t even get out this morning’s update because their e-mail isn’t working. So the locals are relying upon themselves and each other. They have all gotten gel to spray on their house when the flames get near and they all know the fastest way out.

We’re still really in the thick of this thing. The news this morning (all unofficial) isn’t good. Since yesterday, fires have started in Santa Barbara and Malibu, taking all our air support and a bunch of our crew. The fire is coming down toward the highway in several places with several more homes and businesses burned and threatened. 10,000 more acres burned last night alone, and the incident command team’s quote in the paper today was “this is far from over. If we were in a marathon, we’d be at mile marker two.”

As everyone in CR knows, the hardest parts will come – everyone out of work, no long-term housing, who knows what destruction to come home to…

My focus is still helping with the increasingly challenged communications through the surfire2008.org website. It’s become a pretty essential resource during this – it was covered in the Monterey Herald this week. It keeps me feel connected to the community to contribute with this, especially since we’re now all scattered everywhere.

I’ve got to run – but updates will come more frequently now…

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Big Sur Fire – Update from June 26

In case you haven’t heard, there’s a Big Sur fire. A big, big, Big Sur fire. And here I am all brushed up on my disaster awareness on the heels of the record-setting Cedar Rapids/ Iowa City flood. Plague of locusts, anyone?

View of the fire from the top of my road, Sunday June 22

View of the fire from the top of our road, June 22nd

There are over 800 fires in California right now, and as of yesterday our fire, now named the Basin Complex, is the number one priority. (I’m not sure how to feel about that.) It warranted a quick fly-in from the Govenator and got us $20 million more in resources – a good thing.

The fire started after a lightning strike on Saturday afternoon and has burned 18 homes and large out-buildings so far. It’s growing more than 10,000 acres a day (bad news), almost entirely toward wilderness and away from the residential and business areas (good news.) At the moment I live in “central” Big Sur, if there is such a thing, and am about 2 miles northwest of the fire with a highway and river gorge in between us. I’m safe and at no immediate risk. The weather has been very helpful all week, staying cool and calm. We all have our ears perked up and bags packed though, as a wind change is expected tonight that isn’t as favorable. We have drought conditions and major overgrowth of underbrush everywhere here, so what isn’t burning is a match waiting to be lit. And fire, like water, has a mind of it’s own.

The community here is well-versed at emergencies and has pulled together beautifully. We already have a hotline going, fully staffed by volunteers for the next two weeks. Our entire fire brigade in Big Sur is a volunteer-driven nonprofit, as is our health center, and they’re incredible. I asked the( fantastic) guy who built the 2008flood.org website for Cedar Rapids three weeks ago if I could have his code, and I got surfire2008.org up and running yesterday, with the help of friends. I feel supported and connected to everyone here, and like any good small town, we all crowd around the steps of the state park station together at 7 each night to hear updates from Frank, our fire chief.

As for me, the impact is substantial and growing. I know many who have lost homes and many more who are evacuated. I’m scheduled to move on Monday, but my new place may or may not be standing right now (it’s in the middle of the worst part of the fire) so I’m packing, without knowing exactly where I’ll be yet. Yossi will be moving up north of San Francisco soon, but doesn’t have a place lined up, so we’ll both be in somebody’s guest room it seems for awhile. Most businesses are not operating, because the highway is closed and tourists are being turned around. And tourist season is Big Sur’s bread and butter for the year. The smoke is thicker than fog here – it woke me up with a start this morning, smelling like someone set a campfire in the kitchen. Esalen, where I used to live, has been evacuated, and while they expect they will be able to save it, the staff housing is right in the burn path, as is their water line. Power and phones went down days ago to everyone more than a mile south of me. The Henry Miller Library is being actively defended – the whole gorge coming down to it is on fire. (And Rob Schneider was going to do stand up there tomorrow night! Damn.)

It’s a sight to behold, this thing. I can walk up my road and watch the flames. Nature reminding us we aren’t so big and powerful. It’s clearing out the old pretty effectively, and as scary or sad or overwhelming as it becomes in some moments, I can appreciate that. A friend of a friend who lives right in the fire path and doesn’t know yet if her home is still standing said yesterday “at least I’ll finally be rid of those damn mice.”

And next spring in the Sur will be a blanket of bright, electric green.

p.s.
I know many of you are spent with disasters of your own. But if you wish to help out, the most needed thing are contributions to the Big Sur Fire Relief Fund. You can mail donations to: Big Sur Fire Relief Fund PO Box 59 Big Sur, CA 93920.

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