The California fires

November 29, 2020

One thing that one gradually learns about every event in life is that big or small, everything passes eventually

It was growing darker every mile I moved south.

I was still over forty miles north of San Francisco, but the change was noticeable. It was growing darker every mile I moved south. San Francisco already lives a dreamy existence – fog rolls in every evening and envelopes in mystery the city and its people. Now the Golden City was being covered under two shrouds: a blanket of smoke over the usual fluffy marine layer. It was the middle of the day, but with all the streetlights on – operated by automatic sensors – you could be easily fooled to believe it was late at night. I rolled down the car window to smell the air, but there was no hint of smoke there, just the regular cool, misty, fresh air.

A couple of days earlier I had vented out my frustration online. Why are these forest fires an annual ritual of misery in California? In this age of robots and drones, why are we so helpless to an apparently controllable natural phenomenon? Why don’t we learn from previous fires and avoid the anticipated ones in the next dry hot season? Driving by myself I also thought about the Covid-19 pandemic. Why is the US coronavirus casualties count so high? Was there something common between Covid-19 deaths and the California fires?

Even with multiple fires burning around it, the city of San Francisco remained reasonably assured to remain unharmed. Where I live, a couple of hours north of San Francisco, the prognosis was different. We were asked to be prepared for evacuation – the whole town, all 5,125 people living there.

If we were asked to leave our home, where would we go and what should we take with us?

I have been writing journals for a long time. For almost three decades I have written daily diaries. Most of those writings are boring accounts of days passing by, but there are travel stories too, written in faraway places – of border crossings, of impressions on reaching a new country, of grief on leaving towns and people that I fell in love with. I used to write my diaries in notebooks. When computers became affordable, I moved to digitally recording my days. But the old handwritten diaries are still with me, around forty of them, packed in a carton. That was my treasure I wanted to evacuate with. And if there was enough room in the car, I wanted to bring along an old computer and USB drives, full of documents, and digital photos and videos – a personalised spectacle of life zipping right in front of my eyes.

But the memorabilia was not the only treasure I wanted to save from the fire.

There was news of the fire getting close to the Big Basin State Park. The giant redwoods have stood there for centuries. A countless number of people like me have sought solace walking on the fragrant beds of needles and cones under the tall, old sequoias of that forest. The thought of those trees being devoured by the fire was painful, heartbreaking.

A few days later, the fire that threatened our town had been tamed, but a new threat had emerged: of a power outage. The utility company serving our town shuts off our power when it believes high winds may bring down the cables passing through the forest and may start a fire. The company calls such an outage a public safety power shut down; actually, it is their strategy to save themselves from lawsuits.

Why have we become so accustomed to electricity – something that we cannot produce ourselves easily? It was vastly different hardly a century ago: most people only consumed what they could produce.

I have built a chicken coop in the backyard. I started with six layers, but now I only have five. One was killed by a raccoon. The coop was not too secure at that time. Since then I have been beefing up the security of the henhouse. My evening routine includes throwing the kitchen scraps in the chicken coop. When the girls get busy savouring the leftovers, I pick up the eggs. Farm animals are naïve enough to think they are benefiting from their owners caring for them when in fact it is the humans who benefit from this exercise. It is the same way when Third world countries think the aid from the First World is a help to them.

Even in broad daylight you could easily think it was late at night.

I was inside the coop when the power went out. The utility company had sent me an alert through a text message about the upcoming power outage, but I had not read the note carefully. I knew that the power would go off in the evening but had not read the message in its entirety to understand that there would be no electricity for two to three days.

Why have we become so accustomed to electricity – something that we cannot produce ourselves easily? It was vastly different hardly a century ago: most people only consumed what they could produce. Fortunately, I have a large UPS to charge up our electronic devices. Still it was not very convenient to not have light at night.

If you only visit the big cities of California, you may be deceived by the concrete jungles, the choking traffic stretching to eternity, and construction sprawling to the hinterland, but California is still 31 percent forested land. That is a lot of trees, and an exceptionally large area and many dead trees to save from fire. A similar observation can be made about the aging population of the US. There are scores of immunity-compromised people being kept alive using the latest medical technologies – an easy target for the new virus, eager to push the weak over the threshold.

The Golden City burried under a blanket of smoke.

You quickly learn about every event in life that ‘this too shall pass.’ And this one passed too. The third day, we got the power back. I got busy with my stuff and on finding a possible commonality between forest fires and Covid deaths. How about the ‘availability of the target’ factor?

The writer is a social commentator and   traveller

The California fires