When I was a kid living in the country, there was a wildfire north of where we lived when I was around seven years old. Papa ordered us all to get something to save and go down into the cellar as a precaution.
I was in panic mode. We didn’t have much to begin with and the cellar was dark and damp and dirty and full of spiders and crawling things. What few clothes I owned were mostly dresses so I certainly wouldn’t have mourned their loss, so I didn’t get any of them. I was too little and bony to carry any pieces of furniture, not that any would fit in that little space. The terrible hard smell of smoke was getting stronger, and I could see the flames far to the north, licking up someone’s grain field like fire-demons from the pits of damnation. Men with hoses and buckets and a water wagon were out desperately beating at the demons and the resulting smoke roiled forth like a blanketing harbinger of doom.
Finally I grabbed up my toy Lassie dog – the most precious thing my seven-year-old self owned, the Keeper of Childhood Whispers and the one companion I could count on – and a copy of the TV guide nearby on the couch. I fled to the cellar with my family. Mama lit a kerosene lantern to save on the flashlight batteries. The feeble light only made the cellar look more forbidding than ever. The walls held wooden shelves filled with canned goods in jars Mama spent all summer preserving, and the top of each jar already had a considerable layer of dust. Spiderwebs caught the lantern’s dull glow and reminded me the web owners were somewhere close, probably even dangling over my head. I scrunched down over my Lassie toy and continued to clutch the small fat magazine. The dirt floor still held the odor of dampness from last spring’s heavy rain, despite Papa’s keeping the door open the entire hot summer to air it out. I closed my eyes and waited.
After what seemed like hours, Papa opened the cellar door and gestured for us to emerge. The fire was halted at the edge of the 40-acre field in front of our house, and we and our neighbors were safe. We left the spiders and centipedes and dusty shelves and dank dirt floor behind, and walked up the steps into the acrid stink of defeated firesmoke. My sisters saw the magazine I held in my hands and of course set about mocking me for it. “If our house burned down we wouldn’t have a TV to watch, so what were you thinking, you dummy?”
I wasn’t ‘thinking.’ I was terrified. I was a child who knew damned well that everything we had was in a four-room wood frame house, a house with no plumbing, bare wires for electricity and a bigass propane tank outside the kitchen. The TV was the most expensive thing we owned and it was a hand-me-down with ancient picture tubes ready to fail at any moment. Five girls’ clothes all fit in a single dresser, and the aged mattresses were lumpy and saggy. The front room furniture had stuffing coming out the worn places of the threadbare coverings, and at least one of Mama’s warped pots and pans had to be placed a certain way on the stovetop until the weight of ingredients kept them stable. All our fiction and reference books and paper dolls and toy horses and notebooks and cigar boxes containing childhood keepsakes were still inside the house. And none of those items, so worn and loved, was anything we could afford to lose. We couldn’t even afford to lose the outhouse, tucked away at the edge of the woods behind us. I was depressed for a long time after that, believing I had done something wrong by not keeping my head and getting something practical, like clothes or cookware or the photo album as my sisters did. I had failed to ‘think properly.’
Flash forward to California. All those homes whose owners worked and struggled in good times and now these precarious times to acquire and furnish and enjoy, are gone. Throwaway items and family heirlooms alike were taken with only ash to replace them. Fire holds no economic preferences, its demons lick up the homes of the wealthy as easily as the homes of the poor. Fire doesn’t care if people had just moved into the neighborhood or had lived in the family home for generations. It indiscriminately destroys.
When I see photos of entire neighborhoods devastated, my heart weeps. When the news cameras interview the survivors and I see the thin veneer of bravery trying to mask complete despair, I ache for them.I can offer you only my sympathy and concern, Lacey, but it is a massive amount of sympathy and concern. Just as when I was a child, there is nothing I can do that could possibly replace the immense loss California faces.
I still have my Lassie toy, restitched and restuffed and with the plastic face waiting for me to figure out a way to re-attach it to its de-flocked body. I have kept it with me for fifty-three more years, through every emotional upheaval and physical pack-and-move and fierce closet-cleaning in my life. If it would make this whole horrible situation reverse and restore the loss, I would gladly offer this precious toy Lassie up to the fire-demons as sacrifice. I know it sounds stupid coming from an adult but the frightened seven-year-old of long ago understand now, and offers it without hesitation.
Stop destroying homes and lives, fire-demons. Stop destroying homes and lives, wind-demons. Stop destroying homes and lives, Demon-in-Chief. If there are demons then there must be angels too.