Three wildfires and the hard-soled slippers by my bed
When I set out to write about wildfire recovery in Sonoma Valley Regional Park over this past year, I thought I’d be able to focus on the park alone. I should have known better. “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe,” John Muir said. It’s certainly been that way with this thing.
I also thought a year would be enough; that 12 months would bring some kind of resolution. I should have known better about that, too.
Watching the park burn is a memory that remakes itself. I don’t figure this is a problem; it’s part of a process. I can close my eyes and watch the fire plume above the ridge top. I remember the first little plant I saw in the char, the gut-punchingly beautiful wildflower bloom. And now, the park is rich with golden fuel ready to burn again.
I vowed to witness. I knew what to expect, and I hoped nature’s recovery would mirror my own. But then things got weird. This fire season has been relentless, and I’ve found myself in other beloved places while they burned. My reconciliation has become wonky.
The weirdness started in late July, when I went to Yosemite to meet up with my brothers after a backpacking trip. We planned to camp in Tuolumne Meadows for a few days. The night before I left, bro Chris texted from Little Yosemite: Their route had changed, and they were coming out in Yosemite Valley. No problem; I’d pick them up there.
Listening to the radio on my way south, I learned the National Park Service was evacuating the valley that morning due to the Ferguson Fire. Too much smoke, and they needed a staging area in the event the fire moved into the heart of the park. Ohhh-kayyy.
Ignoring my misgivings I continued down Highway 120 toward the Big Oak Flat entrance. The Rim Fire roared through the surrounding canyons in 2013, and the thickening haze from the Ferguson Fire hunkered down on the burn zone, building on the creepiness I felt. I checked in with rangers at the entrance station and they were pretty sure I could get through to the pickup on the valley floor. They suggested I continue to the barricade at Crane Flat.
At Crane Flat I watched the ranger turning folks around and girded my loins. I’d bartered past barricades in the early days of the Nuns Fire, and I hoped my story was compelling enough to do it again. No problem; carry on, the ranger said. This wasn’t Sonoma. There was no danger in the valley.
So I found myself alone, driving into a fire evacuation zone. And I began to tingle, from my scalp to my toes. This, I thought. This is shock. I’m OK, but this...
A shuttle bus nearly took me out in a tunnel – the driver wasn’t expecting traffic and picked his lane out of the middle. Otherwise, the roadways were empty. Past Bridalveil Falls, no one. Past El Capitan Meadow, no one. At Cooks Meadow, I stopped to pee. The sky was orange, but I could see Half Dome, the ribbon of Upper Yosemite Fall. Still, no people. Not even a ranger. The bathrooms were locked. In Yosemite Valley in July, I peed in the woods.
Next, I blew off the barricade to Happy Isles. In ordinary days, this is the province of the shuttle bus; on this day, it was mine alone. Backpackers milled about the trailhead; they had little idea what was happening. I pulled up in my Subaru, and my brothers and friends converged. The Crosstrek became a clown car, six humans piled in a space designed for five. Rangers arrived just then in an SUV, prepared to shuttle backcountry hikers out of the valley until all were safe.
We stopped in empty Yosemite Village for food and drink. A Bay Area TV newscaster seeking someone – anyone – to interview pressed us for comment. What’s it like to be in this iconic park in these circumstances? he asked, camera rolling. It’s a little freaky, I told him.
Fast forward to the Carr Fire. Technically, Catherine emerged unscathed. But she’s not. Her house still stands, but her family – parents, brothers, daughters, uncles – lost everything when Keswick was incinerated. I met Catherine in Lassen Volcanic National Park in mid-August, while the fire still belched smoke into the sky. I had collected gift cards and cash for Catherine’s family from friends and neighbors in Glen Ellen, paying forward our understanding, our empathy, our care. We talked for hours. Her stories were harrowing. She wondered what was coming, and I shared what I knew: the burnt buildings that wouldn’t be cleared for months, the insurance battles, the smell that lingers, the sudden bolts of sadness. She was grateful, but overwhelmed. I could relate.
Early the next morning, I drove through the park. Lassen, like Yosemite, was empty. I stopped where the Reading Fire, which blew through the backcountry in 2012, swept across the highway. The snags are silvered now, and flowers dot the underbrush. A few green trees pierce the sky. But even these long years later, it’s a burn zone. It’s beautiful, but was no solace.
A week later I walked in the regional park with my best friends. One lives in Santa Barbara, where the hills burn regularly. She knows the name of every fire that’s swept into her town or blown up around it. Her stories, like mine and Catherine’s, are harrowing. She keeps hard-soled slippers next to her bed. She remembers, but she’s fine. Her calm in my burn zone hinted at the resolution I seek.
In spring I wrote about the veneer, about how we knew where the burned places were even as the grasses grew tall and hid them. Now, with the fire anniversary looming, I struggle with the expectation that I should be over it. No more veneer: The wound should be healed. But it’s wonky. Witnessing Sonoma Valley Regional Park’s recovery over a year was short-sighted. The fire scars will be plain to see for a long time, despite what I want. Instead, I look for peace in the hard-soled slippers by my bed and my acceptance that, even after these October days of remembrance have come and gone, resolution lies a long way down the trail. I’ll try to be patient.