Fire Lessons

My life was nearly upended twice by fire.

Many years ago I lived with my family on the edge of a canyon full of the low, dry brush we in the West call chaparral.  One day, when my two sons were still pre-schoolers in day care, a fire came up our canyon. That afternoon, as I was driving home from teaching at San Diego State, I saw a plume of dark smoke rising in the distance in the direction of my home. As I made the twists and turns in the road as I got closer, it became clear the fire was very, very close to our canyon. “Oh shit! Oh shit!” I kept repeating aloud as I drove.  I knew my boys were not home and were not in danger, but it seemed harder and harder to believe I would not arrive to see everything in ruins.

The smoke had already begun to dissipate as I turned up our little road but the smell told me what to fear.   I came over the rise and saw a blackened canyon, but my house intact.  The fire had burned partially beyond it, and neighbors were still standing in my yard, holding garden hoses they had used to spray our roof.  The fire department had been there briefly, sprayed a little and left when the last encroaching flames were doused.

While the ground still smoldered, I invited our neighbors to come in for a beer to thank them, and they told me I had missed the news reporter who arrived on our street and gushed at the miracle that a house nearly surrounded by blackened vegetation had been saved.

“Miracle?” They said. “We hosed down your roof! It was no miracle.” And they were right to be angry that their courage and effort was so blithely dismissed.  Lesson one in “miracles.”

My next near brush with fire happened when I was nine time zones away, teaching in Florence. I had recently moved from San Diego  to Lake Arrowhead, about two hours away, in the San Bernardino Mountains. That house, shown in photo, was not only my emotional refuge at the lowest point in my life, but the place where every last thing I owned, from papers, to furniture, to photos, to memorabilia, to clothing, was waiting in my little nest for my return.

This was back in the time when if you wanted to check your email you had to go to an Internet cafe.  In Florence one afternoon I had a message from my sister in Northern California, telling me she was tracking a fire that was heading in the direction of Lake Arrowhead.  I went onto the website that reports on California fires and my heart sank at how close it looked and how quickly it was spreading.

For two days, I lived in a nightmare duality of idyllic Florence and the image on that fire map, showing the fire less than twenty miles away, then ten, then five.  My mental anguish was exacerbated by the nine-hour time difference and the fact that the Internet cafe was not open very late or very early, meaning that I could not get updates in anywhere near real time.

And still I had to teach. I showed the fire map to the program supervisor, who shut her eyes and directed a few pleas to the powers above and then asked, “Are you going to go home?”  It was just October, two months to go before the semester ended, and since I was one of only two professors in our program, that would have been disastrous.  I pictured my collapsed and blackened house and burnt-out car, and said I would stay, regardless. What was there to go home to that couldn’t wait?

And so I waited. What would turn out to be the final day of this anguish began after a sleepless night and an interminable wait for the Internet cafe to open.  There was no hope, based on the last fire map, and I just expected confirmation that everything was gone.  Instead I saw an email from my sister, subject in all caps: IT’S SNOWING!!!”  In October. In the Southern California mountains, where it rarely snows before December.

The fire was out. It had not reached my house. Months later, when I finally returned, I drove to a neighborhood just two miles away, where houses lay in ruins.  One flying ember could have lit a treetop in my yard, but it didn’t. Everything was just as I left it.

So yes, it’s okay to pray for unexpectedly positive outcomes when fires are raging, but better to pray for those brave enough not to count on miracles, those who do what they can.  The snow felt more out of the blue than water from garden hoses, but what really saved my house both times was people who fought the fire long enough for something beyond their power to defeat it. People beat fires down as best they can for as long as they can,  and that is enough sometimes but not always. The snow fell on smoking ruins in Lake Arrowhead as well. A most unfair miracle, if that’s what you want to call it. I squirm at the word, and am grateful for all the lessons, like these, that I have not had to learn the hard way.

As my little boys stood in their Underoos looking at a canyon that was nothing but ashes, I examined the underside  of our deck, so blackened and crumbled it seems clear the house was actually briefly on fire. I was flooded by the kinds of insights one has to be emotionally vulnerable enough to let in through the distractions of the ordinary.  The loves of my life were down there, healthy, curious, and resilient. We had a home, and an affirmation of community. That night, we went to the drive in, and as the boys dozed off in the back seat, I realized that I could drive away and never look back because all I really cared about was right there in that car.

The following spring, I noticed sprouts coming from a tree I assumed been killed by the fire.  I thought of one of my favorite poets, Theodore Roethke, and the closing stanza of his poem  “The Light Comes Brighter”:

And soon a branch, part of a hidden scene

The leafy mind, that long was tightly furled,

Will turn its private substance into green,

And young shoots spread upon our inner world.

Yes.  Hidden within the tree, and within my own mind, was the potential for growth, ready to burst out.  The road to Lake Arrowhead, which had been like driving through an ashtray at first,  was soon green again with the outpouring of life energy from scorched roots. Maybe my desire to break free of self-imposed boundaries was shaped by these two experiences that gave me a glimpse of another way to live, the way of “less is more.” It was a vision I would not act upon for decades, a way of thinking it would take many more losses to embrace.    Maybe my life has been a story of furling and unfurling, of retreating, regathering, and spending energy in a world that always has the potential to burst into green, even from the darkest of places.