The recurring nightmare always opened with the same scene: I am standing on the deck of my childhood home in Big Sur, looking out upon the western edge of North America, frozen in terror. I have no recollection of how I end up there, but the pungent punch of smoke to my face quickly eradicates any subconscious semantics. I gaze downward on the forested canyon that extends out to the Pacific Ocean, taking one last notice of the redwoods, oaks and madrones, their various shades of green and brown blotted together as if a Bob Ross painting had come to life; and that is when I see it — the Red Monster, it’s fright-filled flames whipping and gyrating in the wind like an army of dancing devils. Howling and hissing, it sizzles tree trunks to the core, causing them to explode with the ferocity of warheads. I watch, paralyzed, as the fiend propels friends’ propane tanks high into the dark apocalyptic sky, just like popcorn in a pan if left without a lid. Every windblown advance increases the temperature exponentially, causing my body to sweat and my eyes to stream tears. Finally I break free from my immobility and start to run, in no specific direction other than away from the crimson villain. I keep running until the final scene of the nightmare, when the searing antagonist swallows me up with a fast flurry of red and I violently wake up.
Now imagine the distress of this tragedy transcending the boundaries of the R.E.M. realm and becoming consciously real in the most gut-punching way. Imagine walking through the still-smoking black rubble of what was once a house of love and joy and memories, listening to the subtle cracking sounds that accompany each and every step. Imagine all the treasured family heirlooms that were instantly obliterated, melted down into an almost Dali-esque portrait of surrealist horror. Imagine finding your innocent and frightened kitty climbing out of the ashes of the wreckage, burnt ear-tips and all, after enduring a 3-mile navigation of fire-laden land to get back home, only to die a month later from respiratory damage. Imagine losing some of the absolute fundamental pieces of why you are who you are in a matter of minutes. This is the reality that my family and I were forced to live out as a result of the 2016 Soberanes fire that started in Big Sur and spread throughout two counties and over 132,000 acres, and claiming the life of one courageous bulldozer operator. It was a harrowing occurrence, and one that so many in recent weeks have been subjected to as well. Sadly, its emotion can only be attained through personal perspective. The loss of one’s home, albeit material, can extract the stages of grief typically reserved for matters of mortality, and I speak from experience, having unexpectedly lost my father about 10 years ago. The two occurrences, though unrelated in spiritual tangibility, are connected by their emotional gravity. And when I received confirmation that our house was gone, just as with my father, I felt a piece of me disappear, forever devoured by the flames.
This was not the first, nor even the second, time my family and I had experienced a fire threat of this magnitude and seen the associated atrocities. In 2007 I watched a 50-acre blaze whip up the coastal mountains and toward our property. I was sitting on the top of a picnic bench at the edge of a west-facing cliff, peering down with an odd mix of horror and tranquility at the movie-like situation unfolding in front of me. Red and white bomber planes nearly skimmed the treetops as they released gallons of retardant, their engines bellowing in my ears. Helicopters arrived in flawless synchronicity, dropping gigantic bags of sea water upon the enemy. Having already packed what I could, and realizing that my fate was now out of my hands, I did the only thing I felt reasonable — I grabbed my guitar and started playing at the picnic bench, as if to give the surreal scene a soundtrack, and offered a potential swan song to our house. When the flames started to climb farther up the ridge, I finally had to evacuate; and while wildly driving a packed car down the dirt road, I asked my father to help from the “other side,” in any way possible. Little did I know that my mother was simultaneously leading our knight in shining armor up the road to access the fire and create a day-saving break. That brave bulldozer operator ended up giving his life that day to protect the livelihood of myself and my neighbors, a grim trend tied to the profession. Because of his heroics the fire was limited to destroying one structure only. Video
The second tension-filled encounter we had was the Basin Complex fire of 2008, which was sparked by a bizarre dry lightning storm in the middle of summer. This weather anomaly would go on to torment a large portion of California, causing a record number of simultaneous fires. Several strikes to the coastal chaparral started what would eventually become a devastating 162,800-acre disaster, causing panic and pandemonium in a small town known as a beacon of serenity. I watched black ash and leaves rain down on me while clearing the foliage around my house, supported by both family and friends. At night, from the top off our property, the fire could be seen only a few ridges over, slithering slowly like a glowing orange snake. Many residents stayed behind and fought to save their homes, despite what law enforcement demanded. Extreme measures were taken in an extreme situation, and several locals had face-to-face encounters with the hissing wall of flames while successfully defending their abodes. Some were not as lucky, though; and in the wake, a total of 59 structures were lost, many of the people being friends or acquaintances of mine. It was emotional and material devastation, and at the cost of roughly $120 million it became the most expensive fire to fight in the history of California, eventually being surpassed and nearly doubled by the monster that took my home last year. And though the total cost to actually fight this year’s barrage of fires was less, the fiscal impact from insurance claims and cleanup costs has already exceeded records. The numbers prove there is an all-too-scary trend happening.
California is burning, and it’s not going to stop anytime soon. With the recent Tubbs, Atlas, Pocket, Sulphur, Redwood Valley and Nuns fires, all shifting genres, from rural to residential, the number of people dangerously exposed grew as exponentially as the villains themselves. Having collectively burned over 110,000 acres, the flames swept through Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties and their respective towns without remorse. Showing no mercy, they combined to destroy just under 8,400 structures, and damaged nearly 500 others. (These numbers unfortunately keep rising as each day of clean up ensues.) Family-friendly cul-de-sac’s were reduced to ash and rumble. Vineyards and barns both blackened and gone forever. Yet there was an even more heart-breaking set of numbers still to be released. These monsters also spiked the fatality count to digits never before heard of, which currently stands, with many homeless still unaccounted for, at 42. 42. Think about that for a minute. Forty-two scared, confused human beings whose last moments on this earth were spent in one of the worst ways imaginable. There is a peaceful way to leave this world, and that is not one of them. To have one’s last image be either a dark gray cloud or a bright wall of fire is a phobia that is shared not only by all humans but by all species in general. Many animals were subjected to the same ill-fated sentence. The nightmarish ending of many helpless creatures’ lives is yet another deplorable result of this tragedy. I speak of this from unfortunate experience as the first time I went to inspect the damage to my property I observed a multitude of species charred and black and in cowering positions. It literally made me sick to my stomach, and as I scaled deeper into the ashen-floored forest, which closely resembled a typical East Coast landscape in the dead of winter, witnessed the even colder summer of death.
Not all is negative, though, with such a disaster, and it is often in these downtrodden times that the most important human trait raises to the surface — compassion. The impulse to help someone in both physical and emotional distress is a reaction natural to most. I believe there to be an inherent desire to assist those in need, and some institutions notably went above and beyond the call of altruism. First and foremost, I am extremely obligated to thank each and every member of the fire departments and the other associated agencies, from the frontline warriors to the superhero pilots to the well-organized administration and beyond. Each limb came together to act as one cohesive body, working to facilitate whatever was necessary to the fight. Organizing such a large group in an extremely frantic environment is a challenge unto itself, and displaying the calm and wherewithal to do so exceeded merely impressive. It was truly some of the hardest work I’ve witnessed.
One intriguing fact that I discovered through this observation was that a percentage of the actual ground attack included trained prison inmates. These rehabilitating souls risk their lives in exchange for a reduced sentence — one day reduction for each day of good behavior — and a laughable hourly wage of $2. Now I understand that these are convicted criminals but, having friends who are volunteer firefighters, I am also fully aware of how hard that particular task is to perform. This is especially true against a 200-foot wall of scorching fire moving as fast as most speed limits. All facts considered, the state may want to revisit the incentive offered to these individuals. Because let’s face it, their contribution seems a hell of a lot more valuable than standing at a machine and pressing license plates.
The other praise I must sing is to the Christian Aid Ministries. When the wreckage cooled and the trees stopped spewing embers, this group stepped in and collectively performed an earthly miracle for those of us swimming in shock. Even harder than losing your home is having to sift through the debris, hoping to find tiny glimmers of your previous and now foreign life. It is above and beyond the worst house cleaning ever. The selfless souls from the CAM arrived with both emotional support and heavy machinery. Poised and conditioned for such a task, my family, friends and I stood in awe of the flabbergasting speed at which this mostly high-school-aged crew functioned. What I had surmised would take weeks to collect and remove, these diligent do-gooders tackled in mere days. It was a glorious follow-up to the bravery of the firefighting agencies, and watching such fearlessness come from every facet was truly a sight of heroic beauty to behold.
Though California has always been known as a fire state, there is an undeniable spike in volume, and several factors are at play to create this combustible environment. The first heavily supported theory bringing a lot of buzz lately is the effect of climate change, and the data does not lie. Since 1975, according to studies from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the average annual temperature in California has been rapidly increasing, and this was after decades of an ebb-and-flow trend. Our own Gov. Jerry Brown has even alluded to this data. Combine this information with the near-biblical drought the last few years provides the ingredients for catastrophe, and California is just the tip of the melting iceberg. In addition, since the recent rise in CO2 emissions around the world — BBC News reported that 2016 showed a record surge in atmospheric CO2 — many of the brightest minds on the planet have pointed to the direct correlation between this data and the major uptick in global fire frequency. It’s an extinctive feedback loop that seems to be spinning faster and faster out of control. But fear not — the current head of the EPA is here to put our minds at ease by discounting all this hippie mumbo jumbo (insert over-exaggerated sigh here).
Other non-climate connections to these travesties can include irresponsible campfire etiquette, downed power lines, electrical wiring not up to code, and the most heinous of all — arson. This deplorable practice is unfortunately more common than one might think. I have no inkling of a clue what could possess someone to bestow such a cruel and murderous act of desecration upon countless species, including the poor and innocent forest. Though, as I experienced when I recently hiked our property, nature will always find a way to thrive when and where our grandiose structures, ones that reflect both the best and worst of our civilization, cease to exist. Nature never has and never will stop to progress, with or without us. That is probably the most valuable lesson and perspective I have attained throughout this elongated hurdle in my life, and no matter what else my time on this plane and planet may hurl my way, I know that I will endure. I know my family will as well. I know we still have the most vital heirloom of all, each other. Our love will help us heal and emotionally evolve. It is what humans do, and it is why all of us are here right now to experience the world around us. We can either choose to learn from these priceless pearls of universal wisdom, or ignore them and continue down the oblivious path of madness toward extinction. The precious choice is entirely in our hands. But for those who have a hard time taking a stance, at least we have someone in charge who will make those tough executive decisions — “Hey, human beings … You’re fired!” (Insert over-exaggerated sigh here.)