We are rural Californians — I live in the high desert town of Bishop, at the eastern foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains. My friend lives in the dense woods across this range. For us, like many people in the West, the threat of fire has become part of life, a fact that is changing the mythology of our state and driving some of us away.
In 2018, when I was in my late 20s, I moved back to my hometown. It was the right decision. I felt as if a missing sense had been restored. The smell of pastures in summer, fresh-cut grass at the Tri-County Fair, the evening sun a familiar pink glow behind the silhouette of the Sierra Nevada. I hiked mountain meadows with my dad, and I rejoiced in my home.
That first summer, there was a little smoke from wildfires. The second summer, there was a little more. The third, we sweated in our houses to avoid the mottled air outside; the sunshine in the morning looked ill, and the mail carrier came to the door in a respirator.
“The apparent flattery the East Coast pays California is that the future begins here,” wrote Richard Rodriguez, a Californian. Settlers, he wrote, “damned the waters, leveled mountains, broke their backs to build our regret.” The siege against land and First Peoples began as long ago as the missions, then in earnest with the Gold Rush, and ever since the people selling something in this state have beckoned and promised the sun and moon.
I grew up too scorpion-stung, too sun-blistered to fall completely for the myth of California, but I embraced it enough to believe I could make a home in the place I love. To believe I might stay here, alongside my family, in a town full of people who feel the way I feel about our valley, alongside the Nuumu, who loved this place before it was California.
In 2015, I sifted ash with my neighbors after a freak winter wildfire burned our small community. We cried together, and I knew things were changing. Yet I never believed it would happen so fast. I never thought I would see so many days in September push past 100 degrees. Never thought I’d hear my friends across California talk of leaving.
Summer 2020 saw the unprecedented closure of every national forest in the state. In 2021, the forests closed again. In mid-August, the Dixie Fire climbed the Sierra Nevada, stormed the crest and descended the eastern flank to burn the valley below. A wildfire crossing that behemoth? Unheard of. Two weeks later, the Caldor Fire did the same thing.
I talk on the phone to a fire ecologist who models wildfire behavior. After evacuating their Northern California town twice in August, she and her husband are considering whether a long-term future in the place they thought was home is really viable.
Conversations in her industry are different this year. The word “unprecedented” is starting to sound cliché. Wildfires now grow so huge suppression tactics aren’t working.
We talk of diversifying investments, of individual risk tolerance, and then there’s a silence. We are people who love our homes. Beneath our pragmatism runs an enormous grief.
In time, some of us will say goodbye to the garden, to the backyard oak tree, to the skyline and the river. In time, our home will come to mean different things to outsiders, more frightening things than computers and Hollywood and beaches and whatever else the world dreams when it dreams of California. The smoke of our state will be seen from far away. It will tarnish the silver sea.
But on good days — and still there are good days — the air is clear. I can see the stone wall of the mountains, and no fire reaches over the crest. I can see all the way to Nevada; I can smell autumn coming. On the good days, the sky above the mountains gleams. These are the days I’ll remember, when I’m an old woman in a world I cannot imagine.