So here's the thing. Yes, my family is safe right now. Yes, it looks like my house and all our belongings are going to be safe from the Las Conchas fire. But no, everything is not ok. It really, really isn't.
Its hard to describe what happens to you when you're affected by a forest fire of this kind of magnitude. I have the unfortunate luck to have had this happen to me twice. Several years ago and probably 2 harddrive deaths ago, I started a piece on this. I likened the effects of the Cerro Grande fire to having my soul ripped out. No, I don't really think that's all that much of an exaggeration.
This time started for me with a phone call. "If we have to evacuate, what do you want from the house?" Its easier to say that now, having not lived there for 10 years. The quilt my mother made for my bed that I grew up sleeping under, the family photos, and my first teddy bear are all that's left that is truly special to me that I own personally as opposed to my folks. It wasn't like that for me in 2000 though. I remember the moment I got off the phone with my mother who'd tearfully told me it had burned through Western Area and that it was likely we didn't own a home anymore. I looked around my 8'x10' dorm room and realized I didn't own anything that wasn't in that room, which was only what would fit into 1 suitcase for the plane plus my computer. This year I'm more worried about their things. Tuesday, I bought a kit to make a Christmas ornament thinking "this may be the only ornament they have this year" and crying deeply inside knowing how much my mother's lifelong collection of Christmas stuff meant to her.
But its not really about the possessions at all. People keep saying to me "at least everyone is safe and alive and the rest is just possessions." They don't understand. They don't understand this at all. I have shocked myself with how well I can tell people facts and numbers and explain where the fire is and how its moving and behaving. But to try to explain what this all means to me? That's when I can't help but break down.
"Home" is more than just a house for me. I spent at least as much time growing up in the forests and canyons that are on fire now, as I did anywhere else. I didn't play at friends houses nearly as much as I ran around in the forest. I could tell you exactly how to find the faerie rings in the canyons nearby. I knew the scarred tree for the turn off to the Cave of the Winds by smell. I could move silently over the pine needles and had probably built up a tolerance to whatever bugs and bacteria grew in the streams.
The Cerro Grande fire destroyed much of that. Most of my memories, of the landmarks, the smells, the animal homes- all gone. But it knocked me sideways more than you might imagine. My mother has kept me up to date with the gossip over the years, talking about those who grew up there and had to move away after the fire. She may as well have been talking about me.
When this fire started, and the Friends of LA Facebook page was set up, it was suggested we put up photos of our home in silent support. I couldn't find a picture. 11 years on, and I can't find a single picture that I have taken that is looking back at the mountains except from quite a distance. I have plenty looking east and away, but looking at what the fire did? No, not so much. This is the only one I could find post-fire and its awfully far away.
When the Cerro Grande occurred, I was in Ireland. I chose not to go back to Los Alamos that summer for the first time in my life. Previously, I couldn't wait to go back home. I couldn't wait to see my forests, my ice rink, my trees. But after the fire, I just couldn't bear the sight of the bare mountains. I remember my mother deciding to take me on a "tour" of what the fire had done at the Thanksgiving or Christmas break- going through all the areas that houses had burned. The blackened sticks that had once been trees stood amongst the snow in silent reproach and I remember panicking, desperately trying to get her to give it up and just go home and sitting there crying and crying and crying.
I haven't been able to hike the trails since. I remember trying once to head up to the Cave of the Winds- my favorite hike growing up and reaching a horribly burnt area and just freaking out. I couldn't go any further. I couldn't handle the wide open space where once it had been full of ponderosa trees. I haven't gone home all that regularly either. Maybe once every 2 years. And when I do, I'll spend time in the back yard, looking out towards the Sangre de Cristos, but I spend almost no time in "my" bedroom, which looks out towards the Jemez and when I do go out, its never to just go walk in the woods.
What you can't understand if you haven't lived through it, is how fundamentally changed a place can be by a forest fire. To give you some scale here's a picture shot by LANL on a flyby of the recent fire lines.
After this, that burn scar is going to be over the entire mountain top. Already, it was horrible looking at the mountains. Instead of beautiful trees that took hundreds of years to grow, the skyline will show sticks. Blake Wood who stayed in LA during this current fire has posted some beautiful but horrifying images like this one-
this video. (warning if you're from the area you'll want tissues)
Monday and Tuesday of this week I had to come to grips with the fact that the forest, my beautiful forest was burning again. I spent most of those days in tears grieving for things that I can hardly put into words. All those places with memories attached, gone. All the joy I had in those forests, the smell of the pine, the freshness of the breeze. The quiet that could always make me feel better (you just don't get that quality in the city). The never ending astonishment of the wildlife from deer to squirrels to horny toads and even the damn coyotes. And then in work on Wednesday the same thing over and over "the rest is just possessions."
No, its not. If it was just possessions I wouldn't feel like I had been punched in the gut. I wouldn't break out into uncontrollable sobs. I wouldn't have eyes so tired from crying that everyone comments on them. I wouldn't have panic attacks and lose my breath as I try to get it under control. I wouldn't be literally grieving already, even knowing that our house was still standing.
And the oddest things set me off. A patient comes in smelling like smoke, even cigarette smoke, and I have to fight the tear ducts. The comfort songs you listen to that you knew growing up don't provide solace because all you can think of is that you hear this first at home, played it on repeat on your tape player having taped it off the radio. Specific "homesick" type comfort food sticks in your mouth. You see an episode of a tv show where the characters are standing in some beautiful spot and the lead talks about it being the same view he's seen since being a child. Fireworks get set off at the end of a show and you know that your family, and so many others won't be able to celebrate the 4th of July like that this year. All the tiny little things that you would never think twice about bring me to the fight for control over my tear ducts.
And just when you think you've got it under control there's a new pic like this shot by Chief Wayne Torpy of LAPD shows up. Then the quiet anguish of what this is doing to our wildlife floods back and I have to wonder if its the same mountain lion I met years and years ago at the top of a trail. And then the floods start all over again.
When I have to interact with others, for the most part, I can keep it in check. But leave me to my own devices, or give me the awful aloneness of being in a crowd, and I can't help but just accept that the tears are going to be rolling down my cheeks. My home is forever changed. Its not like the traditional fires in cities where you just rebuild the buildings and in 6 months to a year its like nothing happened. This forest fire will affect me and generations to come. Those trees will probably not grow back within my lifetime. The forest trails my mother loves to take the dog walking on, forever scarred.
So if you want to ask how things are, don't ask how I'm doing please. Ask me how the fire is, how my family is, what the latest on the fire is. I can give you facts. I can show you maps. I can tell you more than I ever wanted to know about fire behaviour and wind directions. But don't try to get me to tell you what this means or how its going to affect me. I can't do it. Its too huge to put into mere words.