It feels wrong to be trying to shape my thoughts about the Thomas Fire and The Thacher School, the Ojai Valley, the still vulnerable coastal communities, and my little life when the fire continues to rage and rout, advancing mostly westward as it has for the past countless days. I know full well that homes, livelihoods and lives are still endangered, the InciWeb text and maps I’ve been following every few hours showing the destruction: crimson ink bleeding ever leftward on watercolor paper, fiber after fiber soaked in red. There seems to be no hard edge to this thing, though there is a thick perimeter line on each iteration of map. I now know how kinetic and dangerously whimsical that line can be, drawn on the land itself: even as the dragon’s body presses on, the tail swipes back and forth, twitchy but somehow slow, leaving pockets of self-evidence, marking its territory–here, a log’s center burning out; there, an island of chaparral still aflame.
But it feels more wrong simply to upload another piece I’d wrapped up but not posted just a couple of days before something happened in Steckel Park to incite what is now the third largest fire in California’s recent history. (In a matter of days, it would become the second largest.)
By the time Michael and I finally got to campus a week ago this past Tuesday–we’d flown back from Washington, DC as quickly as we could after learning of the fire the night before–and tore out on foot to where the action still was, we could see only scorched earth, spot-fires and smoke rising intermittently at the eastern edge of campus. We couldn’t yet see over the far edge, near the empty cow arena, to spy the destruction at Ojai Valley School’s upper campus (their science center and girls’ dorm gone), nor over to the south, where Besant Hill’s lower campus buildings had burned–five faculty homes, a ceramics studio, barn, workshop, and toolshed, and–heartbreakingly–all that eclectic and historied school’s archives. We didn’t yet know about the four Thacher families whose homes in the Upper Ojai, Santa Paula, and Ventura were taken in the first sweep of flames. What we could see was not frightening, at least in the moment–charred hillsides flanking the gymkhana field, including right to the doorstep of the Haggards’ outpost home (built by Charley and Sue Beck in the mid-sixties and witness to several wildfires just this close), switchbacks of the lower Huntington trail now exposed, wildlife runs scoring the landscape that had become suddenly more two-dimensional than three-.
Most reassuring were the forest service personnel, both up the trail and stationed in the deep gully above which Katherine Halsey’s board-and-batten house sits, Carpenter’s Orchard across the road, the solar field on one side, empty horse corrals on the other, separated by a line of massive green trucks. These men and women were in constant action: knocking down upstarts of flame, shoveling, hosing down vulnerable areas, chainsawing, watching, watching–yellow-jacketed, sharp-eyed guardians of our home and school. Calm, professional, intent on their job.
The surreal noise and sights of the night before–ferocious wind, intense, malign orange glow in the east against utter blackness when the power went out, buses roaring into and then out of the gate, the hurry and hustle of a stunningly efficient evacuation executed by a quick-thinking and -acting administrative team, faculty and staff–were over.
And for a moment in this quiet, I stupidly thought, Gone. Done.
Then, in the falling ash, I remembered something imaginatively congruent yet completely unbidden. It was of Emily Dickinson’s “riddle” poems, #291, this one about a New England snowstorm, the event and, in the last two lines, its conclusion. The squall, having moved off, [t]hen stills its Artisans – like Ghosts -/ Denying they have been –
Amid the scattered flames, the scrim and plume of smoke, there is no possibility of denial. And I begin to revise my sense of an ending.
[Other reflections to come.]