California Burning

A year after the Camp Fire, Tessa Love contemplates home, California’s undoing, and what it means to belong.

Tessa Love | Longreads | November 2019 | 15 minutes (4,384 words)

The way a fire starts is simple. When a flammable material is exposed to a high enough temperature and fed by an oxidizer, you get flame. It’s called the fire triangle, the chemical combination of oxygen, fuel, and heat, which generates the first wisp of burning. Take one of these elements away, and the fire goes out, or doesn’t ignite in the first place. 

Then there’s fire behavior, or the way it moves. By nature, fire seeks to keep itself alive. It unfurls from the center of its own heat and consumes a forest or structure or city by way of the trinity of fuel, weather, and topography. If more combustible material can be licked by flame, and wind can direct and feed its heat, a fire can rage. It can burn so hot it melts aluminum. It can move so fast that it destroys a town in minutes. It can clog the air with so much smoke, there is nothing left to breathe.

Fire cannot exist or move without all of these elements in place and in the right proportions. Like anything, fire is a set of conditions ignited by chance. It fuels change. 

This is where it stops being simple.

* * *

When the Camp Fire started, Berlin was dark and cold and wet. It was November 8, and I was sitting at the kitchen table of a small sublet apartment when my dad sent a photo to our family chat of a massive cloud of black smoke ringed with a burning glow, hanging over the Northern California canyon I call home. 

Big fire moving from Concow to Paradise, he wrote. Jumped from 500 to 1000 acres in an hour. High winds.

My mom added: It’ll have to get through Paradise to get us, so we’re most likely ok.

I grew up in wildland, an open patch of pasture ringed by woods in the hollow of Butte Creek Canyon outside of Chico, California. On top of the canyon’s southeastern ridge sat the tiny town of Paradise, an inconsequential detail for most of my life. In the hot and dry summers of this corner of the world, wildfire shaped my life as much as a river carves a canyon. To assume this one was not an immediate threat was not ignorant. We’d made it through so many.

A river carved a canyon and that canyon is carved in me. From childhood, I’ve known each of its curves like I know the shape of my own body.

But this one was different. The fire reached Paradise and blew through the city before anyone knew what to do. In my darkening apartment, I watched videos from inside the firestorm fill Facebook, and read reports of people fleeing their burning cars on the Skyway, which was the only road out of town and ran along the ridge that made my canyon. I refreshed fire maps, watching red blots edge closer to the thin lines drawing the shape of home. I fell into a panic, updating my family of the evacuation orders while they packed to flee — my parents from my childhood home and one of my sisters from her own canyon home, where she lived with her fiance and 1-year-old daughter.

Two hours after my dad’s text, Paradise was gone. The fire tipped down into the canyon. My family left. 

In Chico, residents and evacuees watched noon turn dark. Cold settled over the city as the thick, toxic smoke from the fire blotted out the day. Street lamps switched on. Cars drove with headlights. Ash fell like snow. The sun peeked through the sky like a blurry orange moon. 

On the other side of the world, I looked at this darkness through the window of my computer screen, a wall of night behind me. For a brief moment in time, California and Berlin looked not unalike: two nights pulling at the edges of an expanse of light stretched over the earth. And me — a tether between the two, taut with the force of home.  

* * *

When asked why I moved to Berlin, I start with the simple answer: I fell in love with the city. But that’s just part of the story. I had to fall out of love with something else first. 

After spending the first 20 years of life in Chico, I moved a few hours away to Oakland, where I spent nearly a decade. At the time, Oakland’s popular image didn’t extend much further than crime reports. But I loved it, for a while. It was cheap. It held the tinge of possibility without the cliches of New York and L.A. and San Francisco. I spent my first years working in cafes, going to school, renting small rooms in big homes, going to parties in warehouses. 

But then, things changed. Foreclosed craftsman bungalows were bought cheap and flipped at a massive profit to new Silicon Valley spillovers. Barbershops and historic delis shuttered to make way for fusion restaurants and third-wave coffeehouses. Landlords kicked out old tenants and gave their homes to the highest bidder. In 2014, the New York Times called it the “Brooklyn by the Bay,” and the city took on a similar veneer of cool. It became a caricature of itself, and (mostly white) young people flooded the city along with (mostly white) tech commuters, forcing out the historically black and lower-income residents that had been there for decades.

The rest is well-known: The Bay Area is now one of the most expensive places to live in the world, and the ensuing housing crisis has caused a chain reaction of uninhabitability. By the time I left, my boyfriend and I were paying $2,850 for a duplex apartment in East Oakland and called ourselves lucky for even finding a place. As one writer put it: “Oakland in every aspect of the word is no longer what it used to be.

Then there were the fires. 

In 2015, the illegally converted warehouse turned artist space known as the Totally Intense Fractal Mindgaze Hut caught fire in the night and burned. Two people were killed. One was Davis, my sister’s ex-boyfriend, who was like my brother. We called ourselves cosmic twins. 

Less than two years later, the illegally converted warehouse turned artist space known as the Ghost Ship caught fire during a party and burned. Thirty-six people were killed. One was my friend from back home, Donna. Everyone in my extended community lost their people.  

Later, arsonists started fires across the city in the night, charring new developments that longtime residents didn’t want. 

The city was at war with itself, burning with its own greed. A housing crisis, stagnant wages for most, apathetic city officials — pushing everyone out. A place, reshaped.

I move to Oakland, young and naive. I pay the high rent. I buy the $12 cocktails. I feed the flames. I move across the world. We change the world’s shape, then wonder why it burns.

Eventually, I left. I got rid of a lifetime of possessions, ended a five-year relationship, bought a one-way ticket across the world. I kept saying I was burning down my life. In reality, I’d endured a slow-burn kind of disaster, the kind that I absorbed into my life ember by ember almost without notice until it burned me out.

* * *

The Camp Fire was set off by electrical transmission lines belonging to Pacific Gas & Electric, the state’s largest electricity utility company. On that day — one with high winds and high heat — the company was supposed to shut off power to prevent wildfire. It didn’t. One spark and then the rest.

At its height, the fire moved at 80 acres per minute, equivalent to a football-field length of town or forest or pasture per second. In the ensuing chaos, hundreds of people were marked missing, and stayed that way for weeks. The death toll steadily rose. The fire burned so hot that it was hard to even find the remnants of bodies. I heard stories of final phone calls, half-burned animals hanging on to life, a woman who had just given birth and took refuge in the garage of an evacuated house while nurses fought the flames. But still, the fire raged on. The winds changed course, firefighters were stretched thin. In my own small corner of the disaster, it was days before we knew if anything had survived. 

On the other side of the world, day became a footnote to the long northern nights. When I should have been sleeping, dreams of fire burned me awake. I’d check my text messages, call home, refresh Twitter for updates. During my day, California slept. I wandered in a haze beneath the ashen sky, unmoored, waiting for something to happen. And what happened was, I no longer knew what was home.

* * *

I used to live in a tiny cabin behind my parent’s home. Set back in the pasture across the stream that ran through our property in spring, I felt alone. I liked it this way. Close to wildland, on the edge of our human sphere. 

At night I would sometimes hear foxes yowling with the sound of women screaming. They too lived a solitary life.

It was thought that the Sacramento Valley red fox that populated my homeland was an introduced species. Researchers only recently discovered that they’re native, related to the nearly extinct High Sierra fox, whose natural habitat lies farther north. Both are endangered. Loss of habitat, hybridization. 

Not long after the Camp Fire, I learned about Berlin’s foxes. Influenced by human habits, they’ve become scavengers and have adopted an urban life and their population has exploded. Now there are more fox dens within the city limits than in the surrounding forests. In the deep of winter, I spotted my first one. It skittered like a flame across the bare field of snow behind my building. It was midday, but the sky was low and dark. I held my breath until it disappeared like a flash of something familiar. 

I spent the winter wondering why we’re both here. 

* * *

In 1983, my parents drove from the Bay Area to visit their new land, traveling into a mass of smoke that ended in the canyon. Flames consumed the northwestern ridge across from their home, the picturesque one that gave their canyon valley its view. It was the Fourth of July, and they stood on their new patch of land and watched as the fire crackled up pine trees, their cones popping like dazzling, sinister fireworks.  

In 1999, a fire slipped over that same ridge and burned the butte for days. I remember standing at the end of our driveway and watching flames move slowly across the blackening rockface, taking down trees. The firemen stationed themselves in our field. When it ended, the ridge was bare. 

In 2007, a fire careened up the canyon in a matter of hours and burned that ridge again. I was leaving for Mexico for a month and put a box of my things by the door in case my parents had to evacuate while I was gone. 

In 2017, I woke up in Oakland to brown skies. In the night, the Tubbs Fire had torn through Santa Rosa — a city 58 miles north — and consumed neighborhoods in minutes. It was described over and over as a fireball. Twenty-two people were killed and 5,600 structures were destroyed. It held the title as the most destructive wildfire in California for just one year.

I watch it all burn with numb recognition, my affinity with my home replaced with an intimacy with its destruction. California is burning. I’m not sure that will ever not be true.

The day after the Tubbs Fire, another one started a mile from my sister’s home. She packed, swept the dry leaves off the roof of the house, waited. After it was over, I wrote about imagining the fire ripping through her house, then tearing across the canyon to reach my parent’s home.

Six weeks before the Camp Fire, I spent my last few days in the U.S. at my childhood home. At 3 a.m., a neighbor tore up our driveway, flashing his headlights, honking and yelling that there was a fire on the ridge behind us. My parents and I panicked, started making a plan. My dad called a local firefighter who told us the fire was between us and Paradise, but small — nine acres and nearly contained, nothing to worry about. We wandered around the house in the dark for a few hours wondering what to do, feeling for wind. At daybreak, I fell asleep, a faraway city smoldering on the edge of my dreams.

* * *

My current home rests a block from the most contentious point of what was the Berlin Wall. Running along Bernauer Strasse, the barrier ran flush against buildings on the East Berlin side of the street — my side of the street. After the wall rose overnight, residents in these border buildings tried to flee. They slid down ropes or jumped out of windows. Eventually, the buildings were evacuated. Residents were forced to resettle deeper into East Berlin, and the windows and doors of the buildings were bricked up. A second wall was built some 160 yards away, and the space between the two became known as the Death Strip. It was full of traps, guard dogs, and obstacles, lined with watchtowers where the guards were ordered to shoot anyone who attempted to cross.

It’s here that the first East Berlin defector was killed, and many more after. It’s also here where the most successful escape tunnels were dug, and where protests and acts of resistance were staged. 

The wall stood for nearly 30 years. In that time, storylines stopped. Lives were reshaped. Everything changed. A history folded in on itself, barred from unfurling. 

What goes unwritten in the undone history of disaster?

* * *

In the first four days of its burning, the Camp Fire becomes the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history. By the time it ends three weeks after the first spark, flames scorched an area of 240 square miles and destroyed over 18,800 structures. Eighty-six people died, including one in my canyon. A year later, one person is still missing.

In the canyon, some 80% of the homes burned. My sister’s was one of them. My childhood home was not. 

In the absence of firefighters, a group of men I grew up with in our small, close-knit community went into the fire and fought it themselves. They saved my homeland. Black scars of the fire’s path trace the back edge of my parent’s property, drawing an unfinished storyline: It was supposed to burn.

Back in Berlin, I slip into the space formed by the dissonance of relief and grief. 

* * *

There is a ghost in all of this: the man I was dating when the fire started. When I woke up in the middle of the night to call my family or check the news, he woke up with me. When my family was certain our home was gone and I sat on the couch with my dad on the phone in one hand and my head in the other, he sat next to me, arms around my shoulders.

We’d only been seeing each other a few weeks when the fire came. We met and fell fast. He told me on our second or third date that I felt like home and I settled into it. Then, before the fire was even out, he ended things, saying he wasn’t emotionally capable of being in a relationship. I stayed in bed for days, not sure if I was crying about the fire or the loss or home, realizing eventually they were all the same. A triangle of pain. 

When I returned to California for Christmas, I found out through social media that he was back with his ex, captioning photos with proclamations about how his love for her felt like home. 

Before flying back to Berlin, I saw the boyfriend I’d left when I burned down my life. Needing to be wanted, or wanting to be home, I asked him if he missed me. It’s complicated, he said.

* * *

When I wonder enough about the foxes, I write to a conservation officer at one of the oldest and largest environmental associations in Germany. I ask if I can talk to her about them and, saying her English isn’t very good, she offers to answer a few questions by email. 

I start with the basics. 

Are the foxes native? 

Yes

What’s their breed? 

Vulpes vulpes (Rotfuchs)

What is their population? 

This is not known

I move to the deeper questions, the ones I return to when the foxes fill my mind. 

Are the foxes no longer nocturnal? Is it healthy for them to be out during the day?

They’ve learned that there is no danger from humans. They can hunt during the day or gather food.

Is the city doing anything to reintroduce them to the wild or to control their population?

No. 

Are they being allowed to exist as they are?

Yes.

And finally, the complicated one.

Do you think the foxes would be happier if they were not urbanized?

The foxes have decided to do it themselves! Obviously, they can live well! They have adapted well!

I read the email on my phone while standing over the stove in my kitchen, making soup. Is it a decision when loss of habitat forces a move? Is adaptation anything more than survival? And is survival truly a life?

I eat my soup, contemplate belonging.

Would you be happier if you were not urbanized?

You decided this yourself.

Does the day sometimes feel like a dream because the other side of the world is shrouded in night?

Yes.

Is this where you belong?

You have adapted well.

When you leave one home and build another, which is more real?

This is not known.


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* * *

Before there was a canyon there was a river. Starting as an ancient mudflow, the water spent millennia washing its bed of basalt and sandstone until it carved the cragged and fractured walls that became the brackets around my home. A river carved a canyon and that canyon is carved in me. From childhood, I’ve known each of its curves like I know the shape of my own body. Every tree, every cavern, every structure. Every bend in the river, every story buried behind the seen.

When I come home six weeks after the fire, I find my geography unstitched. It’s a disorienting drive up the winding canyon road. Each burned lot, each fallen tree, undoes the map in me. I knew to expect the mangled remnants of houses and the blackened, barren buttes, but I failed to imagine the disorientation that comes with the absolute reshaping of home. I see new angles of the river I never saw before, revealed by burned-out groves of trees, new caves scooped out of the buttes. When we visit the site of my sister’s home, I can’t reconcile the wreckage with what stood before. The floor plan suddenly seems too small, the lot a wholly different terrain. Further up the canyon, my mind tries to restring the historic covered bridge between the banks of the river, but the space where it stood for 130 years remains blank. It’s like encountering a ghost, or the film negative to an image. Reality untethers.

For a brief moment in time, California and Berlin looked not unalike: two nights pulling at the edges of an expanse of light stretched over the earth. And me — a tether between the two, taut with the force of home.

But then I think about Berlin, a city seething with ghosts and built on the bones of destruction. How I scrawl my own map of the place, overlaying my history on top of the invisible ones floating where a wall or a building once stood. How many missing monuments hang heavy in the air or in memory, easy for me to ignore. We forget what has changed, a dissonance between is and was. Imperceptibly, the river is still carving the canyon. History is still reshaping. The maps in us still unfolding.

* * *

Less than a year after the Camp Fire, my sister leaves her fiance. They never recover from the grief of the fire. She and her daughter move in with my parents. She struggles against an 8-year-old addiction. 

A week later, I learn that my aunt’s cancer has progressed. She has to have another surgery. She starts talking about her death.

What do fire, addiction, and cancer have in common? They grow and spread. They seethe. They are a fight you sometimes lose. They destroy.

What do a fox and me have in common? A fox adopts a new life in the day. I transform my day to night. We alter our roots, distortion by force or choice. 

Somewhere along the way, I absorb a line from an Audre Lorde poem. Places do not change so much as what we seek in them. What happens when both are true? 

* * *

Condition: The year Oakland became a national hotspot was the year California’s drought became a national emergency. Even then, in 2014, it was the worst drought in 1,200 years, and it stretched on for another five. At the same time, the untenable expense of California’s major cities pushes the housing crisis out into the rest of the state. The shortage leads developers to carve into farmland and wildland to build subdivisions. It’s a cultural and environmental war, often waged over water. State officials make plans to build new dams. Southern California vies for Northern California’s water supply. Trees die en masse, setting the parched and arid state up to burn. On the edge of the state, rising sea levels threaten to sink cities. People continue to water their lawns. 

Condition: The year I was born was the year the Berlin Wall fell. After three decades of war with itself, a reconciliation. In the haste to erase the influence of the East, the West tears down the barrier along with buildings and monuments that signified the regime. The wall becomes a ghost, haunting only memory. The city breaks open with emptied spaces, which fill with the influence of a new culture: clubs, galleries, collectives. It rises, blooming out of the frenetic need to forget what was.

Condition: The human habit of carving space. Cities built in deserts, water flooding rice fields in the Central Valley, homes edging out and out. A wall divides a city and writes a new history, then buries it beneath another one. I move to Oakland, young and naive. I pay the high rent. I buy the $12 cocktails. I feed the flames. I move across the world. We change the world’s shape, then wonder why it burns.

* * *

In January, I’m walking home on a rough brick sidewalk strewn with snow when a fox rounds the corner and faces me. I stop in the middle of the sidewalk, hold my breath, look around to find myself alone. 

In Becoming Animal, David Abram writes about the reciprocal experience between humans and the natural world. When we witness an animal or a landscape, it in turn witnesses us. A mutual sensory perception, reminding us of our connection. “The terrain enters into us only to the extent that we allow ourselves to be taken up within that terrain,” he writes. See and be seen. Be and belong.

Without breaking his stride, the fox continues in my direction, then steps off the sidewalk into the street to pass me. I turn my body to witness him go by. The fox keeps his eyes forward. He steps back onto the sidewalk, rounds the opposite corner, and disappears. See and be seen. Be and belong.

I start walking again, knowing I’m heading home.

* * *

Just two weeks before the one-year anniversary of the Camp Fire, the cycle repeats itself. In October, wildfires consume California from north to south, even amid rolling blackouts meant to protect the state from more disaster. In the Bay Area, the fires edge into urban zones once considered safe from the yearly threat of burning. It’s the new normal, come to greet us with unceasing wind, uncontained flames, smoke-choked air, and the declaration of a statewide emergency. 

I watch it all burn with numb recognition, my affinity with my home replaced with an intimacy with its destruction. California is burning. I’m not sure that will ever not be true. 

* * *

This is the part where I’m supposed to tell you about the regenerative power of fire, how from destruction comes regrowth. This is the part where I say that fire is necessary and preventative, essential to the lifecycle of ecosystems, clearing out and making room, allowing new beings to emerge. It’s here that I tell you about the concept of serotiny, the ecological adaptation in which certain plants require a trigger to release their seeds, and how that trigger is often fire, or fire followed by rain. How death is needed for life. 

I take this and apply it to my life. I tell you how, on the drive up the canyon in April when I return home after the winter, the buttes are carpeted in neon green and burning with the orange of California poppies. How I stop to take a photo of this fiery bloom and post it on Instagram with the caption home like it’s some kind of reconciliation. How when I return to Berlin, the trees have grown leaves and the days have lengthened, and I feel at home. How I don’t see another fox again. How life after disaster can be like that — you burn it all down to build it back up, and doesn’t that make the pain so beautiful? 

Imperceptibly, the river is still carving the canyon. History is still reshaping. The maps in us still unfolding.

But I’m not going to do that. Instead, I’ll tell you about standing on the Paradise ridge in the depth of summer, star thistle scratching the parched air in the hundred-degree heat. How the only thing I found growing there in the wide median of the highway was 86 white crosses, jutting out of the dusty earth to hold the names of the dead. How each one was covered in flowers and photos, I love you, moms, and the metal tags of pets that perished with them. I’ll tell you how my face burned under the sun while I walked the length of this memorial. How at first I felt numb until something sparked inside me and I cried in the heat. A trigger. A seed.

Instead, I’ll tell you that researchers are discovering that some wildfires burn so hot, they destroy the seeds they were supposed to regenerate and the elements that give any surviving seeds a chance, and nothing grows back. That some scars don’t heal. That home is not a complete idea, just like a wildfire is not a whole but a collection of small burnings, erratic and fluid. That the chemistry of change has no set conditions.

How sometimes, things are not so simple. But that’s when life begins. 

* * *

Tessa Love is a writer based in Berlin. 

 

* * *

Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands
Fact-checker: Samantha Schuyler