As a child in Northern California, fall was my favorite time of year. My birthday is in mid-August, so I was always ready to tackle the next school year, and was excited because our hottest days, our true summer, had yet to come. But the past several years have felt different here, ever since the Tubbs Fire tore through Sonoma, Napa, and Lake counties in October 2017. This deadly, unprecedented fire blazed across canyons and hills, jumped the 101 freeway, and cut through the city of Santa Rosa without warning — destroying entire neighborhoods in the night and killing 22 people.
Growing up on the San Francisco Peninsula in the ’80s, the image of the Forest Service’s mascot, Smokey Bear, was ubiquitous, but while we were taught that wildfire was a threat, it was a theoretical danger to us. As I’ve gotten older, fire has mostly remained a disaster that has happened somewhere else. The fall of 2017, then, felt markedly different: from then on, fire was no longer confined to wilderness. It found its way into cities, to the Pacific coast, to places previously thought as safe. It forced us to wear N95 masks long before the pandemic. It turned our sky orange. It has made us question where in the West, ultimately, is safe from fires — and the effects of climate change. But, as the writers below know, that place does not exist.
Two years ago, Longreads writer Tessa Love published a beautiful braided essay on fire, home, and belonging. We ran it to coincide with the one-year anniversary of the Camp Fire, which ignited in Butte County on November 8, 2018, and obliterated the town of Paradise, near Chico, near where Love grew up. The Camp Fire remains the deadliest wildfire in California’s history, killing 85 people and destroying over 18,000 structures.
Love and I had been in the latter stages of editing her piece in October 2019 when fires sparked across Northern California yet again. One of these wildfires, the Kincade Fire, forced my family to evacuate our home in West Sonoma County. I guess this is where I’m supposed to say something like, it felt so surreal to pack up and leave my home while editing this essay on someone else’s experience with wildfire. But the truth is that when my husband and I became experts at packing go bags — and had memorized the zone lines on our local evacuation map — I no longer viewed fire as a mere possibility. It was a given, and something that directly affected our community. It had been the third year in a row that we had either evacuated our home or packed our valuables into our cars just in case, so no, it was not surreal. It was the new normal.
As we approach the anniversary of the Camp Fire, Northern California is recovering from a recent powerful storm. But the threat of fire this year remains, even as November brings cooler temperatures. Because when it comes to fire, there really are no seasons.
At the moment, there’s no shortage of reported features about wildfires; I’ve read some notable pieces recently, like Andrea Stanley on climate trauma and the need for long-term mental health support for communities like Paradise, Zora Thomas on what it’s like to be a hotshot firefighter, and Lauren Markham on how assisted forest migration can help save our trees. I’d also recommend David Ferris on the devastating CZU Lightning Complex, which burned in San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties in fall 2020, and its effects on the region’s ancient coast redwoods, which are the tallest living things on the planet. For this reading list, however, I’ve selected six personal essays, including “California Burning,” the story that Love and I worked on together. Each piece uses the spark of fire to explore other themes, whether home and belonging, or idleness, or memory.
California Burning (Tessa Love, Longreads, November 2019)
Tessa Love grew up in Butte Creek Canyon, where wildfire shaped her life. She now lives in Berlin, and when the Camp Fire raced through the canyon and destroyed the town of Paradise in November 2018, she recounts what it was like to track the fire online, to watch it consume her family’s corner of the earth from the other side of the world. She also ponders destruction through the context of her own life, having escaped a five-year relationship and an ever-changing Oakland and Bay Area that she no longer identified with. I’m such a fan of Love’s writing — she poured all of herself into this piece — and I appreciate how she examines the reshaping and regrowth of a place, displacement and resilience in living things (including foxes!), and the process of burning things down and building them back up.
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.
Love and the Burning West (Sarah Berns, Shondaland, June 2021)
One hot July, 21-year-old Sarah Berns was out fighting a fire with the Forest Service, digging firebreaks. As the flames approached the crew, falling embers singed her forearm hair, the air grew dense, and at that moment, she thought she was about to die. “Please don’t let me die a virgin,” she thought. After that near-death experience, Berns decided to take matters into her own hands — literally. She spent the rest of that fire season building a bed made from logs in the national forest, one fit “for a life-defining event,” and hauled it to campus back east, determined to have sex before graduation. Her essay is a fresh and unexpected coming-of-age read on fire — and finding oneself.
When that fire had closed in on me the summer before, I fixated on sex as the thing I hadn’t yet experienced. But really I was terrified of dying before I could find something — find the woman I was to become, on my own terms.
A Talent for Sloth (Philip Connors, Lapham’s Quarterly, September 2017)
In this meditation on nature and solitude, Philip Connors describes his routine as a fire lookout not in California, but in New Mexico’s Gila National Forest, overseeing nearly a million acres of fire-prone wilderness. For the past decade, Connors has spent several months of each year in a glass tower on a 10,000-foot peak, which allows him to see as far as 180 miles away on a clear day. Only 500 lookout towers in the U.S. remain, mostly in the West; he describes the quiet moments he spends atop his perch, watching birds, observing clouds, writing and reading, and — of course — spotting fires.
A new fire often looks beautiful, first a wisp of white like a feather, a single snag puffing a little finger of smoke in the air. I see it before it has a name. Like Adam with an animal before him, I will give it one, after I nail down its location and call it in to dispatch. We try to name the fires after a nearby landmark—a canyon, peak, or spring—but there is often a touch of poetic license involved.
Autumn Inferno (Nicole R. Zimmerman, Cagibi, October 2021)
“It’s fire season in California. October, my birthday month. Fall was always my favorite. But that was before.” Nicole R. Zimmerman’s essay in the most recent online issue of Cagibi hit close to home for me. She divides her observations by year, detailing her and her partner’s experiences during the Northern California firestorms of 2020, 2019, 2018, and 2017: the Walbridge, Glass, Kincade, and Tubbs fires. As I recall my own timeline during these fires, her details stick to me: how the elderly residents in Oakmont, a senior living community, were dressed in pajamas and robes as they were evacuated at one in the morning. Or how her friends, unable to escape because a fire blocked their only exit, raced down a hill through burning woods to jump into a swimming pool. Beyond her encounters with fire, there’s also a deeper personal layer, revealing a longtime estrangement from her mother, which makes the piece all the more poignant.
My mother’s rental home, situated at the southern edge of the encroaching flames, stood among some three thousand residences in the mandatory evacuation zone. Although we live just thirty minutes away, I have never been to her house—not this one. I typed her address into the live fire map. A black dot marked its location. I clicked the plus sign to magnify her street, which was surrounded by a plethora of red dots, each marking hot spots. When my wife entered the room, I pointed at the computer screen, speechless. It was Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. Kristen cradled my head to her chest as my tears rained down.
Location Not Found (Angella d’Avignon, Real Life, February 2019)
About 95 percent of the structures in Paradise, and the neighboring community of Concow, were destroyed from the Camp Fire. How do you map a loss like this? In “Location Not Found,” Angella d’Avignon tours Paradise from the comfort of her screen, months after it burned to the ground. In Google’s Street View, businesses and restaurants eerily stand and seem frozen in time, as if the digital version of the town still hasn’t caught up with the destruction. She searches the Cal Fire database, where you can search an address for images of damage, and describes the devastation: a melted garage door, skeletons of appliances, the vestiges of an American flag wrapped around a charred pole. She browses outdated Yelp pages — the virtual equivalent of abandoned, boarded-up storefronts. I enjoy Real Life’s commentary across topics, whether death or friendship; d’Avignon’s thoughts on voyeurism, loss, and digital ghost towns is no exception.
Paradise is not a post-industry ghost town but one abandoned and leveled by a wickedly fast wildfire exacerbated by climate change. So when the past happens overnight, how will technology decide to reflect the new (or newest) reality? How quickly can you update a disaster site?
Objects of Fire (Tessa Love, The Believer, June 2021)
When you’ve lost everything, is it even worth grieving a single object? “A thing may not be a life,” writes Tessa Love, “but a life is built of things.” I wanted to end this list with another piece from Love — a compilation of oral histories on the belongings that people left behind as they fled their homes. Poems written by Devi Pride’s father, stuffed inside a book, which she never had a chance to read. Irreplaceable postcards that Amy Thomason received as a child from her dad, when he was on tour in Europe. The last photograph taken of Mike Richard’s great-aunt Esther, who was a nurse in both World Wars. Or the silverware of Peggy Bailey’s grandmother, a spiritual woman who had taught her a lot about death. Love publishes 10 stories in all: a small sample yet lovely archive of life.
I was very close to my father’s mother, a spiritual woman. She taught me a lot at a very young age about who we are as humans and spirits. How we understand death. … After she passed, I inherited her silverware. That didn’t make it through the fire. I had several of her beautiful antiques, but nothing affected me in the same way as her silverware. I was touching it; I was using it in the way she used it. Every day it was a treat to pick it up, eat with it, wash it, and think of her. When I touched it, I felt, Ah, there she is. It was the same in the car with my grandson. I knew my dad was speaking through him. There he is.