By Cheri Lucas Rowlands
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. Read more…