Our Turn At This Earth: Fire Season

Sep 10, 2020

The first thing I noticed when the power went out was the silence. It seemed deeper than could be explained by the mere absence of the refrigerator’s hum. The house also seemed a little darker than could be accounted for by the loss of one reading lamp, the only light I’d had on at three in the afternoon. I remembered the same sensations from childhood afternoons when thunderstorms caused the power to go out.

Those outages on our Kansas farm could last for days. So could this one, said PG&E, the energy company in northern California, where I now live. At least my modest tract home is well sealed, not drafty like our big old farmhouse had been. The candles I would be lighting that evening wouldn’t flutter. And when the smoke from the wildfire arrived I wouldn’t smell it, at least not until I opened a door.

A wire from a downed transmission line was the probable case of a blaze that had started north of our city, and now winds were forecast to be as bad, or worse, than those that had driven fires in 2017 and 18, destroying over 20,000 homes and killing nearly 130 people. PG&E had turned the power off in an effort to prevent another disaster.

Since we’d been warned the shutoff was imminent, I’d had time to buy ice for the fridge, and to pack some important papers and clothes and the family photo albums. If I got the notice to evacuate, I was ready.   

Meantime, I just sat for a moment, probing the sudden, almost welcome quiet. In childhood, the quiet in the wake of power outages had promised unordinary diversions – chess or checkers by candlelight, hot cocoa as we waited for the electricity to come back on. But the silence during this outage also bore within it a sense of reckoning – as in boy, look what we’ve done to ourselves now!

PG&E had killed the power to prevent fires, but burning fossil fuels to make that power had put us here in the first place – waiting in darkened, silent homes for warning sirens to sound. Fumes from those fuels were blanketing the earth in heat-trapping gases. The resulting hotter climate was intensifying droughts, lengthening summers, and drying out vegetation, making it more combustible.

Western forest fires occur almost four times more often today than they did in the 1970s, but the devastation does not stop there. The number of grass fires on the Great Plains have also increased four-fold. In 2017, the Anderson Creek prairie fire blackened 625 square miles along the Kansas-Oklahoma border, topping the Kansas record set just the year prior. In 2011, thousands of fires raged across Texas, consuming almost four million acres and destroying nearly 3,000 homes.

That night after the power was turned off, the winds came as predicted, rushing down the hills into town. My son’s family and my boyfriend got evacuation notices, and we all had a tense couple of nights, hovering around a battery-operated radio, fearing that the fire now lapping the edge of town would take out whole neighborhoods as the 2017 fire had done. But this time we were lucky. The fire burned almost 78,000 acres, but “only” 167 homes. Miraculously, it killed no one.

Throughout the outage, we kept flipping light switches, forgetting we had no power, so I knew immediately when it came back on, because lights all over the house came on with it. Everything was back to “normal,” I guessed. But normal didn’t seem the same as it had before.

Would fire come on the heels of every summer from now on?  Would we ever again be able to count on crisp fall air and blue fall skies, or would the air always be acrid and the sky filled with smoke?