Don Rogers: The past burns deep
Mary, my wife, was even sadder than I’d expected with two memorials and a giant fire that burned to the ocean and destroyed 900 homes. So far.
We were in downtown Ventura on Sunday for the second of these services — firefighter style, cast as a party with plenty of laughter between tears. You know these things. Great to see everyone, only not like this.
We’d argued over whether we could make it through, considering the flame front behind Carpinteria and evacuation warnings ringing halfway into Santa Barbara. The mandatory evac alerts mistakenly sent countywide in the middle of the night did nothing for her nerves, either.
No matter that a friend, one of the incident commanders for the whole mess called the Thomas Fire, said we’d be fine. No matter that 101 was open, or that where the fire had burned to the ocean days ago now was the safest part of Southern California, cold and black.
She wasn’t buying it. This was her dopey husband talking, after all. He might have fought fire once, but that was three decades ago. What did he know? “You’re like the lifeguard who winds up drowning,” she has said more than once, so nonchalant about these things, so damned cocky.
We stayed in an old inn across the street from the harbor. Ash settled like Colorado powder, floating off the windshield at a breath. The sun glowed, lamplight at noon. Lower State was a near ghost town. Nice, if haunting, because we could get right into our old favorites from a lifetime ago. What few people were around wore blue or green surgical masks.
It’s been a dozen years since we last visited Santa Barbara, where we met in the early 1980s and I spent most of my 20s. We’ve lived an entirely different life since leaving our last post there, caretaking a reservoir in the backcountry.
Saturday was the memorial for my old foreman on the hotshot crew, Stan Stewart, a force of nature I believed invincible until felled by cancer, seeing people we hadn’t seen in 15 or 30 years. Mary and I had speaking assignments from my Supe, who may have retired in 2000 but still commands. We never would have talked otherwise; he probably knew that. I’m grateful for the honor as well as hearing how Bonehead loomed large in so many other lives, too.
On Sunday our only job was to represent a crewmate’s Forest Service past at his wife’s memorial in Ventura, a few blocks from fire camp. He went on to a full career in the Oxnard Fire Department, another family.
Outside, Mary took pictures of the twin thunderheads kicked up as the fire torched 60,000 more acres of backcountry. I had explained what was happening in the front country as we drove through Carpinteria, watching fire back down the slope, burning to the rules of terrain for now rather than with a hard Santa Ana wind, still a threat as had happened in Ventura.
Fire is supposed to burn in this country. It’s good for the land, if not for the homes in its way. I’m not sure she entirely believed me about this, either. Intellectually, sure. But she felt deep sorrow watching the flames licking and running on the mountainside as we drove by again in the dark.
We were back home Tuesday when she sent me the picture of the caretaker’s cottage at the lake in a news report. Our home once. This place we renovated, cleaned and painted and recarpeted, now a smoking rubble. Only the river-rock chimney with woodstove and low concrete wall enclosing what had been a screened-in porch still stood, along with undamaged trees next to this place we came a razor’s edge from never leaving.
The cottage had burned Sunday while she was feeling such incomprehensible loss. Stan, my crewmate’s wife, all those homes, the window view of the destruction and the flames as we drove past. Then this.
I swore I would have saved the place, and her eyes flashed at the very notion of me staying and trying, as if this weren’t a hypothetical. As if we hadn’t made the agonizing choice so long ago, now like yesterday, to move on to a whole ’nother life.
She wrote in a Facebook post about her sharp memories of the house far more poignantly than I ever could. And I remembered paddling the lake on my surfboard, the fishing, our visitors, the pontoon boat, my wedding ring flying off my finger into the water on a cold day, her sexy purple shorts. Hiking to the top of the Cielo, now burnt. Driving the jeep to valves needing closing, these hubcap-sized wheels, before a rainstorm closed in and muddied the water bound for Montecito through a tunnel in the mountain.
Ah, rain. Where’s the dam rain? Feels like an era burned out on us, long before we were ready. Feels like goodbye.
Publisher Don Rogers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 477-4299.
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