The hopelessness and fatigue of many residents of Sonoma and Napa counties — not to mention the millions of other California residents whose lives have been impacted by wildfires this year — are on full display in any number of news articles and broadcasts about fire scares and fire damage the past few weeks. And now one of the Bay Area's most renowned writers, Dave Eggers, has offered up his own account of the Glass Fire.
Eggers, who lives in Marin County and has written several novels that are centered in the Bay Area — including The Circle (2013), The Monk of Mokha (2018), and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000) — has friends who live in St. Helena and it seems he may have already been on assignment, writing about the local wildfires, when the Glass Fire came uncomfortably close to their home.
Writing in the New Yorker this week, Eggers describes a visit he made to friends Tom and KC Garrett in St. Helena ten days before the Glass Fire began, which was about a month after the LNU Lightning Complex fires had also come uncomfortably close. But, as he explains, "everyone in valley-floor areas like this, feel somewhat inured to the fires," and the Garretts had only been made to evacuate once in all the years of having fires around them.
He describes how the town of Calistoga was totally calm and normal, with blue skies and tourists out shopping, the morning that the Glass Fire broke out on September 27. The smoke was blowing southeast and away from the town, and the fire felt adequately far away, in the hills. But as the day went on, things got spookier on the Garrett's street in St. Helena, and by evening the evacuation order had come and they were tasked with packing up 70 photo albums and driving to Tom's parents' place in Oakville.
Eggers himself sounds tired and depressed with the ravages of this fire season, but he writes clearly and even a little lyrically about this conundrum — living in a beautiful place that regularly seems to want to burn, and the weird detachment many Californians now feel to these annual disasters.
What are we doing here? When the air is red and the street lights are on at noon, we ask this question. When there are twenty-three major fires burning at once throughout California, and seventeen thousand firefighters battling them, we ask this question. When a firefighter dies in a blaze begun during a gender-reveal party, we ask this question. We ponder these questions on a smoke-tinged Friday, and on Saturday the sky is clear and we’re at the beach again. This is life in 2020 California.
And he concludes without any real answers, having talked to exhausted firefighters and having seen multiple wineries and part of the Meadowood resort burn to the ground. His friends' home survived, along with much of St. Helena and Calistoga. (He points out how Californians, especially in the Bay Area, have gotten used to explaining to relatives across the country how far away each of these fires has been relative to their homes.)
"It’s not right, any of this," Eggers writes. "The fact that it gets harder every year, that fires get more frequent, bigger, deadlier. The fact that we have to count on volunteers, and firefighters from Colorado, Texas, Mexico, Australia. The exorbitant expense. There aren’t enough people, there aren’t enough planes and bulldozers and trucks. There’s too much fire. We can’t keep living like this."
He notes that city dwellers in San Francisco have become tired of the constant burning up north and the smoke it sends into their air. But they tend not to understand the repeated trauma that residents in Santa Rosa, Paradise, and elsewhere have endured in recent years, and how it's marked them.
Still, real estate is still booming up north as people have fled SF during the pandemic in search of either primary or second homes. And it might take something far worse than the fires we've seen so far to change that. Now that's a depressing thought.
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