National attention is usually consumed with a couple of major themes, most of which feel, to a degree, distant. It’s rare that specific instances within one’s own community make national headlines.
Even in the past several years, when California forest fires became a frequent mention in the public discussion of climate change, to me in my hometown of Santa Cruz, a little over an hour south of San Francisco, they seemed very far away. I may be alone in this ignorance, but I don’t think so. The shock my community experienced in August was so great that it’s hard to believe unexpectedness played no role.
Similar to the spread and impact of COVID-19 in March, it seemed to be within a matter of days that the threat of the wildfires became legitimate and real. In late August, Bonny Doon, a forested community in the Santa Cruz mountains, was evacuated.
Residents were called in the middle of the night and given the notice. Not long after that, UC Santa Cruz, the entrance to which is blocks from my house, was evacuated also. Friends in Bonny Doon, Boulder Creek, and Scotts Valley scattered throughout the county. Some went to stay with relatives in other parts of the state. A family I tutor for, who lives further east than I do, booked a hotel in San Jose.
You’ve probably seen photos of the most impacted areas of California: blazing flames devouring houses and trees, or an apocalyptic view of San Francisco, into which a glowing orange haze has settled. The air quality has fluctuated with magnitude and frequency over the past month.
On those days at the end of August, both indoors and outdoors were bathed in orange-yellow light, so that everything looked as though it had been edited to look like a sepia-toned photograph. I remember because I have dozens of pictures in my camera roll of the interior of my room: bookshelves cluttered with novels and poetry collections; stacks of folded clothes spilling across the floor; abandoned notebooks; neglected plants and boxes of jewelry; my guitar and my camera in the corner. When we were considering evacuating, my mom told us to take as many photos as we could for the insurance company, in the event that something happened to our house.
I live on the west side of Santa Cruz, about ten minutes away from the affected areas of Bonny Doon. I know many people, including family friends, whose houses were impacted by the fires, if not burned down. I think everyone in town personally knows at least a few. My heart goes out to those who lost their homes.
I’m not an expert on fire or environmental science, so I’ll just offer this: I would never have identified as a nostalgic person, especially for tangible things. I am not in the least bit resistant to change. In fact, my life for the past few years has been characterized by restlessness more than anything else. But being faced with the prospect of losing some or all of the house I grew up in, despite the privilege of knowing that my family would eventually recover financially, was beyond unsettling; it was terrifying. And this forced me to accept – despite my impulse to resist attachment to my things or dismiss this attachment as shallow – that I did place value on my possessions, apart from the functions they served. My books were my link to the literary world; my notebooks, filled halfway with hastily scribbled song lyrics or poorly composed poetry, were evidence of my love for songwriting and creative writing; my camera and guitar were the first I’d owned of either, the former paid for with years of babysitting money, the latter a Christmas gift when I was 10, both of which show the beginning, middle, and present of those interests.
It was these pieces of myself that I was most scared of losing.