The evacuation orders for my neighborhood were lifted yesterday. Tinto and I made our cautious way past the lake, where Marine helicopters had been filling their water buckets the day before for aerial drops on the fire lines, and up the hill to the house. There were yellow knots of caution tape on the mailboxes, put there by police as they had gone door to door to mark that there were no occupants that would need rescuing if the worst happened. I knew of a few stalwart folk who, experienced in the ways of wildfires, had stayed, but by the looks of things, I was one of the first to return.
It was eerily quiet, therefore. The temperature outside was 98 degrees, but I was startled to walk into a pleasantly cool house. I realized that in my dash to leave, I’d forgotten to turn off the air conditioning, and I cringed to think of what the filter would look like. Everything else was just how I’d left it, of course, but with the mayhem of the past two days, it seemed strange that it was.
I looked around at the art on the walls, and thought of all the other paintings that were in the studio. I’d made a conscious decision to leave them all: transporting art is never without risk, when I’d left I hadn’t known where I was going, and I simply couldn’t choose which to bring with me. But the one thing I’d realized, lying awake that first night, was that I had all the hard drives containing everyone else’s photos, but I hadn’t thought to grab my own. Photos of Axel’s and my childhoods, families, our wedding, scattered around the house, not readily grab-able, many of them the only surviving copies. I vowed that the coming weekend would be dedicated to digitizing them.
There was ash on the deck, flecks of white that had gathered wherever there was anything for it to stick to; a cobweb, flowers, the fabric of the deck chairs. But not as much as I’d expected: when we had lived on Coronado, the ash that had floated for literally miles from the 2003 wildfire had crunched underfoot when we walked outside. That was the year that the entire city of San Diego had shut down because of the smoke cloud that had blanketed it.
The last thing I had done before leaving was to open the pool cover, in case the fire fighters needed the water for their hoses. There were bits of dark ash on the top step, and when I picked one up, I realized it was a charred leaf. It had flown at least a mile on the wind, and I wondered if it had still been an ember when it had landed in the water. I kicked off my sandals and Tinto and I stepped in up to our knees…. and we both just stood there a long time, staring at the cloud of the Las Pulgas fire, 15 miles away and in the process of burning 15,000 acres, that was towering over all of Camp Pendelton.