There in the early morning, trucks rumbling slowly by, up this usually sleepy street, pulling flatbeds bearing bulldozers. Bound for the fire. Because we’re in “historic” again.
When you’re young and you don’t know anything, you might think it kinda cool, to someday be in some way involved in something historic.
No. I don’t think so.
September 11. There we were. With the trucks with the bulldozers rumbling by. Quite the historic day. But none of the dead and the maimed and the lost of “September 11,” no one connected in any way with them or it, are in any way pleased about it. Being historic. They’d all prefer the day had never been. That somehow it had been possible to jump right over it. Move from September 10 straight into September 12. With September 11 sucked into some sort of nonexistence hole, and thereby right out of history. So that it had never been. And everybody and everything that on that day came not to be: that never happened.
The town burning down, that was historic. Fire just doesn’t show up one morning and burn down a whole town. Not in this age. Not in this country. Until it did. And was “historic.” Historic in this, historic in that; you can read all about it. But nobody actually in that historic, wanted or wants to be there. Instead, you get this, late in the night, there in the fire tubes, when there comes no sleep: “Yes. Ever since the Fire. I really want my life back. Even just a little bit.”
Tuesday late afternoon last week I was half-dozing. In the dark. In a PG&E fire-preventative power shut-off that had descended the night before. Because of the winds. Swirling hard and fast up out of the canyon again. The winds that, on that “historic” day in November, had first blown the live wire from off the tower, and then raced the fire in to burn down the town.
I was half-dozing because: why not? Not much else to do. With the power gone, I was in suspended animation. 21st Century techno man. There was just the cellphone. And I didn’t look at it that much. To conserve the battery. Because with that gone. I’d really be. Without, external, clue.
I was vaguely aware there was some lightning-sparked fire that had been dicking around way off in Plumas County for three weeks that had suddenly broke loose, jumped water, and was moving into the far eastern reaches of the county of Butte. But that was miles and miles and miles away. And there were anyway fires all over the state. Had been for weeks. This Plumas thing didn’t seem an especially important one. That’s why the fire people had let it dick around three weeks. More important, dangerous, fires, out there, to tend.
Then there’s a text. Friend in Chico. Says down there smoke is fierce, and the sky up here is starting to look bad, maybe really bad, like it had, there in the beginning, on the “historic” day of the November 8 fire. I go out and look, and see, way off to the east, billowing off the land high and white, what appeared to be a cloud. But probably wasn’t a cloud. Probably a fire cloud.
Otherwise, though, nothing but blue skies.
Then the phone rings. Same friend. Says she’s coming up with a cat carrier. Because, when you’re in cats, you can never have too many. And also, she says, there are evacuation orders now, for places like Berry Creek, Feather Falls. Because that Plumas fire seems to be galloping. Like it maybe wants to town-burn-down Oroville. Nobody seems really to know what all is happening, but the fire might also be considering a return trip to Paradise. So maybe, she says, I should think about leaving.
She came up with the cat carrier and we sat out on the porch in the dark and the wind for a couple hours, trying to talk each other out of that we were in doomsday, v2.0. There was no fire actually to be seen, and in the phones the people with the information seemed to be pretty dark. They didn’t seem to know much more than we did. It kind of felt like doomsday was out there, but when once you’ve been in a fire, as we both had, feelings can go to wack. So maybe better to just paper them over with words. And so, while there was an offer, I decided it didn’t seem time yet to pack up the zoo and head down the hill. She agreed. I know this, because if she had believed it was time for me to go, and yet I resisted, she would have hit me on the head with a fry pan, and drug me into the car and down the hill. No more staying in fires, for me. This, she had, long ago, decreed.
So we’d talked each other round to feeling better. And she went home. And, in the night, we both even slept.
I know now those feelings were true. Because there really was doomsday out there. While we sat out there in the dark and the wind, that fire was out there devouring more than 200,000 acres. A wall of fire eight miles long traveled some 30 miles and took and burned and flattened and evaporated places like Berry Creek and Feather Falls.
More towns burned down. More lives lost. More lives still missing. More animals scattered. More souls seared. More “historic.” Cal Fire Chief saying this fire “as it moved through these communities made a run that we have described as historic.”
Did anyone in this “historic,” want to be historic?
No. They did not.
Wednesday morning when the sun came up, it didn’t. The sky was black, then dead red, then fierce orange. Just like it had been here the morning of November 8, when the whole east side of town was flamed and gone, I just didn’t know it yet. Evacuation warnings for Concow and the far southeastern zone of Paradise. From my porch I can see cars streaming down Skyway, just as they had the morning of November 8. People were getting out. They weren’t waiting for any evacuation orders. They were just leaving. And people all in ache, there in the fire tubes: “This is no way to live. The constant fire threats is crazy and people who want to stay in Helladise or rebuild should have their heads examined. I am done.”
My cellphone is down to 10%, so I decide I’m going to walk down to the police station and see if they have some plug I can use to recharge. I know they have power, there at the police station. And, because this town is Mayberry, the policewoman unlocks the door, lets me in, and sets me up with a plug in the lobby. No search, no ID, then just leaves me alone there. Because this is Mayberry. And it’s wrong. To burn down Mayberry. It was wrong the last time. And it would be wrong this time, too.
She’s a dispatcher, and, as I’m charging, I can hear her there in the back, fielding the worried calls. People wanting to know where is the fire, if they should evacuate. She says where is the fire is not exactly known, but it’s not in Paradise, or Magalia, and it’s not in Concow; in Paradise there’s just the one evacuation-warning zone, to the far southeast, but if the people feel they should go, and especially if they have somewhere to go, she says, they should go ahead and do that. These are people without power, so they’re cut off; or with power, but without clue, because we have no radio stations here, or TV stations, none that anyway want to help any people, and who knows how to find where to go in the tubes for information, or, once found, whether to trust it? A man knocks on the lobby door and the dispatcher comes out to talk to him: he says he has no power, no phone, how would he know if he has to evacuate? She says if, when, that time comes, officers will drive the streets, blaring sirens loud and different and long.
The sky is lightening, as I’m charging. I know this, because I go outside to have a cigarette. Because, you know, there’s not enough smoke. I’m feeling better, in that. The lightening.
When I’m fully charged—I stay to 100%, because I don’t want to be in something “historic,” and have the phone OD, because I was too impatient to stay for the final 11% or 7% or 3%—I walk back home, to find the power is back. And in that, I feel better.
Until I don’t. Because the damn sky goes to blood red again. I thought we were through that. And also I learn the fire has moved to within 10 miles of the Magalia reservoir. That’s too damn close. How did the fire get from Plumas to here that fast? That’s too fast. That fast, 10 miles—that means nothing.
I receive a call ordering me to get the animal crates and boxes ready. I begin that beguine. But I don’t like it. It makes me panicky. I don’t want to be panicky. I don’t want to be preparing to leave in fire. I just want to have my life. Even if only a little bit.
Then I learn the fire has stalled out, there about 9.5 miles from the reservoir. Also—and as I can tell—the high winds have stopped. It’s even still, out there, now. I decide that what’s happening—and later I learn this was Real—is that the fire is frustrated because it’s moved into the burn zone from the November 8 fire, and is not finding a lot of fuel there. So that’s stalled it some. Also, the wind is no longer an enabler. The wind has gone to sleep. So the fire can’t rely on the wind to make jumps. So maybe we’re going to be okay. Maybe there won’t be a rerun. Paradise, The Town That Burned Down, The Sequel.
I order the panicky to bugger. I go out on the porch. The fire cat blinks lazily there on the railing. A jay at the other end of the railing picks at a peanut. Up in the plum tree a squirrel gives us all the what-for. I stand on my own hind legs, and I address them. “I’m staying again,” I say. And laugh maniacally.
If the wind hadn’t nodded off, the fire probably still would have come in here, fuel-starved or no. Because of the weeds. Plenty of fuel there. My friend from the Tuesday doomnight and I have been cassandraing about the weeds for months. Nobody listens. Because the town burned down, and is mostly abandoned, everywhere there are weeds, thick luxurious growths of them, sipping from the water poured into the ground when the workers continuously hosed down all the rubble in the removal.
Except, increasingly, these weeds, gone to brown. Prime firestarter. I’m looking at a thick patch, over there back the tomb of Frank’s, here as we speak.
The town can’t go in and de-weed somebody’s property, without going through a stations of the cross notification process, and so many property owners are lost, scattered all over the country. Anyway, the town has no money. It can’t even cleanse the weeds from its own properties, from the ditches that serve as rain gutters round here. And so every weed down in Weedville, the tall and the small, here they all are, just waiting, for fire. That’s what we’ve cassandraed. She and I have darkly joked that whereas the last time the fire was “spread by the community, structure to structure,” this time it will be “spread by the lack of community, weed to weed.” Cept now it doesn’t seem so fun a joke.
But that’s all over now. That was Wednesday. The day of the trucks with the bulldozers rumbling by, that was Friday. The fire staying pouting out there, about ten miles away,but now actually being fought, rather than the firefighters and other emergency workers concentrating solely on getting people out of the way. Barring more wind, or some other catastrophe, maybe here in Paradise we’ll escape a “historic” burning . . . twice.
For a town burning down just once, that is no longer so historic. It’s been less than two years since Paradise burned down, but now there are other whole towns, burned down. There are Berry Creek and Feather Falls, here in Butte. There is Malden, in eastern Oregon. Lost around the same time as the Butte communities. There is Phoenix, in the Rogue Valley in Oregon. Ditto. Fire taking whole towns: that moving now from historic, to . . . normal.
I am safe, for the moment, but other people, they are not.
Millicent Catarancuic, 77, her body was found near a car on her five-acre property in Berry Creek. The flames came so quickly she did not have time to get out. On Tuesday, when my friend and I were up here, in the wind and the dark, feeling doomsnight, she packed several of her dogs and cats in the car, but later called her daughter to say she'd decided to stay. Firefighters had made progress battling the blaze, she said, and the wind seemed to be calming. The flames still seemed far away. Then the fire changed direction, rushing onto the property too quickly for her to leave. She died, along with her animals.
“'I feel like, maybe when they passed, they had an army of cats and dogs with them, to help them through it,' said her daughter, Holly Catarancuic.
There are those who say she should have got out sooner. But it's hard to judge people. When on November 8 the embers arced in out of the black and set that field across the street from me ablaze, fire raced across there faster than a person can run. Or drive. One second, there was no fire there. The next, all was fire.
John and Sandra Butler, in their late 70s, lived in Berry Creek with their son. When came the fire, their son was down the hill, at a doctor’s appointment. They told him they would try to shelter in a neighbor’s pond, located about 80 yards away. That worked for some people, in the fire in 2018. Retreating to water. There were Concow people who came through that way. But the Butlers didn’t. They never made it to the pond.
The authorities wouldn’t let the son through. The Red Cross put him up in a motel in Oroville.
“Everything is replaceable,” says Jessica Fallon, who bore two of the Butlers’ grandchildren, “but not my grandparents’ lives. I’d rather lose everything than those two.”
Philip Rubel was found in a burned pickup near the car containing the remains of Millicent Catarancuic’s cats and dogs. Catarancuic lay nearby. The sheriff says both Rubel and Catarancuic were prepared to evacuate, but then received, and relied upon, erroneous information that the fire was 51% contained. It was not.
If there were radio stations here, they could broadcast accurate information. But there are no radio stations here. There are only enemies of life. That hoard the "public" and "community" airwaves, and then, when people are burning, broadcast irrelevant prerecorded shit, or simper about how fine it will be when the inebriates can again stagger into Duffy’s, but meanwhile please send us money. That’s what I heard, Wednesday, when, desperate for information, I tuned in.
So fuck them. Maybe for their pledge drives they can play the 911 recording of the three generations of women burning to death in the Camp Fire.
Keep those pledges coming, folks. Because we do so much for you. We laugh and sing and dance and play. While you burn and burn and burn and burn.
These stations. They claimed to be "progressive." But they lied. A lot of "progressives." They lie. You find that out. When you burn.
The worst man in the world, he meanwhile of course springs a woody, that we are again burning.
“They’re starting again in California,” he exulted in late August, chundering before one of his eternally recurring clots of cruelty uber alles yeehaws. “And I said, you’ve got to clean your floors. You’ve got to clean your floors. They have many, many years of leaves and broken trees. And they’re like, like so flammable. You touch them and it goes up. I’ve been telling them this now for three years, but they don’t want to listen. The environment. The environment. But they have massive fires again in California. Maybe we’re just going to have to make them pay for it, because they don’t listen to us. We say you got to get rid of the leaves. You’ve got to get rid of the debris. You’ve got to get rid of the fallen trees.”
He is the worst man in the world. There is no one worse. When the town burned down in November 2018, he vomited the same projectile of lies. There was not a fire scientist on the planet that agreed with him then, and there's not one now. But he is not about science. He hates science. All he loves, is hate. The Californians did not support him in 2016, they do not support him now, and so he hates them, hates them with all that he is, and is in glee, in joy, that we are burning.
He has no words of sympathy, of empathy, for those who are burning. This is a man devoid of sympathy, empathy. For anyone but himself. He, in truth, likes that we're burning. We just can't burn enough. To suit him. Because we will not kiss his bigly. Thus, it is right, that we burn.
After the town burned down, he twitlered that FEMA should refuse to compensate those who had burned. People thought at the time it was just one of his early-morning meth rampages, with no real policy meaning, but we know now he was serious. As the former chief of staff of the Department of Homeland Security, Miles Taylor, has said: “He told FEMA to cut off the money and to no longer give individual assistance to California. He told us to stop giving money to people whose houses had burned down from a wildfire because he was so rageful that people in the state of California didn’t support him, and that politically it wasn’t a base for him.”
There has never been such a creature in the White Power House. Pray god there never will be again. The Americans will never be forgiven, for electing him. Ever.
When the town burned down, and he came out here, he couldn’t even get the name of the town right. He called it “Pleasure.” No doubt feeling all high and hot there, in pleasure, in his woody, that we, we Californians, who will not kiss his bigly, were all burned. This time, the other day, when he came out here, he crossed his arms like a petulant child and denied there was any such thing as climate change, blamed us for the burning, because we did not “rake the forests,” as he had instructed. He also decreed that we need to cut down the trees so that there are 50 yards between each one of them. You know, like on the golf courses. The only nature. He has ever. Personally. Known.
In the months after the fire, my Tuesday doomsday friend and I, sometimes, very late at night, when there was no sleep, we would just . . . talk. About: whatever. And it was nice. And we decided that we liked, nice. That nice is undervalued. Scorned, even: the ironic “oh, that’s nice,” “have a nice day,” etc. And that this is wrong. Because nice, that is what you want. It’s good, to have nice. Because it’s nice when your town doesn’t burn down. It’s nice when there is air you can breathe. It’s nice when you can sleep. It’s nice when there are no tears. It’s nice. To believe. That someday. The Americans. They will repent. Of the worst man. In the world.
When I was young and didn’t know anything I would watch on the television a show with a dog who was a professor and his name was Mr. Peabody and he had a thing called the Wayback Machine that would transport him and a kid named Sherman back to the “historic.” There they would sport and play. And Mr. Peabody, he would pun.
Now that I am old and don’t know anything I am building down in the basement my own Wayback Machine. Though with it, I will not be punning. Instead, I will go back into the historic, and there I will erase the pain. On September 11, those men will not get on those planes. On November 8, that C-hook will not fall from that tower. On an earlier November 8, the Americans will not with their ballots become the worst people in the world. On whatever was that day, that Plumas lightning bolt, it will discharge not fiery onto land, but harmless into water. Because although I still don’t know anything, I do know this. We don’t want historic. No. Bugger: the historic. What we want, is nice. That’s what needs to be bringing. Nice. Let’s just have that. Please. Nice.