Home through the Smoke: Recollections of the Butte County Camp Fire

By NASA (Joshua Stevens) - NASA Landsat 8 Operational Land Imager https://eoimages.gsfc.nasa.gov/images/imagerecords/144000/144225/campfire_oli_2018312_crop_lrg.jpg ; https://landsat.visibleearth.nasa.gov//view.php?id=144225, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=74269291

On Thursday, November 8, 2018, I went to the Good Earth store for lunch. I had just heard about the Butte County Camp Fire, slightly growing anxious as the sky filled with a sandstone haze. I got some coffee, coconut water, and a piece of pizza from the to-go station and went to the express lane. A man, dressed like he’d just got done with a mountain bike ride, covered in sweat, stood to my right, just out of line. He cut in front of me, and I said nothing, not sure if he was there before I had arrived in line. He then turned back and saw me and apologized. We exchanged niceties as he told he’d just got in from Sonoma from the train, that he was about to go for a ride.

He was the kind of person who, once finding they have an audience of any kind, cannot stop talking until it is absolutely necessary. He told me about how excited he was for his ride, that I looked like I was on lunch break, which I was. Then he started talking about the fire. He told me how he saw the smoke on the train and was terrified that Sonoma was going to get hit again.

“We went through so much up there,” he said, his eyes wide with too much enthusiasm.

I gave him nods, and let him speak, looking at the three lanes in express, waiting for an area to open so I could let myself free of his all too familiar and uncomforting company. He told me he was glad to read on the news that the fire was not here. He said he felt “bad to feel relief at the expense of another county.”

The cashier raised his hand. I left, but not before the sweating man said, “Well, they’re not paying you for therapy, so go ahead,” which puzzled me more than the rest of his thoughtless comments. I was glad to leave and walk back to work. Stepping outside into the midday air, smelling that torrential bonfire almost two hundred miles away, I wanted it to go away. Not the smoke, but the flames. I wanted the humidity to rise, the winds to slow their pace. I wanted the rains to come.

The Camp Fire was first spotted at 6:30 in the morning at a size of 10 acres. In a matter of a couple of hours, it increased to over 10,000 acres, heading south for Paradise. Paradise is now long gone along with much of Butte Canyon. It headed for the small foothill communities south of Paradise, towards Lake Oroville. Eighty-six people died in the fire and more than 150,000 acres of land was burned.

When I got home from work that day, the beginning of the fire, at around two in the afternoon, the smoke was so thick in the air that there was only a faint memory of blue in the sky. As I rode my bike home, I felt an unfamiliar heaviness in my chest. I sat down, drank some water, but was too nervous from the smoke in the air. I had to see as much of the sky for myself, thinking this may ground me with some sort of unknown understanding. I grabbed my binoculars and walked up the big hill behind our neighborhood.

The hill is called Tomahawk for the dead-end road on its ridge. The incline is so steep as to be comical. I can picture the Roadrunner zipping up the hill as Wile E Coyote tips over on his back as he takes a moment to breathe. I could feel the smoke entering my lungs with each breath. Once I reached the trail-head, I realized that I should have brought a bandana with me or something to cover my face, but had forgotten.

As I walked up the trail, I saw a flock of turkeys on the northwestern side of the hill, a decent area to take cover from the smoke. The juncos were fluttering around an old coyote bush, completely silent, as though the air had taken their voices. A Flicker, and then another, flew in front of me, their orange tails lit like embers as they laughed, flying north.

As I reached the top of the ridge, sitting on a large rock, talking to a friend in Phoenix, I looked out to the classic view above my home. Mount Tamalpais to the east, San Rafael and the East and South Bay to the south. I could see none of it. Only smoke. With my naked eye, I could not see the mountain, nor could I see the bay itself. All I saw was smoke. I took a couple photos, and then left.

Ever since the fires began in mid-summer, I began to fear for my home. I feared to walk up to Tomahawk’s ridge through charred grass, to walk down that asphalt road to my burnt home, to lose it like so many people across the West Coast have experienced through the decades in greater and greater rates. The home where I was born. I still fear this, with each fire season, the panic growing within me. But this is a reality for so many across the coast, and a fear that many of us hear as a kind of white noise to our daily experience.

Fires don’t care who we are. They want to burn. They move as they will. Nature does not care who is in her way. I wonder what do I do, as a citizen of this state with this ever-growing problem? Do we bide our time and pray for it not to hit us? And if that’s the case, what of our neighbors, those who help define this effulgent state?

The sun of California shines, but perhaps too bright these days. With the increase of rent around all of our metropolitan areas, the wealth gap and the homeless epidemic growing like the San Andreas fault opening across the California coast, the drying of our crops and large aqueducts increasing the impacts of climate change, it seems the heat has risen and will not falter for now. Even as some claim that California has finally returned from drought, this does not mean that the fires will reduce in number, but may instead increase due to a higher growth of grasses in the spring. We must remain cautious and gracious because wildfires very well could be just another staple of our new world.


Photo at the top of the page was taken by NASA. Photo caption: “On the morning of November 8, 2018, the Camp Fire erupted 90 miles (140 kilometers) north of Sacramento, California. By evening, the fast-moving fire had charred around 18,000 acres and remained zero percent contained, according to news reports. The Operational Land Imager on Landsat 8 acquired this image on November 8, 2018, around 10:45 a.m. local time (06:45 Universal Time). The natural-color image was created using bands 4-3-2, along with shortwave infrared light to highlight the active fire. Officials are evacuating several towns, including Paradise. They have also closed several major highways.”