ESSAY

California Fires: A Hopeful Apocalypse Story

A home burns at a vineyard during the Kincade fire near Geyserville, California on October 24, 2019. - fast-moving wildfire roared through California wine country early Thursday, as authorities warned of the imminent danger of more fires across much of the Golden State. The Kincade fire in Sonoma County kicked up Wednesday night, quickly growing from a blaze of a few hundred acres into an uncontained 10,000-acre (4,000-hectare) inferno, California fire and law enforcement officials said.
JOSH EDELSON/AFP
A home burns at a vineyard during the Kincade fire near Geyserville, California on October 24, 2019.
The Kincade and Getty blazes represent something awful and dystopic—but now is the moment for a fresh start.

I used to say that I loved apocalypse stories. Often the classic apocalypse story begins after the apocalyptic event—the nuclear disaster, the world war, the virus outbreak—and then we hear about how our heroes got to this place in brief, imagistic flashbacks. Think of the very few paragraphs in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, where the mother reveals she’d rather commit suicide than live in this newly poisoned world. Or of the foiled evacuation flashback in I Am Legend, Will Smith’s character watching the helicopter explode that holds his family, the moment where his resolve to destroy the zombie virus is born. Or the piecemeal backstory of the mad scientist at the center of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, a tale of how a broken friendship led to a broken world.  Then there are the stories that give us little if any indication of the before, like Snowpiercer and Mad Max Fury Road and 28 Days Later, stories that leave us to paint that picture for ourselves, to idly wonder “how did this happen?” and then to move on and finish our popcorn or give the book a few stars online. 

The place where I grew up, Sonoma County, is burning. Again. 

In 2017, the historic Tubbs Fire destroyed the solidly middle-class neighborhood that fed my high school, becoming the most destructive wildfire in California history. Then last year, the Camp Fire tore a swath through Butte County, proving even more destructive than the Tubbs blaze. This year’s Kincade Fire, which was only 5 percent contained at the start of the week, and then burned some 76,000 acres while heading south toward Windsor and Santa Rosa from rural wine country, prompted the evacuation of nearly 200,000 residents. 

Early Sunday morning, my mother, who lives in Santa Rosa in the same neighborhood where I grew up, received an emergency alert on her phone telling her the fire had spread and to “LEAVE NOW!” Having evacuated in 2017, she knew to grab only clothes and medicine, to avoid the congested highway, and to take back roads to my brother’s home in Napa. There was no time to take photographs or valuables, let alone to ask the question, “how did this happen?”

I loved apocalypse stories so much that I even wrote them, but the “how” was always an annoying logistical problem and never the pulse. I wrote about a world where memory loss strips away the ability to love. I wrote about a community in Oregon that is one of the few remaining outposts after a massive earthquake and climate change have ravaged the coast. These stories are about survival of the heart and mind, about how to thrive and what to preserve after major destruction. They are not really about the “how.” But now I want to write about the origin of destruction, and what everyone did while it was happening all around them. How they survived before they had to survive. 

A crew of inmate firefighters make their way to firefighting operations to battle the Kincade Fire in Healdsburg, California on October 26, 2019. - US officials on October 26 ordered about 50,000 people to evacuate parts of the San Francisco Bay area in California as hot dry winds are forecast to fan raging wildfires.PHILIP PACHECO/AFP
A crew of inmate firefighters prepares to battle the Kincade Fire in Healdsburg, California on October 26, 2019.

I guess I want to write about now, when destruction’s roots seem to snake beneath our feet, when wildfire smoke darkens the sky every October. I want to ask how these fires can happen, and I know there are many answers. Maybe that’s why it’s such a difficult question to answer. Yes, the utility companies have not put enough power lines underground. Yes, it would be very expensive. Yes, their blackout strategy is chaotic and ineffective. Yes, it’s also to do with irresponsible development and building, but yes, it’s climate change, which means yes, it’s extreme drought, followed by extreme precipitation, meaning yes, anywhere not fortified by urban concrete is vulnerable. But also yes, it’s also our concrete cities, pumping carbon into the atmosphere with abandon, and it’s California’s lack of a comprehensive light rail or carbon-efficient public transportation. It’s me, driving my car everywhere in Los Angeles, and me taking flights here and there. But sure, I guess it’s also my plastic straw.  

There are other grave disasters, both natural and not, happening right now in the world. Disappearing glaciers and coral reefs and forests, next year’s hurricanes prickling over the ocean, which is rising in temperature bit by bit. But destruction on that scale makes me feel helpless. Destruction on the scale of my hometown makes it feel personal. I wonder if I write about what’s happening now I’ll find one person to blame, one reason to use as an example, one event to reverse. I think it’s easy, now, to look forward, to imagine that world in the wake of disaster, and harder to look at the present where people suffer and rage all around us. 

It’s not like butting up against the natural world is new to me or to most residents of the state. To live in a California city is to contend with nature. It’s a bobcat snatching your chihuahua and a rattlesnake slithering up the steps of your apartment building. It’s tsunami zones in Venice Beach and mudslides in Big Sur and earthquakes everywhere. It’s Santa Ana winds and of course, it’s wildfires. But it was never as extreme as this before. It might seem dramatic to call this a pre-apocalypse, but the ramifications of letting California burn over and over again are major, and no one seems primed to do anything about it. It’s the largest producer of food in the nation, which is one of the largest in the world. It’s the largest economy in the nation, and the 5th largest in the world. But it’s also where my mom lives. It’s where I live. I’m disoriented and nauseated watching what I love burn up. It’s not as easy to describe as what I wrote in my apocalypse stories, to witness the incineration of a way of life. And I don’t love apocalypse stories anymore, anyway. I feel like I’m in one.

New vegetation sprouts in a Woolsey Fire burn area at Malibu Creek State Park in the Santa Monica Mountains on February 27, 2019 near Malibu, California. Significant winter rainfall, after years of drought, has helped spur fresh growth in the burn areas which measure more than 150 square miles. The fire ignited November 8, 2018 and burned almost half the total land in the Santa Monica Mountains.MARIO TAMA/GETTY IMAGES
New vegetation sprouts in a Woolsey Fire burn area in the Santa Monica Mountains near Malibu, California, in February 2019. The fire ignited in November 2018 and burned almost half the total land in the Santa Monica Mountains.

In September, I hiked the Mishe Mokwa trail in Malibu to the highest point in the Santa Monica Mountains. The loop quickly ascended to the peak, where the view was 360 degrees, from the glittering Pacific in the west to the urban bowl and green hills of the east. But on the way down the loop, the landscape changes. The trail description promised bursts of wildflowers and corridors of bushwhacking, but instead I was met with dry scrub, patches of disappeared brush, and blackened tree stumps. Tiny geckos zipped in and out of the path, but that was it for living creatures. A few neon flowers hung off the edges of branches, both reminder and omen, an earth parched and gasping for water. That, a year later, is what remains after the 2018 Woolsey Fire, which burned nearly 100,000 acres in Malibu. As I hiked down, I remembered what I’d read about P-64, one of the very few mountain lions left to roam these mountains, found dead two months after the Woolsey Fire was contained, with burn marks on his paws. Authorities say he possibly left behind four cubs. No word yet if they survived the fire. 

The real apocalypse story, the one I want to write, begins there. Here. Not in a marred, future landscape that only my friends’ children will know, not in the towers of the richest who may turn survival into profit, and not in the lawless world that might emerge in the apocalypse wake. It begins with a woman standing on a scorched trail, looking for life, finding none. It begins before it’s too late. 

Aja Gabel lives in Los Angeles. She is the author of the novel, The Ensemble. Her writing has appeared in numerous publications including BOMBthe Kenyon Review, and Glimmer Train.