August Fire and Smoke


Yes by William Stafford

It could happen any time, tornado,
earthquake, Armageddon. It could happen.
Or sunshine, love, salvation.

It could you know. That’s why we wake
and look out–no guarantees

in this life.

But some bonuses, like morning,
like right now, like noon,
like evening.

Valerie and the boys drove back to California on Saturday–a week ahead of schedule– because the air quality looked to be getting worse rather than better. After two weeks of constant monitoring of the Air Quality Index with the measurement device she brought with her, and moving the air filter around the house to create clean rooms for asthmatic Cormac, she packed it all up in the van, and drove off to let the boys experience coastal Bay Area air until the California fires really take off in September.

The word that came to mind when I watched them drive up our dusty road Saturday morning was bitter. I felt cheated by this miserable world right now, and so disappointed that what should be idyllic childhood days of summer at the lake had turned into constant air quality surveillance and all of us cloistered inside the library, watching the Olympics, as if i cared about them. As the days have gone by, I’m just sad. But, I am also remembering how Valerie pointed out each day, how there had been little glimmers of things that felt light and fun, and made us happy. As I look back at the photos I took, we never missed a night of going out on the dock and watching the orange sun set behind the smoke, while the boys swam out to the sailboat and dove off into the unusually warm water. And, there was that night towards the end, when I was the first adult to finally put down the glass of wine and go into the water with them. They pointed out that I had a great advantage in that the left side of my body, post-stroke, does not sense temperature, so only half of me needs to get used to the still-chilly water. I swam out to the sailboat with them and they talked me into climbing aboard via ladder, and even talked me into diving off, each one holding a hand so I could steady my balance on the edge of the boat. In spite of everything, how can I not be left with love and gratitude for that moment, so wobbly on the edges these days.

Their departure turned out to be well-timed, as it went to hell in a hand basket on Saturday. A fire had started 16 miles south of us, clearly visible from the lake, in the steep mountains on the east side of the highway. For twenty years, we’ve assured ourselves that with our prevailing winds from the west and southwest, we were, likely, safe from fires in the forest east of us, and ten miles of glacial lake lay between us and the western mountains. An east wind, bringing a down slope fire, was very unlikely. But, in recent years, as the weather pattern has changed at the lake, we now get surprise east winds and they are the ones that blow down our trees, the 100-year old ones, whose root structure has grown to withstand strong gales from the west, but not the ones from the east. I have written on this blog in the past about the evil East Wind in mythology, and how I am so unsettled when it happens here.

When we opened up the kitchen windows facing east on Saturday night–smoke or not, to let in cool air–we were hit by a blast of hot wind, and while we slept, the neighbors on the lake south of us were awakened by evacuation alerts as the east wind drove the fire down slope, across the highway, into the homes around Finley Point. Everyone made it safely out but some two dozen structures were destroyed, at least ten of them homes. There are 250 homes at risk along our highway, and the road is closed is 13 miles south of us. Despite its small size, the Boulder 2700 fire is currently categorized as the number one priority fire burning in the Northern Rockies. And, we are now officially in the air quality alert zone, after being a little island of just bad for sensitive groups, for the entire time Valerie and family were here with us. It was good they left for California, sad as it was to see them go.

Now, I am left to find glimmers of lightness on my own. As if we all haven’t had enough practice, deep into year two of this pandemic which has changed our lives. As the Delta variant rages, and masks become serious again, now we can add this dreadful summer of heat and smoke to test our forbearance. I had so many inspirational quotes and affirmations taped to my vanity mirror back in the beginning of the pandemic, but as they became tattered and wrinkled up, they were thrown out in the trash. Probably, I just got worn out, looking at them.

Still, I stumbled across a poem in my journal, which I’ve been working on for months, entitled Put Down the Weight of Your Thorn, and added a line yesterday about how the goldenrod has suddenly appeared along the parched dirt on our road, signaling autumn is not so far away now. And, I had also written down a comment made a few weeks ago by Todd, owner of Two Bear Farms. He publishes a weekly newsletter in which he writes about things he thinks about whilst picking cauliflower in the early morning hours for four and a half hours. He had been despairing about the state of the world and decided he needed to pay attention to less news, and listen to more music. And, he described a plan for acceptance in the week ahead, to preserve his mental health. I’ve been thinking about his idea all week long, and find it is helpful to imagine that there could be an amazing plot twist to this story, which turns things around in a good way, that we have no idea is coming. It could happen. And, this morning, NOAA is forecasting that northwest Montana is likely to receive wetting rains this week-end. It could happen, it could happen.

So, as part of my acceptance, for this week, I am telling myself that the state of the world is just a big movie, and I should sit back and watch the plot unfold (since the powers that be are not interested in the script I wrote). I’m not saying I’m going to grab a big ole bucket of GMO popcorn with some artificial butter on it, and a 36-ounce soda, but I’m also not willing to invest my mental health so heavily in the outcome. Who knows, maybe there is an amazing plot twist at the end that I have no idea is coming?” Todd of Two Bear Farms

3 thoughts on “August Fire and Smoke

  1. cam1155

    This is quite the writing, more “raw” than your usual style, and feels so true.

    What a year….glad we are able to connect with each other through it all.

    Hope you sleep well….winds are ripping through north Kalispell and the air is clearer than it has been in a long time!

    Sent from my iPhone

  2. Mary Barry

    I read this in the middle of the night when I couldn’t sleep… and all I could see in my thoughts was Val and family pulling away from the lake house a week too early and the dust that followed behind the car.


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