Wildfire in the

Santa Cruz Mountains

by Jane Beal

Los Gatos, California

When I moved back to California, I never expected to see again the same hot, rainy weather that I had experienced in the Midwest during the summers when I lived in Chicago – but I did. In the middle of August 2020, it was weirdly hot and humid in the Santa Cruz Mountains, where I now live. I was praying for rain, and it came in the night with thunder and lightning! 

That night, the wind through my window blew so strongly, it knocked over my desk lamp. I got up from bed, amazed at the dance of light flashing across the dark sky, and I set the overturned lamp upright and closed the window. As I lay down again, I felt the temperature dropping, and I thanked God.

In the morning, the power was out, and it stayed out. Then, I learned that that the lightning had ignited fires in the dry redwood forests near my home. By Thursday evening, the wind turned, and it blew thick smoke in my direction. I was alarmed. Where was it coming from? A friend and I went out to a school on a hill, in the gathering gloom, to get a better look. That’s when I saw a sight I will never forget: as huge waves of smoke billowed over the ridge, the redwood trees were swallowed in it. How could those tall, majestic trees disappear so suddenly?

Visibility was so poor at the time that I could not see more than a dozen yards ahead. The panoramic views from the mountains that I usually see on a clear day were gone. I felt like I could not breathe, and my throat was stinging from the smoke. Even my darling little miniature dachshund, Joyful, whom I had taken with us, started choking and coughing. I began to feel an edgy, urgent sense inside that I needed to flee the area. I said so to my friend.

So she and I headed back quickly, and I packed up a few things and loaded my car to leave. A suitcase with clothes, toiletries, jewelry. My dog’s bed and blanket, food and bowls, collar and leash – and treats. Don’t forget her treats, I thought. I grabbed my laptop computer and cell phone and chargers, of course. I left a lot behind, including precious books and a newly-created photo album. I wasn’t sure I was making the right choices, but I didn’t want to delay my departure or be weighed down too heavily with possessions I could not physically manage. I looked back at my various material goods as I walked out of my bedroom, and I thought something along the lines of I’m going to trust God that this house will not burn down to the ground

I loaded my car quickly, grabbing extra water to take with me. I felt rushed and shaky. As I was leaving the mountains with my tiny dog and heading toward my parents’ home in the city of Vallejo in the north-east San Francisco Bay Area, I received an emergency alert text message on my phone from CalFire telling me to evacuate. I was glad I was already on my way. 

It was late at night by that point– and dark. Highway 17 was starting to fill with cars. But I could see that I was in the first wave of evacuees because traffic was not yet completely clogging the winding road. We were all driving in an orderly way, but we were moving slowly. Drivers ahead of me kept hitting their brakes as more cars joined the caravan from various entry points. Their red brake lights shone in the dark.

A pick-up truck drove by me in the smoke, the truck-bed loaded with stuff piled up high and tied down with rope. It was eerie to see that. Like a ghost ship on becalmed waters.

It took me two and a half hours to make it to my parents’ home, and I stayed there for a week. The air was clearer, but it was still affected by others fires that were burning in Napa and Vacaville, which had also been ignited by lightning. Those fires caused a fine layer of ash to rain over my car and my parents’ place. We were dusting off the patio cushions daily and wearing masks to filter the air whenever we got the courage to go outside. One of my sisters had to evacuate her home in Vacaville, and she went to stay with my brother in Antioch. Another sister couldn’t work in the vineyards in Napa due to the danger. I was amazed by how everything was changed for so many people by one simple shift in the weather.

Tropical storm “Fausto,” named for the magician who summoned the demon Mephistopheles to do his bidding, started over three hundred and fifty wildfires in California on August 16 and 17, 2020. Despite all the efforts of the firefighters, many of those fires kept burning without good containment for days. Beautiful Big Basin was burned out, leaving many charred trees and smoking stumps behind. Vast stretches of the redwood forest were severely burned throughout the mountains: over 500 square miles all told. Almost a thousand homes were lost to the fires. Tad Jones, age 73, a resident of Last Chance Road, died in the fires here. He was a Viet Nam veteran who had retreated into the redwoods to practice silence and meditation. 

Then, at last, a gentle rain fell.

In the days after I came back to the Santa Cruz Mountains, the smoke lingered in the trees in the higher elevations above my home, which is in a dell. One morning, I was walking up one of the hills on the property here. Before I had to turn back because my mask wasn’t filtering well enough, I saw a doe and her two fawns in the forest. I stopped, and they stopped, holding quite still for some time. As we looked into one another’s eyes, I wondered how they had escaped the fire and survived the smoke. It felt like a miracle.

Jane Beal, PhD is professor and chair of English at the University of La Verne in California. She writes poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction; her most recent books are Song of the Selkie, a poetry collection, and Pearl: A Middle English Edition and Modern English Translation, a dual-language edition. https://janebeal.wordpress.com