Last week, I whinged about how air conditioning in Albuquerque doesn’t work out. About four hours after that post, the smoke from the Wallow fire set in, and we weren’t allowed to use our paltry AC at all. I guess the moral of that story is don’t complain, things can (and will!) get worse.
And honestly, it’s bad here. I really feel bad for the people who are near this, and impacted by this terrible fire. It’s big. There’s ash on my house, not so much that I have to go clean it but ash from a fire 200 miles away. That’s a big fire. They aren’t landing planes at ABQ today.
I grew up in California, and wildfires are just part of the summer there. I’ve seen this a lot, but I’ve never seen a fire like this. I know that most places in the world just don’t have this sort of thing, so I’m going to take a crack at describing what it’s like to live near a fire.
Right now, here in Albuquerque we have most of the hallmarks, but we lack the biggest part of living near a raging fire: fear.
At night I would watch the fires as they ate their way down a hillside, or into a canyon. I could see the towering flames. At night, a fire looks like an army of demons marching through the lands and laying waste. It destroys everything without regard for feeling or sentiment. A grove of the world’s tallest trees? Just more fuel. The place where your daughter was born? More fuel. The land where your family has lived for five generations? More fuel.
We would pack our belongings and wait, scared to leave, terrified to stay. We waited. We waited for the phone to ring, for the fire chief to order an evacuation, for the fire itself, whichever came first. We lived in a rural part of California, and we worried they wouldn’t remember to tell us when it was time to leave. In my part of California, the sheep outnumber the people.
Then the morning came, and it was only slightly better than the night. The sun rose blood red, and our shadows were like red devils tagging our every movement. Our eyes stung, and everyone coughed. But daybreak is a mixed blessing: now we can’t see the fire. By night, at least the demonic red glow signaled the distance to the blaze, but by day, the brown and black smoke blotted out the flames, obscuring everything.
Everything stinks. When we would finally send someone to town to get groceries, we brought the fire with us wherever we went. The car, the store, work. We smelled of fire.
I remember going to the pizza parlor once while we waited on one of these vigils. There was a CDF truck out front, and inside there were firefighters. There were two of them, a man and a woman, both young. They had the swagger of people who’ve stared down death and found themselves indestructible. Chiseled, voluptuous, they were what the Greeks talked about in their ideals of beauty, and they were wearing firefighter uniforms. All the guys in the pizza shop wanted that woman, but she only had two questions: “How old are you?” and if the answer was over 18, “Do you want to make some money?”
They were so desperate for firefighters, they were literally pulling teenagers out of a pizza parlor to go fight fire. I was seventeen at the time, but I’ve often wondered about what happened to the people who took them up on their offer to fight the demon by night. Eat pizza at noon, fight fire by dusk?
And when the sun does set, the world is bathed in yellow and orange, backlit from the very smoke itself. Sunset in smoke looks like the worst kind of thunderstorm, the kind that make tornadoes, but there’s only the fire. The loss of the sun is one part terrifying and one part relief. The world is dark again, but you can watch the demons march.