West Coast Reflections on Natural Disasters and Life's Impermanence

Life on the West Coast carries the risk of fire, earthquakes, volcanoes and flood. This part of the planet—where a natural disaster can occur at any moment—reminds us that we don't own it; we're just visiting.

| March/April 1990

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    When a disaster threatens, and you've had ample warning, the question becomes: What do you save?

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San Anselmo, CA—One warm evening a couple of summers ago, Julia and I looked up at the ridge across the wooded canyon our house is built on and saw a red glow that shouldn't have been there. The sun had gone behind the hill to our right, leaving just the deepening blues and greens of dusk.

"That's a fire," she said. "Oh, damn."

Julia went to the telephone to make sure the neighbors knew. I climbed to the roof with a hose, hating to waste water but aiming to wet down some surfaces. Here in northern California we were in the middle of a three-year drought, and voluntary cutbacks on water use would soon roll over into enforced rationing. Every living thing in the canyon was crackling dry. If the fire blew downhill to the bottom, it would surely race up our side and turn the house to ash and smoke. No amount of wetting down would save it in such a fire storm, but spraying had quenched embers dropped on us by the last fire nearby.

"This may be melodramatic, but I'm going to pack some things in the car in case we have to run," Julia called from the deck. We heard the pumpers growl as the blaze roared higher. This was no brushfire; somebody's house was burning. I gave the roof and deck a last spray and climbed down to get in on the decision-making. What was Julia packing? A few days' worth of comfortable clothes. Photo albums. Twenty-four years of diaries. Her tiny handful of jewelry.

I tried to decide what was both portable, besides the obvious clothes, and irreplaceable. Computer disks, not the computer. A few pounds of research notes. The folder stuffed with tax receipts. The Rolodex. My grandfather's pocket watch. The tape recorder . . . no. Can't take it all. We looked around at our dear, modest little house with its layers of memory, with its books, records, paintings, furniture I'd made, family photos on the kitchen bulletin board, souvenirs of friends and trips, plants, radios and television sets and musical instruments, Julia's parents' refrigerator, all reminders of moments in our life together. The workaday things could be replaced. Most of the rest couldn't. We said good-bye to them.

The neighbors, meanwhile, were turning the menace into a social event. They'd gathered down the street a ways where everyone could see through a gap in the trees; once packed, we wandered down and watched as the fire fighters kept the flames away from the foliage. In an hour or so, they put them out.

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