On a week when my 12-year-old son is starting the new school year with an untested model of remote learning amid a raging pandemic, he and I stare out the picture window of our Napa, California, home at a terrifyingly familiar sight.
Miles away, across Napa Valley where ripening grapes are starting to be harvested without the usual hordes of tourists, a massive smoke plume from an out-of-control wildfire towers in the sky.
“Oh no,” Jack says, stamping his feet. He asks if we should call a relative to ask about using her vacation home on the Central Coast, like we have in the past when we have been forced to flee smoke and flames.
At night, an orange glow illuminates the ridgeline, invoking terror. I grab the ladder and climb on our roof, feeling a familiar sense of helplessness over the view of flames ripping through bone-dry forest, threatening lives and homes. In October 2017, I watched a blaze from the same vantage point race along a similar path, fueled by hurricane-force winds. I did not sleep that night, or for many nights after. And now when I go to bed, my cellphone is close by, in anticipation of the public safety alert warning us to evacuate.
These are red-flag days, when a combination of summer heat, low humidity and strong winds create dangerous conditions for wildfires. The wildfires burning in wine country and elsewhere in the Bay Area this week north of San Francisco were sparked during freak thunderstorms. The only surprise for us living here would have been had there been no fires.
The fires raging near our home are so numerous and large the state’s fire agency now refers to them collectively as the LNU Lightning Complex fires. The whap-whap-whap of helicopters is a familiar sound, as are “hi-lo” sirens, which our sheriff’s office uses to warn residents who may have lost power or have no cell access to evacuate.
The sirens are among the more recent developments after years living with destructive wildfires. Three years ago, on that Sunday night when the worst wildfires in California history (at the time) broke out, my wife and our two kids enjoyed dinner with several other couples at a friend’s home at the base of Atlas Peak, northeast of Napa city limits. The mountain, rising above the exclusive Silverado Country Club and Resort, is as beautiful as it is notorious, the site of a 1981 wildfire that burned 20,000 acres in a single afternoon.
A few hours after the dinner party, I texted my friend to tell him how much we enjoyed the gathering. He texted back a photo of flames on the mountain, followed nine minutes later with another message:
“OMG inferno. We got out with what we were wearing.”
My wife and I did not have time to reflect on our shock. At midnight, a Pacific Gas & Electric worker turned the power off to our neighborhood from the transformer in front of our home. He said he’d be back in a few hours to flip the switch back on. We were without power for a week.
At daybreak, we saw what we had been choking on all night, an acrid, enveloping fog of fire smoke. Concerned for our children’s health, we hastily packed and drove to my relative’s home in Santa Cruz, where we found relief from the toxic air. But feelings of guilt for having abandoned our community lingered. And to this day, the smell of smoke triggers alarm in all of us.
We have been fortunate. Across four wine country counties in 2017, more than 6,200 homes were lost and 40 lives taken over the course of 23 days when fires raged across the landscape.
We have become accustomed to this seasonal reality, of the Nixle alerts, evacuation warnings and orders, of awaking in the morning to find our windshields dusted with ash.
This week, amid a sweltering heat wave gripping Northern California, the power at our Napa home went out Tuesday evening around dinnertime. As my wife brought out candles and lanterns, I walked down the street to my neighbor Ernie’s house to borrow one of his generators. At 79, he struggled to help me lift the heavy device onto a hand truck. He and I both wore masks, not as protection from smoke, but against infection.
A former Marine and military cop, Ernie is not anyone you’d want to mess with. But even prior to this latest round of wildfires and the worry they bring, COVID-19 was proving a formidable foe for my neighbor, forcing him to stay mostly at home and give up beloved hobbies to limit his risk of exposure. The fires are forcing him to retreat even further.
And yet, when I ask, Ernie tells me he’s “better than I deserve to be.” Or he expresses thanks to God for keeping him alive another day.
As of Tuesday, Napa County has had 1,264 confirmed COVID cases, with 13 deaths, including two reported Monday. The numbers landed us on a state watchlist, meaning for now we can’t do things like dine-in at restaurants, work out at gyms or attend worship services.
The time-honored tradition of back-to-school haircuts? Not this year. My son, who is at an age when his appearance is starting to matter, complains daily about his shaggy locks. He tells me he’s embarrassed to be seen in public, and not in a joking way.
Our kids are starting the school year without stepping foot onto campus, as fires rage, friends flee their homes and as power intermittently goes out. Our air conditioner, a small unit in the kitchen window, provides modest cooling, and by mid-afternoon, the temperature in our house soars to the mid-80s or higher.
At night, window fans blow in cooler air, and the faint smell of smoke.
During previous fires, we invited our neighbors into our home. Without power and cell phone service due to towers being destroyed in the blazes, we received updates from Napa’s local radio station on my transistor radio. Mostly it was residents calling in to share what they were seeing or hearing.
With the pandemic, however, our house is off-limits, furthering a collective sense of isolation. Cooling centers have been established for those who are vulnerable to the heat, but taking advantage of them comes with the risk of COVID-19 exposure.
Earlier this year, when it seemed clear the pandemic was headed our way, I began gathering emergency supplies and a go-box should we need to leave our house in a hurry. I also purchased life insurance in the event something happens to me.
We still gather on our driveway with our neighbors most evenings, to share a drink and stories about our day. Last night, we watched the sun set in a haze of smoke and the plume above the mountain slowly fade to black. Followed by the terrifying orange glow along the ridge.
Now when Claire, our 10-year-old daughter, goes outside to play with her neighborhood friends, we weigh the risks of potentially exposing her to a pandemic versus the long-term health damage of her breathing air tinged with ash and smoke. Tomorrow Claire, too, begins school, the fifth grade, remotely by logging onto a computer.
Hopefully the power stays on.
Derek J. Moore is a Napa-based freelance writer who was awarded a Pulitzer Prize along with staff of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat (Sonoma County) for breaking news coverage of Northern California wildfires in 2017.