When I last lived in the Mt. Shasta area, smoke from fires farther south was omnipresent. My dear friend in Dunsmuir, south of the town of Mount Shasta, was on alert for many days. She had things packed in her Toyota Tacoma, ready to evacuate at a moment’s notice. It was, she reported, nervewracking. Now, four years later, staying with a friend in Lake Shastina on the northern edge of the town of Weed, CA, was the first time I was afraid for a friend’s life. Andree had received the evacuation order and I was, as it so happened, down in Dunsmuir that day.
After I got the call, I raced toward her home. Andree is very capable, but she’s also 77-years-old and I desperately wanted to be there to help. I drove 80 mph, knowing that the police were too busy working alongside the fire companies to bother with a mere speeder. However, even driving at high speeds, I couldn’t make it there in time to help. The police were, understandably, already routing people away from her neighborhood. I phoned Andree, half hoping to get a hold of her, half hoping she wouldn’t take the time to answer. She answered. I told her I couldn’t get to her as all the roads in were blocked. She said she would keep packing and suggested we meet at the Walmart in Yreka. I urged her to pack the animals and GO!
I drove north to Yreka and, not knowing whether we’d be able to get to her friend in Redding or whether we’d have to camp for several days, I bought a lot of food and other essentials. I had my minivan already packed with a tent and campstove from my own travels. I further stocked up on simple food, silverware, toilet paper, toiletries, and pet food. I had no idea what she’d have time to pack. My hope was that she would grab some food for the animals and her dog and cat and just get out of there! But bless her heart, she was more diligent than that. She packed her computer, important documents, food for the animals, and some sacred items, while also taking the time to pack my clothes, toiletries, and laptop, bless her dear heart. She later told me she was one of the last to leave the larger neighborhood. (This means, my fears were warranted! She is very thorough and methodical, which are not the best qualities in the face of an urgent evacuation!)
I later realized I was stress shopping. This is not something I’m prone to do. In fact, I very seldom shop at all except for groceries and bare essentials. But for hours, literally, I didn’t know whether or not she and the animals had made it out in time. I called several times and she wasn’t answering her phone. And so, heart in my throat, I shopped. I tried to meditate while shopping, but was completely unsuccessful. I was not in an equanimous state of mind.
Having bought more than was necessary (thank goodness I’d received a paycheck the day before), I found a spot of shade in which to park behind a parked tractor trailer and next to a small tree. I had purchased a simple folding chair because I’d left mine back in Andree’s backyard. I sat in my chair and sipped iced tea and drank several bottles of water while anxiously scanning the parking lot for her car. I remember I could not quench my thirst that day, and my lips were almost unbearably dry. I later learned the humidity was a mindblowing 4% that day. Along with temperatures in the high 90s, dry vegetation from a prolonged drought, and high winds, the whole area was a tinderbox.
I don’t remember the last time I was this worried. Normally I am filled with a great amount of faith. Anyway, about two and a half hours later, I finally had the thought, I bet she forgot her phone. This turned out to be the case! I was walking back into the Walmart to go to the bathroom when I saw Andree sitting in the customer service area. JOY! I gave her such a huge hug!
Eventually, many stories later, we made our way down to Redding in order to stay with her childhood friend. There we passed time until we got word one way or the other. It was four full days before we got a text (on her friend’s phone) that her house was “still standing” and that we could return home.
The next day, we headed back to her home, driving the serpentine roads that took us north to Mt. Shasta, Weed, and Lake Shastina. Along the way we passed the Sacramento River, Lake Shasta (which looked very low), endless beautiful pine trees, and several areas which had been burned four years ago. I was delighted to notice young saplings were growing where bare blackened tree trunks stood.
On the drive, there were a few, precious few, raindrops. I had begun to do a simple chant while driving, but almost without realizing it, it began to turn into a song for rain. “May it rain, may it rain, may it rain….” By the time we reached Dunsmuir, a meditative song/prayer for rain had materialized. If you’d like to hear the entire song, click HERE.
As we drove into the town of Weed, I began to look for signs of fire. I wasn’t exactly sure where the mill had been. When we got through the center of town and continued north on Route 97, there were signs telling us not to stop for the next two miles. And then we saw it: the absolute devastation of two neighborhoods, completely obliterated, just a jumble of beams and soot and burned out vehicles. Bless, bless those dear people. May they get all the support they need in order to build a new life. (And I think they might. Weed, the state of California, and the Red Cross have a lot of support systems in place.)
Meanwhile, in the midst of devastation were a fair number of miracle stories. For one, Andree’s home was completely unscathed, although a neighbor reports that there was a burned home not 1000′ away. Secondly, one of Andree’s friends, a gentleman who volunteers with the local food bank, reported that he was amazed to discover his home intact when all of the neighboring homes had burned. Apparently the fire company had, for some reason, decided to use his property as a base for fighting the fire. Water cannons and hoses were stationed both on the ground and on the roof of his house. Someone told him that, at one point, a crowd of animals had found their way to his yard, seeking refuge from the fire. Apparently there had been “dozens” of deer, squirrels, rabbits, and birds–all of them trying desperately to keep safe. What a picture that must have been! So glad these dear creatures survived.
My understanding of some of the factors contributing to the prevalence of wildfires is:
- Obviously, global warming is contributing to record-breaking heat as well as long-lasting droughts.
- We have not been using the time-honored tactics of controlled burns that the indigenous people used. (This involves intentionally creating gentle, low-intensity fires in order to burn the underbrush which is the tinder that really escalates a wildfire.)
- As more and more land is subdivided into private property, it is more difficult to have a unified fire prevention strategy in place.
- So much water from the great rivers of the West has been diverted to big cities like Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Instead of leaving the water upstream where it can benefit the land, animals, and people there, it is used to fill swimming pools and water millions of green lawns and elaborate landscapes in the middle of a region which is, actually, desert. To read one article about how urban residents are actually using more water in the face of drought, click HERE.
So, friends, what can we do?
- Longterm, I imagine it would be wise if humankind stopped building homes in the drought-stricken West. It doesn’t seem like these fires will stop any time soon.
- Meanwhile, let’s continue to have great compassion for all those who have suffered–human and animal alike. Let’s help one another as best as we can. To see some ways you can assist, click HERE.
- I firmly believe in the power of both prayer and appreciation. Be grateful for the water you are blessed to have access to. Appreciate the rivers, streams, and aquifers which supply our life-giving water. And kindly pray for rain for those who are suffering from drought.
Cover image: Sometimes terrifying fires can be hauntingly beautiful. This was taken while driving north through Siskiyou County in the evening on the way back to Lake Shastina. (All photos are mine unless otherwise specified.)