Randi Kreiss

In the eye of the western firestorm


We’ve been through a lot together, you and I. Now this.
As I wrote last week, my husband and I and Lillybee the dog headed out West to the Northern California mountains on Aug. 10. We drove from Denver through Cheyenne, Park City and Elko and arrived here in Tahoe-Donner on Aug. 20.
We’re in a rental house perched on stilts set into a hillside, a half-hour from anything, including our kids and grandkids, who live in a nearby town. They’re the reason we came, and they’re the reason we’re still here, 10 days into a month-long stay.
We’re in the throes of a wildfire emergency, officially declared by President Biden yesterday. Smoke obscures views of the mountains. The grandkids’ school opening was delayed. The smell of smoke is in our clothes, our hair and even on the dog. The Caldor and Dixie fires are raging around us, from 45 to 100 miles away. We’re told to stay inside, not exert ourselves and keep the windows closed.
The obvious move is to leave ASAP, but that means driving back to Denver in our rental car through areas that are now smoky as well. Our children surely aren’t ready to abandon their family home. We hate to run, since the wind could change in a week, and it could be healthy to resume normal outdoor life. We don’t know when we’ll have the chance to sit down at the same table again.

Our kids must figure out if their life out here is sustainable going forward. These fires aren’t going away, and it’s unlikely that it will be better next year. The snowpack has been lighter every winter, and the ground brush is drier. Tinder. No one has grass, just scrub around the homes, cut back for safety.
Back home, I know you’re struggling with the Delta variant and unusual heat. We Long Islanders have had our shared disasters, mostly hurricanes, and there will likely be more this season.
This is something else. People who live up here are tough and self-reliant, but everyone is shaken by the hazardous air quality and the danger of encroaching fires. We all have alerts set on our phones should the conditions get more dangerous. Ash falls out of the smoke clouds, irritating our eyes and throats.
We have captured some moments with the grandkids, some meals, a lot of time together playing Rummikub. They seem able to be outside longer than we can, younger lungs and all that. But they are tuned in to our talk about the smoke and fire and what the options are. These kids just lived through more than a year of relative isolation during the pandemic, and so much of their hope was invested in this summer, to do the swimming and rafting and hiking that is their reason for putting up with life in the semi-wilderness. All of our kids and grandkids have tolerated so much constraint and disappointment. I hope it makes them stronger.
To summon my own resolve, I’ve been reading about people who live in places where the geography or the weather or the terrain is a constant challenge and threat. Why do they stay? My husband and I can and probably will leave if the air remains unhealthy or the fires get worse; we have that option. Our kids will make their own calculation of risk vs. benefit of life in these mountains.
People live on the slopes of Mount Etna in Sicily, generation after generation, despite the inevitability of lava flows and ash that burn them out of their houses. They rebuild; they stay. Some say the reason is that the volcanic soil is fertile and produces the best olives and olive oil in the world. People in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., know for sure that periodic super-floods will drive them from their homes, but they come back and they build again. Why does anyone live in New Orleans? Or on any barrier island?
Why didn’t we all flee after Hurricane Sandy?
Ultimately, people look around and decide that the benefits outweigh the risk of living near a volcano or in a flood plain or on a fire-scarred mountaintop.
We would not have come to California now if we knew how the smoke and fire would look and feel and taste. The headline in the San Francisco Chronicle yesterday read: “Caldor Fire Knocking on the Door of Tahoe Basin.”
The fire is knocking, and there isn’t much here to keep it out. 

Copyright 2021 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at randik3@aol.com.


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