I promise this won’t be all smokey skies, but this is the current reality and sometimes one has to stop and capture even the unpleasant moments. These hills are quite close and usually distinctly visible. The good news is the sky did clear a bit again within a few hours of this photo so the sunset was reasonably clear…as seen in the shot of the early sunset taken just about five hours later. (Yes, trust me, a wind and maybe a pressure change really had cleared the sky – it’s a good touch more blue and less gray even if it doesn’t show on your screen…)
As a kid, one great pleasure of summer was sitting by a campfire: whether at sleep-away camp or a family camping trip; whether at a National Park campfire program (yes, some actually happened by real, live campfires when Mom took us out camping in the way-back-when…) or the local county park, you could pretty much always count on toasted marshmallows and that magical feeling fire inspires among most boys when it’s under control and after dark .
That was then. This is now. Now is, to be frank, a year which reminds of me of Queen Elizabeth’s declaration that 1992 was an “Annus Horribilis.” Heck, for me 1992 went pretty well because I recall getting tears in my eyes when Ohio’s electoral map went blue and I realized for the first time in my life there’d be an inhabitant of the white house who wouldn’t just hate and judge me for how I was born. (There were fewer letters in the acronym and far less widespread acceptance of us folks on the rainbow spectrum, back then.) But 2020? Definitely annus horribilis territory.
This week’s pile-upon A-H stressor in my home region of northern California? Unusually early wildfires caused by extremely unusual thunder and lighting on Sunday and again Monday last week, which were in turn caused by unusually early and extreme high heat. Sonoma County currently has two active wildfires which have caused a new wave of evacuation orders. This was not an annual occurrence, even just six years ago when I settled here. Yet still we have folks (one of them the current occupant of that house on Pennsylvania Avenue) intent upon denying evidence and steering us ever further into global-warming catastrophe.
It does all get a bit much at times, doesn’t it? There’s been more smoke in the air and bits of ash falling through the air than I myself have experienced, but that’s because I was back east for the worst of the 2017 fires near here. For those who haven’t lived through regional wildfires like this, when you hear smoke in the air don’t think about those summer campfires with a clear column of wood-smoke rising and leaving your clothes with that distinct smell. Think a very heavy misty presence of something that certainly smells fairly smokey but, here 20 or more miles from the current fire line nearest me, not as strong or obvious as those long-ago pleasant campfire smells. It’s heavy, bad for the lungs, oppressive to the spirit, and very visible in the sky – as witness these photos whose names all tell you when they were taken, between Tuesday and yesterday.
The first wildfires near me were sparked by lighting some time on Monday, but it was Tuesday evening that I first watched the sunset out my windows and realized the heavy horizon and dark sun meant more fire smoke. Now each day I check when I wake up, whether the smoke layer seems worse or better than the day before. In the mornings the air is usually much clearer – higher moisture in the air must bind the smoke and keep it closer to the ground or something like that. Yesterday evening was a pleasantly clear surprise, and this morning seemed fine enough that I chose to bike over to Sebastopol to grab a late-morning bite with friends…but then the smoke moved in fast, the air got thicker and yuckier, and biking back wasn’t quite so pleasant. And weather forecasters say there may be more lightning in the coming hours, possibly sparking yet more fires. Annus horribilis, anyone?
I hope to start posting more regularly, perhaps even daily if I get really organized. I’ve taken lots of prettier photos of nice things one can see on and around the bike trails, streets and parks of my home region which I’ve been gladly exploring by foot, bike and even occasionally car for the … seven weeks since I got home.
If you know anything about California today, it’s that we’ve had a lot of incredibly devastating wildfires recently. You’re perhaps less aware that we’ve also had floods and the kinds of landslide that result when the forests which stabilize slopes during heavy rain have been destroyed by fire. I could wax lyrical about the need for an evidence-based public policy, but we all know how far that’s going to get us in the current faith-based voter climate of battleground states like the state of my birth, so let’s just do a slide show instead, ok? 😊 When I flew home from Bangladesh suddenly in February, in order to be with Mom and (I thought) help nurse her back to strength through that clinical trial, I was trying to give myself enough time here at home in CA to steady my own nerves through my usual recourse to bike trails and tennis courts, while still spending most of my time in NJ with Mom. Thus, between February and April, I was back and forth a few times.
Two years ago I first learned of the big Santa Rosa-area fires when a friend from my local UU congregation called – as I sat in a doctor’s office with Mom – to ask if they could house displaced people in my apartment, since she knew I was away. During my times at home over the intervening two years I’ve tried when possible to keep photos of the natural and human environments I encounter. I’ve watched rains come, trees recover or give up the ghost, rocks recover their envelopes of moss, and I’ve been grateful that the heavy rains haven’t (so far) caused any bad landslides that I know of in my own area.This time, while I was out east, it was more about floods that I learned: one town in my county was reachable only by boat for a couple of days, since the flooded Russian River had risen above all the roads leading to it. And any time there was a long-enough break in the rain for me to hop on the bike and head out, I grabbed camera and/or phone and headed out. Here are the results, below…and after that, some post-fire regrowth and rebuild images as well, which I’ll likely caption and explain when we get to them. Sorry this is a long post…but it’s been a while. Hope you find it interesting.
And moving on the aspect of more obvious post-fire recovery, I’ve been really amazed at how rapidly the scars on the natural landscape have become less visible. A friend said I should find a specific location to watch, so I found my little “fire-line rock” to follow. I posted a gallery last year, showing photos taken over the first twelve months, as the visible burn line on its moss vanished; I also watched the trail uphill from where this rock grows, as the meadows lost their cover of charcoal and trees either regrew or gave up and died. After this text, you will see first a video taken after one of the rainy days earlier, about 2km or 1.5 miles downhill from the fire line rock. After that I’ve copied the same gallery from last October, with the addition of some new photos taken two weeks ago, so 21 months or so after the rock sat on the burning fire line. I can’t even tell which rock it is, any more – did the winters incredibly heavy rains move the rocks or have they just all gone back to their natural dry-season similarity? Not sure…and didn’t get up there when it was wetter, precisely because it was so wet and muddy :-). After that are some other post-fire shots both close up and farther away. Right now, in dry season especially, I have to look closely to see the charring on tree trunks that have already begun to regrow…
In the photo just above we are looking west on the Canyon Trail, which was the fireline when the Nuns fire was stopped before it had a chance to merge with the Tubbs fire, in November 2017. The meadow to the left of the trail burned; to the right, it didn’t. If curious, you can look at photos taken on a hike shortly after this part of the park was reopened, and compare things then and now, in this post from that time: https://somuchworldsolittletime.com/2017/11/13/walking-the-fire-line-in-annadel/
Look closely at this post’s first photo, and you will notice drier, browner patches in the mountains on the far side of the valley. Those are from the Tubbs fire, which in early October burned such a path of destruction in and around Santa Rosa. When that fire struck I was on the east coast visiting my mother, who’s had some health issues of her own. In early December, I got out to Anadel again with a good MSF friend & colleague (see photo below). She had recommended that I pick a specific view or area to photograph as I get out and about in Santa Rosa and watch the process of regrowth. (Anadel is the state park affected by the Nunns fire, which was separated at one point from the Tubbs Fire only by the valley you see in that first photo.)
I’ve followed her advice – did so, in fact, the morning we took this photo. Further down you’ll see a gallery of square photos, three in a row. You’ll notice a rock there with a clear burn mark across the moss: I plan to photograph this rock any time I’m up there in the coming year or so. As with these two, I’ll title the photos with dates, so I and any interested readers can watch the process of regrowth. It seems nature is faster at rebuilding — it seems to happen…well, naturally there. The many destroyed homes I bicycle past when going about my appointed rounds seem to still be under review by claims adjusters, and a friend who lost his home tells me there are various safety requirements to be met prior to fully launching a rebuild. (In particular around possible toxics from burnt homes in the soil, I think?) Still, though, I figure we’re likely to see a significant building boom by the middle of the new year.
The BBC tells me that Prince Harry (he of UK fame) recently did a radio show where he spoke with (among others) President Barack Obama, truly a class act whom I and millions of Americans miss greatly. Harry asked about finding hope when times are tough. I’ve found myself talking about the same topic a lot with friends at home — friends whose homes burned, friends who had to evacuate. All of them friends who, like me, find the dishonest bully currently in the white house quite distressing and depressing. I take comfort in signs of growth and connection where I can. I choose to believe that there is at least as much generosity and kindness in this country and this world, as there is sadness and loss. May 2018 prove me right for us all on this blue ball spinning through space :-).
The cal-fire site tells me that the Nuns fire complex ultimately burned 56,556 acres. The final report date on the site is November 6, which I suppose means it was 100% contained or fully extinguished on or before that date. Earlier, I’d assume, since the superintendent of Annadel State Park allowed parts of the park to reopen for hikers, bikers and runners on the 5th if I understood the signs well.
My last post contained all the photos I’d taken in Sonoma County between returning from Haiti (late April), and the day of the post. Today, I’m posting almost entirely photos taken yesterday in my beloved nearby State Park. Annadel is a gem on the eastern edge of Santa Rosa which has been a key source of recreation and mental-health management for me here in Santa Rosa. The fire burned through about 2/3 of it, and if the wonderful fire fighters (see thank you signs from my last post) hadn’t stopped it where they did, then it would have destroyed many homes near the park, and I guess there was a very real risk this fire complex would merge with the Tubbs complex, which had already destroyed so much to the north in Santa Rosa.
With many of the trails open, I got out there again yesterday to appreciate the park and take stock of the damage. I try to find silver linings: that it WAS stopped here is a silver lining; that green shoots are already sprouting among the charred grasses is also good to see. (See the round gallery a little lower down.) The rainy season has come – it’s sprinkling as I type this – and so we must hope for enough rain to allow plants to re-grow strong…but not so much as to cause too many land slides in all the newly-vulnerable areas whose trees and grasses have been burned.
If you look closely, you will really see how rapidly the fire passed through (burned areas surrounding unburned patches), plus the stark line where they stopped the fire: trees charred on the south side, still green moss on the north side. Rocks the same way. Since I already wrote more in the last post, I’ll leave it here for now. Gratitude, shock, slow return to regular life, I guess. Peace, everyone. Most photos have titles that’ll tell you what they are or why I selected them.
Can you spot the photo in the gallery above is not taken in Anndel? It’s this entry’s tribute to our first-responders. 🙂
In a post last year, I did a selfie while taking a breakfast break lying on one of these two tables, at the junction of Marsh & Canyon trails. Canyon was the fire line through this portion of the park — the photo above, here, with straw over where fire fighters had widened the line is on Canyon trial, west of this point. To compare then and now, check this link or others labeled Annadel, or Sonoma County, or Napa & Sonoma (I need to work on my tags…) — https://somuchworldsolittletime.com/2016/08/19/dry-hillsides-live-oaks/
For a lot of reasons, I tend to hide the personal me on this blog – focusing instead on the remarkable people I’ve worked with & places I’ve been. The personal me is by nature a fairly private individual, even if I occasionally manage public coherence when speaking about my work experiences. With this post, I’m making exceptions to a few of my usual rules: I’m taking photos out of order, so as to include photos taken this very morning (rather than continuing to work my way forward from late May, when I took those last photos I posted from Beacon, NY)…and it’s more than usually about me and the community I’ve called home since 2014.
The place I call home is Santa Rosa: county seat and geographic heart of Sonoma County, a lovely small city nestled between mountain ranges, surrounded by parks (state, city and county), blessed with farmers who plant and grow the most delicious fruits and vegetables and bring them to us at year-round farmer’s markets, with vineyards that produce fantastic wines, with so many breweries & brewpubs that it’s an embarrassment of riches. We’re blessed with bike paths, with urban planners who let the traffic lights notice the small profile of a biker as well as the larger profile of a car…meaning I can make a left turn without having to get off my bike and press for the walk signal at most intersections.
…look closely in the photo above and you will see some blackened patches, not far from roofs of houses built up against the edge of the park on the lower slopes of those hills. I’ve had camera trouble (an SD card went haywire) so I had to re-do these photos with the wrong light and I can’t get back out there again soon when the light’s better…so, sorry for the lower quality of today’s photos.
Here in Santa Rosa I’ve been able to hop on my bike, take to the hills and work through whatever stress and sadness have accumulated through the work I do. I’ve grown accustomed to working in places which are in the headlines – a year ago, I was living in Port au Prince when hurricane Matthew struck; just two months ago, I was in Sierra Leone when a landslide & flood killed hundreds in an instant. I had not thought to have friends texting and writing to ask if I was safe at my home in Santa Rosa – but that’s what happened, Monday the 9th of October as I sat with my mother in a doctor’s office on the other side of the continent. First, friends called to ask if they could offer my apartment (empty, since I was away helping my mother with some medical challenges) to people suddenly evacuated because of the literal fire storm which with shocking speed consumed homes, lives, hotels, and businesses overnight from late on Sunday the 8th into the 9th. Then other friends began texting, to ask whether my own home was affected. And there I was, a few thousand miles away with other commitments.
I returned home six days ago, and have been taking stock of this city & county I’m so happy to call home and pay my taxes in…since, after all, it’s those wonderful county taxes which support our wonderful firefighters and responders, I assume. I’m offering here a range of photos, all taken between late April (when I returned after the end of my assignment in Haiti) and this morning. Each photo has a file name which will tell you what it is – and usually when it is. 171027 means this morning, 2017 – 10 – 27, and so on.
Since I have reading friends and followers around the world, let me explain a bit: California (especially the coastal parts, but really most of the state) gets all of its (limited) rain in the months from October to April. Usually it’s really November to March. Our plant and animal communities – from the famous redwood trees to our mountain lions and California poppies – have evolved around these extremes of wet and dry, with fire as a critical part of the ecostystem. Redwoods, I believe, thrive on flash fires – which clear away their competition in rapid brush fires which they can easily survive. Caveat: I’m not an expert on this stuff, but am trying to remember what I’ve read in park signs and articles. I’m quite certain that fire has been part of the native ecosystems here since long before even the first Native Americans arrived in what’s now Sonoma County – let alone before the first Europeans interlopers arrived just a handful of centuries ago, when most redwoods still standing were already mature.
The first photo in this post was taken in Annadel State Park in late April – at the end of the wettest rainy season we’ve seen in many years. Of course, that rain meant we had lots of new growth this year. And of course, we had our usual dry season which led to the brown hills with dusty green of scrub oaks and lots of dry new growth, which you’ll see in other posts. Look closely at the photo just below, and you’ll see how the grass burned on the hills of Annadel just above a city park where I often play tennis. It’s fairly common for parks to burn, this late in the dry season. It’s not at all common for a firestorm to erupt and spread so very rapidly under heavy winds. Friends who were here at the time, and who were evacuated, tell stories of going to bed aware of heavy winds, waking up to the sound of neighbors knocking on doors and/or loading their cars with family and pets then driving off, at 3 in the morning. I do not have the heart to show the destruction to property and homes: those photos are already out there, and for me to pile on feels disrespectful to the members of my adopted community who have lost so much. I am worried about one of my favorite farmers, who grows in the northern part of Santa Rosa where the first fires were at their most intense. (It’s her produce you see in one of the photo galleries further down – from figs to aubergine/eggplant and peppers.) I hope when I next make it to the farmer’s market, I’ll learn that she and her farm and family are all OK.
This is already a longer post than usual – and as you see, I’m throwing in a range of photos I’ve taken throughout Sonoma County since returning from Haiti in April. Why? I’ve been fearful about the health of people I love, from my mother to friends here in Santa Rosa, to a dear family friend who passed away last month. And I’ve certainly been fearful for the homes and lives of my community here – including my own home, which has remained untouched (knock wood) but was much too close for comfort.
At the same time I have been heartened, as always, by the magnificence of fall foliage both on the east coast (New York, New Jersey) and here in Santa Rosa. By the enduring refuge of nature and the cycles of our planet which so greatly outstrips my own small life and experience. I take comfort from understanding myself as one transient element of a planet and a universe I find beautiful and enduring, and which I hope future generations will enjoy long after my own molecules have reassembled elsewhere. I also remember that at most times, even in places affected by great crisis, most people are doing their best to get on with life, feeding their kids and wiping their noses.
A thing I’ve loved about Santa Rosa & Sonoma county since first introducing myself here is how warm and friendly people are. This is reflected, I think, in the fact that I see signs everywhere thanking our first responders: the fire, police, emergency-response and support professionals who have deployed from communities near and far to limit damage, hold fires back from property and lives as much as possible, and help everyone react and adjust as well as we all can. I interpret this not only as gratitude that they’ve helped save so much, but also as refusal to give in to fear, insistence on seeing hope and opportunity rather than only loss or worry. These are, in the end, individual choices each of us must make: live in fear or live in hope? My favorite park is closed until further notice – but I’ve learned again how many of us love that park (see the sign with heart saying we love Anndell, noted on a fence not far from me). Being redirected to other bike paths and parts of town also helps me see and learn anew – for example, that our city has provided a fly-casting pond where folks walk their dogs and practice their fly-casting techniques for their next trip to the trout streams. So, despite a worried heart about people at risk or dealing with loss, both near and far…I find faith that the sun will rise again tomorrow, that we’ll find our way through these difficult patches, and that somehow we’ll rebuild and restore balance and harmony, first in our community and then, perhaps, elsewhere on a fractious globe. Peace, out.