Thanksgiving Drive Shows Us How Lucky We Are

IMG_20171123_141503571_HDR[1]If things had gone differently last summer, we might not have been eating Thanksgiving dinner at my brother’s house in Cathey’s Valley, California, down the hill from Yosemite.

The massive Dewiler fire, which came roaring through so fast people barely had time to get out of the way, burned up to the back gate of Mike’s housing development. It threatened to destroy the town of Mariposa where he works and forced him and his family to evacuate for a week, not knowing if they’d have a house to return to. The food in their refrigerator rotted while they crowded into my niece’s house with the dogs and the kids. Mike stood on Hornitos Road watching firefighters set backfires and helicopters drop retardant.

For over a month, they breathed smoke. Ash covered everything inside and out. The power poles and lines burned, so they didn’t have power for another week. When the fire was completely out in October, CalFire reported that it had burned 81,826 acres, It destroyed 63 homes, 67 minor structures, and one commercial structure. Mariposa survived, as did most of Cathey’s Valley, but the fire was huge, and no one who experienced it will ever forget.

It was only one of the many wildfires that ravaged the West this year. This one reportedly started with a gunshot that probably caused a spark and set the wild grass on fire.

While Thanksgiving dinner was cooking, Mike took Dad and me for a ride to see the burned area. It took a minute to recognize the damage. Nature is already starting to repair itself with hints of green grass sprouting up everywhere. The power company has replaced the damaged poles, and road workers have rebuilt the fences along the area’s narrow hillside roads. Much of the charred wreckage has been cleared away. But the burned ground is smooth, dark, and marbled-looking, and the trunks of the oaks are charred, their remaining leaves an odd shade of orange. Some of the fence posts are black. You round a bend and see a chimney sticking up. Down the road, a new mobile home sits where a house used to be. Around the next curve, a house that was saved sits surrounded by burnt ground.

Big signs along the road thank the firefighters for their help. First responders from all over the state fought that mega-fire.

Outside the burnt area, the yellow grass grows tall enough to hide my niece’s dachshund. Cows graze as usual. Wild turkeys that escaped Thanksgiving scurry through the oaks and pines looking for food. Alpacas soak in the mild sun at the alpaca farm down the road. Life goes on there, but for many miles, it will be years before it looks or feels anywhere near normal.

We had a lot to be thankful for as we gathered around the table to eat the food prepared by my sister-in-law and my niece and watched my niece’s baby taste his first stuffing and pumpkin pie. I wonder what the folks who weren’t so lucky were doing.

The day after Thanksgiving, Mike put a new chain on his chainsaw and went out to cut brush and fallen trees. Anything that might burn near the house has to go. One hopes it will never be as bad, but in that hot, dry country, fire is as expected as the rain falling here on the Oregon coast.

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Maybe we should change I-5 to "Dry-5"

Weed after the fire, Mt. Shasta in the background

View of Lake Shasta from the rest stop–no water

As I sit here on the Oregon coast with rain looming in the weather forecast, it’s hard to believe that I was in San Jose a little over a week ago, that the sun was shining every day and forecasts of rain were met with laughs because actual rain was so unlikely.

I spent 28 days back home helping my father, who broke his hip in late August. Dad, who is amazingly resilient, is healing well. Now we’re back to comparing weather over the phone. Those 700 miles make a big difference.

Me: It’s cold. I had to light up the pellet stove and turn on my electric blanket.
Dad: It’s hot! 91 degrees right now outside, and about 85 in the house. I’ve got all the fans going.
Me: They’re predicting rain here.
Dad: Hah. We don’t know what we’re going to do if we don’t get some water pretty soon. Send some down here.
Me: I’m trying, I’m trying. I keep telling the rain to go south.

Most of my trip between San Jose and South Beach takes place on Interstate 5. It’s a nice wide road with lots of rest stops and plenty of places to eat, sleep or shop. It’s also loaded with trucks and RVs.  I keep awake by playing “dodge-truck,” passing the slow-moving 18-wheelers, muttering when they try to pass each other and block all the lanes.

Traveling I-5 in the fall, it’s usually hot. But this year, the heat and the drought have had dramatic effects. Fire is a big problem. Watching the news, it seems as if half the state is burning. While I was in San Jose, one of those fires destroyed a large section of Weed. This town of 3,000 at the foot of Mt. Shasta is a place where we have often stopped on our trips.We have stayed in its motels, eaten in its restaurants and walked its streets. The news reports were awful. Homes, schools, and churches destroyed. Was anything left? I had to see. I also had to see Mt. Shasta, where it was reported a glacier at the top was melting, causing a giant mudslide.

As I headed north last week, tearful from saying goodbye to my father, the reporter in me was anxious to see what had happened while I was gone. Most of the way, nothing had changed. The hills and fields were brown. The cows still grazed and dozed in the sun. The road was still lined with trucks. It was still hot. Lake Shasta was still nearly empty, vast areas of exposed dirt between the road and the water.

Then I rounded a bend after Dunsmuir and there was Mt. Shasta. When I drove south in early September, the mountain was brown, except for a small area of white on the very top. Now it looked like someone had taken a giant knife and spread that white thinly down the sides of the mountain, almost to the base. It had melted like frosting on a cake left in the sun.

Then came Weed. I expected to see exits closed and signs covered, but no. I exited and found myself passing the usual restaurants, motels and businesses. Where was the fire? I drove a few miles north before I came upon charred hills and police cars blocking roads leading into the hills. Only residents were being allowed in. About two weeks after the fire, all I could see of what was left was . . . nothing where a whole neighborhood used to be. The ruins had been cleared away. What happened was tragic, 157 homes were destroyed, along with numerous commercial properties, including two churches, the library and part of the lumber mill, but most of Weed was still standing, still in business. They will rebuild. Meanwhile, I needed to drive on.

I spent the night in Yreka, the next town up from Weed, exactly halfway on my San Jose-South Beach run. Room 30 at the Best Western Miner’s Inn, dinner at the Purple Plum, a walk through the old gold rush town, some Internet, some TV, some sleep, and back on the road toward home.

Once I crossed into Oregon, the landscape turned green and clouds dotted the sky. Go south, I said, go south.