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  • Writer's pictureMarilyn DuHamel

Fire Series #1: Lit Up

Updated: Dec 19, 2020

Lightning storm ignites CZU Lightning Complex Fire in Santa Cruz Mountains.

This is the first of several pieces that have emerged from my experiences living through the CZU Lightning Complex Fire in the Santa Cruz Mountains west of the Bay Area. I am so incredibly fortunate to still have my home to return to, yet nevertheless, nothing is the same, not inside me, nor around me. It’s taken awhile to find words, and at the same time, there was nothing else I could write about.

I'M SOUND ASLEEP, so many layers down that I have to drag myself up to the surface as my dog nuzzles my face and anxiously barks. I glance out my window, puzzled that my yard is visible, as if there were a full moon. A closer look reveals heat lightning pulsing above the far horizon, its light reflecting off the clouds above it. I quickly abandon the dream state I was protecting. A real thunderstorm!

I discover the power is already out as I fumble for Benny’s training treats. Only seven months old, he’s still discovering what is safe or scary. While he may never relish a wild storm like I do, I don’t want him to be terror stricken like my last dogs.

I position myself at the side deck railing. It’s 3 a.m. and no longer 108 degrees out, but it’s not a lot cooler. The sultry wind wraps around my bare limbs, and as it gusts the slender trees bend, tips curved over toward the ground. Why can I see this so clearly? The undifferentiated sheet lightning is a few miles away, but somehow provides continuous illumination. Facing west, I scan my 180-degree view and am surprised to see individual lightning bolts flashing the entire length of this low coastal mountain ridgeline, while waves of thunder cascade and overlap.

Benny is excited, on the verge of agitation. I feed him extra treats when the lightning is blindingly close, activating deafening booms that ripple through my bones. I am stunned by the ferocity and relentless pace as simultaneous bolts now zigzag from cloud to ground while massive horizontal displays arrow across great swaths of the night sky. I haven’t seen a thunderstorm like this in decades. Another bolt strikes close. One-thousand-one, one-thousand-two, one-thousand-three. BOOM! I remember the five-seconds-to-a-mile rule from my days as a fire lookout in my twenties.

Ah, this is what my skin has thirsted for, what my ears craved, my eyes sought. This fierce intensity. I repeatedly gasp. I laugh out loud. It’s now 4 a.m., but I don’t want to go inside, I don’t want to miss a moment, in fact I want to amplify it. That’s the seduction of wild zones.

I snap a leash on Benny and the two of us find our way up the trail to the tiny hut my son built. It’s perched for maximum views, has a narrow deck that holds a chair, and a bed inside where we can retreat if driven by hard rain or sleepiness. Benny gnaws on a bone, his crunching syncopating with splattering rain on the metal roof.

Tom Head Lookout Tower in Shasta-Trinity National Forest
Tom Head Lookout, Trinity National Forest

As my eyes sweep from north to south, my lookout tower skills, honed over several seasons with the Forest Service, click back into place. My little hut is much smaller than the room at the peak of the Trinity National Forest fire tower where I lived alone for weeks at a time. I can almost feel my hand twirling the metal azimuth situated in the center of the room, a surveying device for pinpointing narrow plumes of smoke as small lightning fires uncurl after a storm. I remember how I memorized the topography maps of the endless ridges, peaks and ravines in every direction, so that when I located a fire I could call in the exact location on the radio. “This is Tom Head Peak, fire spotted at 273 degrees, 3 ½ miles in the Washoe drainage.” The azimuth gave me the arc degrees but not the distance. That’s where the skill came in. Most of the fire towers were “manned” by older couples that had worked their tower for decades, knowing the land like their backyard. It was easy to be discounted as the newcomer, especially being a young woman, so I worked extra hard, indulging my love of maps.

Benny brings me back to the present, looking to me for guidance during a cluster of bolts resembling the end of a fireworks display. I reassure Benny it will all be ok, that we are safe here under the eaves, the rain merely tickling our fur and skin.

LITTLE DID I KNOW at that moment that everything would not be okay, not in my nearby communities nor in much of northern California. In fact, the seeds of devastation had been planted as the countless cloud-to-ground lightning strikes struck trees dried out from drought and days of searing heat - only needing a day to simmer and then erupt throughout my local mountains. Scarlet flames would soon be incinerating the surrounding ground cover and forests, consuming acreage like an avenging dragon.

Now, returning home after twelve days of evacuation, several of those days certain I had lost my house, I feel a bit guilty and certainly foolish as I reread this elated journal entry. I was so enamored, so naïve.

If I remembered the azimuth, why didn’t I also remember the thunderstorm that sat on top of my lookout tower, the one where I madly spun the azimuth, locating 110 strikes in every direction while perched on a “lightning stool” with glass jars for legs. The storm where I witnessed huge trees exploding, some catapulted into the air, and then fourteen small fires starting immediately after the storm moved on. What happened to the memory of the all-male fire crew slowly sauntering up to my tower, thinking this new hire didn’t know what she was doing, until they looked out my windows and cried, Holy shit! And then being mesmerized as helicopters hovered, dropping fire crews and water on each fire.

I should have known we might be in big trouble, but somehow this land, near big cities, seemed tame compared to the remote mountains in Shasta-Trinity and Klamath National Forest where I worked. One lookout tower in the Yolla-Bolly Wilderness Area was so inaccessible they used mules to transport me and my month’s worth of rations.

Photo of Fire Lookout Tower in Yolla-Bolly Wilderness Area in Trinity National Forest. Alpine setting above timberline.
My lookout tower in Yolla-Bolly Wilderness Area. Photo by author.

The truth is, I am easily seduced by nature’s intensity. I like to be overpowered, to be overwhelmed by the force and brilliance of the elements.

And now it would be easy to feel betrayed. I surrendered to the experience and then within a few days I was filling my car with belongings. Everything, my house, the land I love, the community of wild animals - rabbits, foxes, lizards, quail - that I track and couldn’t imagine my life without, my surrounding communities, all threatened.

But even if I had known what was coming, what would that have changed? Many of my friends also witnessed the indescribable beauty in the skies that night, all of us in a kind of rapture before such a rare and monumental display of natural forces. Would I, or others, have been any safer, would there have been any benefit in not fully experiencing those moments, joyous with each blinding strike and crack of thunder, with the sultry air stirring my skin, the trees swaying, and that eerie light?

Even though outright horror followed, those two hours were filled with undeniable magic. Like in a braid, the separate strands of peril and wonder intertwine.

Nature doesn’t keep score like we do. Similar to a very young child or a wild animal, it doesn’t try to be fair, it just responds, fully and completely, without regard or malice for us humans, reminding us that we are not the center of the world. Certainly we have impact: climate change, overpopulation, habitat exploitation, all the actions we take and fail to take. And then nature does what it does. How could it be otherwise? A storm must storm, water must flow, fire must burn. And we humans? We watch, we have feelings, we try to understand. Like tracking one of the wild animals who lives nearby, I try to track myself as all around me the natural world responds in ways that are restorative and threatening, dazzling and heartbreaking. What have I learned?

Audio: If you would like to listen to me reading the piece, click the play button.

Photos: Lightning photo courtesy of Skeez at pixabay. Tom Head Lookout image is a Forest Service photo taken decades after I worked there. In the 70's there were no solar panels and only a basic outhouse some distance from the tower. I took the photo of the lookout tower in the Yolla-Bolly Wilderness Area in the late 70's.


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