Wait, watch and worry: My encounter with California’s ever-present wildfire threat reality

The Anzar fire erupted on Thursday afternoon just east of Aromas, in San Benito County.
(Via Tina Baine)

We’re well aware of the global climate crisis and the heightening risks of fire in the Golden State. But when the plumes of smoke appear outside our own windows, the questions become immediate and personal, Wallace Baine writes after fire broke out last week near Aromas.

I fantasize that, sometime late Thursday afternoon, Gov. Gavin Newsom uttered the words, “Where the hell is Aromas?”

Wallace

Of course, he was surely not the only one. At about the same time, hundreds, if not thousands — maybe hundreds of thousands — were saying or thinking the same thing when a wildfire ignited in Aromas, burning more than 100 acres, destroying at least one structure, and bringing about the evacuation of many living things, human and otherwise.

For the record, Aromas is a speck of a town that sits right atop the point where Santa Cruz County, San Benito County and Monterey County meet (and Santa Clara County is just a bit up the road). It’s one of the most serene and picturesque spots in all of central California. And it’s also my home.

We in Aromas are not particularly close to anything — Watsonville is about 7 miles away. There is pretty much zero encroachment from the suburbanized world in the hills that make up Aromas. The sun will likely go nova before a Starbucks or a Chipotle or even a stoplight would ever come to town.

So when Aromas makes headlines, that can’t be good. And last Thursday? That wasn’t good.

It was sometime in the early afternoon when I mentioned to my wife, Tina, a piece I had read that morning from the San Francisco Chronicle about the “eerily quiet” fire season in California so far. Thus, by the transitive properties of the infallible cause-and-effect phenomenon known as “jinxing it,” of course a fire sparked uncomfortably close by a short time later. (Maybe I didn’t jinx it; maybe the Chron did. Is there an appeals board for all things “jinxed”? I might have a defense.)

The fire began less than 2 miles to the east of our home. Shortly after we heard two local fire trucks screaming up the road nearby, we could easily see a billowing column of smoke rising from our east-facing back deck.

A Cal Fire chopper gathers water from a pond near the Graniterock quarry to battle the Anzar fire near Aromas.

There is no thirst quite like the thirst for information when you can see an intimidating column of smoke from your back deck, especially in California in 2022. My first thought was: Is black smoke better or worse than white smoke? Because, I’m seeing both.

The next five minutes I ran around my house like a possum trapped in a broom closet. Two summers ago — don’t have to remind you what happened then, do I? — we converted one of our daughters’ old bedrooms to our “fire room” and filled it with grab-and-go valuables like photo albums, irreplaceable personal items and documents, and maybe a few bobbleheads (don’t judge me!).

Within a half hour or so, we had already packed our pickup truck with our fire-room stuff, and were making moves toward corralling the pets and packing up some clothes. I began brooding on a course of action once evacuation was necessary. Before long, the electricity went out, and I spent the next hour or so desperately trying to interpret the muddy back-and-forth I was hearing on my police-radio app (enunciate, people!).

The prevailing winds in Aromas in the afternoon tend to go from west to east, which was a fortunate happenstance for us and our neighbors upwind from the blaze. But what was especially troubling was that the fire seemed to be coming from the general direction of an enormous grove of eucalyptus trees, one of the largest in the region. (“Eucalyptus,” as we all know, comes from the Indigenous Australian word for “Burn, baby burn.”)

An hour or so later, I take off on foot toward the fire. It’s a road I’ve walked hundreds of times, a cardio-challenging uphill followed by a dramatic downhill that crosses a natural migration corridor for coyotes and mountain lions. Almost always, I’m alone on this road, dodging only the occasional car, enjoying the hilly oak woodlands and grazing pastures that begin when the houses stop.

This time, the official vehicles and the rubberneckers bring a constant stream of traffic over the hill, creating a vivid and kinda dangerous real-world illustration of my mental state. On any other day, a walk through the fragrant hills and ridges of Aromas can invite a kind of alone-in-Creation reverie. This walk is more of a trudging march to face a reckoning.

Like beer, food, and gasoline, the price — that is, the psychic price — of living in California keeps climbing. Climate change — “The End of Rain,” as one Santa Cruz composer puts it — has arrived, chasing away many romantic notions of whatever Sunset-magazine life that those of us lucky and privileged enough to be homeowners in California still enjoy. The eucalyptus represent the real and present danger of these times. Living close to them too often feels like sleeping in a fireplace on a nice bed of twigs and crumpled newspaper.

A DC-10 jet delivers fire retardant as crews continue to battle the Sheep fire in Wrightwood
A DC-10 air tanker delivers fire retardant as crews battled the Sheep fire in Wrightwood in June. A similar, and rare, sight, was seen over Aromas last week.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Another rarity in Aromas: An enormous DC-10 airplane soars close enough overheard for me to read the bottom of the fuselage. These “tankers” are carrying fire retardant that they drop in hot-pink fountains into the fire, standing out against the gray smoke like a blood drop on a white tablecloth.

Later, as I roll out our gas-powered generator, just as the daylight is beginning to fade, the immediate danger has subsided. The ugly smoke clouds in the eastern sky have faded away to another perfect evening, though the roar of the Cal Fire aircraft still disturbs the quiet.

A few years ago, Tina and I were walking in another breathtaking part of California, the southern Sierras, to be exact, when our conversation was interrupted by a strange chattering noise, a rattle, you might say. A few seconds later, there it was, a rattlesnake coiled on the side of the trail, raising a ruckus for our benefit. We cut a giant swath through the adjoining woodland to avoid our new friend, but once safely past it, we gave it thanks.

This day was a blessing, I tell myself. When I first saw the smoke rise over the ridge, my system was jolted with that same kind of meeting-a-rattlesnake adrenalized fear. In both cases, we lost nothing but a bit of naivete. The fortunate are given warnings. The wise heed those warnings. The summer of 2020 taught us to be poised to mobilize. Last week, thankfully, turned out to be little more than a very convincing fire drill.

Now, my thoughts turn to the beat-up old truck in our driveway that represents everything material we hold dear. Once the crisis has passed, do we unpack the truck? Maybe we’ll just wait for the winter rains, if that ever happens again. Like so many other Californians, we’ll wait, watch, and worry.

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