WRiting into the fire

When Greenville burned down I wasn’t there. I was in Vegas in a hotel room awaiting my husband’s return to the room from the conference he was attending and I was just there to take advantage of the Jacuzzi tub and some meals with a couple of friends who’d moved there.

I was on social media when I saw my office landlord post the words “Pray for Greenville.” He wasn’t a praying type of guy. What did he mean?

The ominous words brought no comfort, nor did knowing that Calfire, the Indian Valley  fire department, and the Forest Service all announced that they were setting up their fire camp in nearby Crescent Mills.  Why would they abandon the fight unless…unless?

One of those fire stalkers posted a video. They come in at the end of a fire and video tape aftermaths and I saw this foreign place burning like after a bomb or a war and I saw one landmark standing and realized my town had burned and I was watching it from hundreds of miles away.

I am still trying to come up with the word for that feeling of being connected and disassociated at the same time. What is it? Shock seems not to be enough.

I couldn’t sleep that night. Turn, toss and stare at the wall. I delivered the news from the video to my mother, my kids, and that too kept me up. My mother full of inexplicable questions. When can she come home? But it’s trash day. Who will take out the trash? Who wants to be the deliverer of destruction and my husband at 2 am turned over and said just get up and write it. You won’t be able to sleep until you do.

I got up and wrote a piece called Eulogy for Greenville and sent it to my editor after the third read through.

In the morning, 6 am. My editor called me and said she’d be posting it shortly and that it made her cry. I went back to sleep. Numb and raw like how I used to feel as a teenager on a Friday night after smoking cigarettes and drinking. Raw. Fire in the lungs.

Sympathetic fire in the lungs now.

When I woke up at 10 am it was to 150 emails and 20 phone messages from around the world. Some were assholes—tv news mostly were assholes—some were decent journalists representing SF Chronicle. LA Times. BBC Guardian.

Some were neighbors.

Bad TV News:

            Your town just burned to the ground. How does that make you feel?

Good Newspapers:

            We read your story and we were wondering if you could further describe your town before the fire? What made it special?

My neighbors:

            Thanks for standing up to those assholes.

It didn’t occur to me at 2 am when I wrote the piece that anyone would read it other than a few people in my town. That was, afterall, who it was really for. Now suddenly I’m being called to be the poster child on panel discussions about climate change.

Coastal news organizations pumped up questions. Do you think it’s ethical to rebuild there? Why do you live in a Gold Rush town surrounded by forests that could burn? Do you think the town was irresponsible? Maybe they needed to clear more space in their front and back yards?

Even in a forest fire the victim gets blamed: our town was a woman who wore the wrong thing.

They spoke as if the forest itself was evil. The privilege of the questions stung. They may as well have been saying Why would you live in a neighborhood that had drive by shootings?

I told them about how our town was half Native American and why would they insist that the Maidu move from their homeland? None of us who live here think of the Gold Rush when we walk outside our doors. Every place is surrounded by something.

I never thought of it that way. Some news people said.

Where in California can people who are eeking out a living go to live in such majesty? Are you saying only millionaires are allowed beauty?

Nowhere.

There’s nowhere affordable in California now.

I felt strong that week. People had read my words and for once and for a little bit I was able to control a little bit of the narrative of who we are and why we live there. My words were able to stop assumptions. My words were not on meth. Were not toothless. Were not obstinate, like the TV cameras liked to pick up. They always pick up the one or two hicks and look at us like zoo animals.

My words did not blame any one entity. My words acknowledged climate change.

I did my part to break outsider narrative assumptions. As a journalist and caretaker of the newspaper office I let good journalists in to use our restroom and our Internet to file stories. I didn’t return the calls of the bad ones.

My neighbors and I have gallows humor binges. None of us need to remove trash or burn piles now or wonder what to do with the things no one can afford to haul off to the dump. The dump itself may have burned. It’s all up to FEMA now to remove a town so many outsiders had called a dump in the first place. The town is removed. In its place one day will be a clean cleared out patch of flat nothing.

Like our hearts some days.

In the days after the news vans came to town and my friends and neighbors grew weary of the trauma porn caravans, I was thanked by rednecks still waving their Trump flags on their trucks. Natives who were continually erased both by fire and outside news crews. Our hippies and pot farmers and retirees. Our Mormons.

I controlled the narrative just a little bit. Fought back for the town.

It has been one of the most empowering experiences I’ve ever had.

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