Place matters. In story, it is called setting. In family history, it’s where they lived. In now time, it’s where YOU live. A place impacts a story through weather, topography, physical landmarks, and as an amalgamation of all those things, through its personality. This week circumstances burnt this reality into my soul—literally.
Fire came to Black Mountain. Years of drought, and the naturally dry, heated days of August set the stage. Two weeks of triple-digit scorchers didn’t help. California weather, especially inland, produces annual grasses, chaparral, buckeye, and oaks that go dormant or retreat to survival mode as summer progresses. The vegetation is volatile. In some places, weather brings flood or tornado or hurricane or crime. In the Sierras it brings fire.
No one knows the culprit, not yet, but the blaze started on a Friday afternoon on the west corner of Black Mountain. From my vantage point, near the base of the mountain’s long northern side, I saw nothing, but I smelled it immediately; wind carried the ashes raining down on our deck. The wind came out of the west and carried the flames east up the steep, brush-covered western slope. Topography creates barriers or cocoons, it directs movement and prevents it, and it provides perspective. Black Mountain is a single large, looming mountain, dominant in the foothills and nearly detached from the body of mountains expanding up into the Sierra-Nevadas. There are homes on all four sides. Depending on where you stand, you may look at the mountain from north, south, east, or west. We looked south. Those looking east and northeast saw a firestorm eating away the ready, dry fuel. It swallowed the mountain, moving upslope and rounding to the south. The sirens sounded, and soon spotter planes and helicopters cruised the sky.
By nightfall, from our vantage point looking south, flames licked at the top ridge of the mountain. Firefighters from across the state organized at the high school, and first responders began evacuations. Now the details of this place became important. Firefighters rolled into endangered areas asking questions. How do we get here? What is the best vantage point for protection? The vocabulary of place dotted our conversation: the high school rock, the towers, the four-lanes, the park-n-ride, conservancy house, access roads, and the names of ranches and valleys (from Dimon to Loper). Every place has its landmarks, signposts for communicating. We communicated through ours, about the where and who of the evacuations, about the loss of homes and outbuildings, and about the moving destruction as the fire headed downhill along the northern slope, past the high school rock, and toward us. By then the sky roared with helicopters carrying water and planes dropping fire retardant.
Well before our evacuation, our community was at work. The people here match their landscape. They aren’t big joiners; they are private and self-sufficient. And they know how to roll up their sleeves and get to work, or if needed, give you the shirts off their backs. They transported animals, took in friends—were ready with what ever was needed. They opened gates and tore down fences, anything to help first responders. And when containment was near, they voiced their thanks. Expressions of gratitude peppered billboards, school signage, and Facebook. Homemade signs sprung up everywhere. Some places express their personality with an ethnic flare, an urban hip, a small town calm, or an historic charm. Ours is blue collar tough.
Does it matter? Back in my home, as the smoke settled, I drove west on Lodge Road, which runs along the north side of Black Mountain. I passed hundreds of trucks and thousands of personnel occupying Sierra High School (the staging ground for fire containment). I pulled into the park-n-ride to pick up a friend. We were going to lunch at a local restaurant down the road. A firefighter had gotten out of his truck. He was taking a picture of a child’s homemade sign of trees and flames and Thank You written in neat block letters. Our place, it seemed, mattered to him.