Willow Creek History by Marcia Penner Freedman About the Author Fighting Fire in the Sierra National Forest Willow Creek History Marcia Penner Freedman


by Marcia Penner Freedman

Something Happened On Lake Mooselookmeguntic

A summer’s evening, 2008.  A loon is swimming on Lake Mooselookmeguntic in Western Maine. He is unable to fish. Unable to eat.  His beak is closed, shut tight by an entanglement of fishing line.

Nearby, Allan Brown, a summer resident at the lake, is kayaking towards his dock.  He notices the loon swimming in his direction. He stops paddling and sits quietly, watching, waiting for it to pass. At this point he doesn’t realize that the loon is in trouble, so he does what he always does when spotting a loon; he talks to it.    

You might ask why Allan’s first reaction would be to talk to the loon. But, if you’ve ever lain awake at night listening to a chorus of loons calling out to each other from lake to lake over mountains and meadows, or if you’ve ever heard them wail or yodel or hoot among themselves in daylight, it would be easier to understand. Simply put, loons are verbal and seem to invite conversation.

Barbara Ulman, an acquaintance of Allan’s, and a summertime resident at neighboring Rangeley Lake, talks to the loons all the time.  “They communicate with each other day and night,” she said.  “All over the lake, even from lake to lake.”   When she encounters them on the lake she feels it’s the most natural thing to react verbally. “I’ll say things like, Hello brother.  Hello sister. You’re beautiful,” she said. “Things like that.”

This loon mystique is well illustrated in the film On Golden Pond. Whenthe elderly couple, Ethel and Norman Thayer, arrive at their lakeside summer home, first thing, Ethel goes to the lake to say hello to the loons. Saying goodbye is the last thing Ethel and Normal do before leaving. And there’s lots of loon talk in between their arrival and departure. It might seem an exaggeration or an overblown dramatic effect. But it appears that’s what lake people do.

But let’s get back to what Allan calls his tangled loon story. Mind you, I didn’t observe this directly.  I heard it first from Barbara and then read Allan’s account of what happened that evening when he came across the loon swimming near his dock.

So, there sits Allan, watching the loon. But instead of swimming past, as Allan anticipates he would, the loon approaches the kayak. Only then does Allan become aware of something dangling from its beak.  His first thought is, nesting material. But on closer inspection he realizes it is fishing line. 

“I took a small stroke and paddled towards the loon,” wrote Allan in his personal account of his experience. “But the loon turned and swam away.” Allan’s description of what followed brings to mind a graceful impromptu dance choreographed between him and the loon as they learned about each other:  After the loon turned away, Allan did the same. Then both turned back and met in the middle.  Loon dove, but quickly resurfaced.  Allan turned and, finally, the loon allowed him to glide beside it. As they floated side by side, Allan talked quietly to the loon.  He reached down and placed his hand on the loon’s head.

There is something innately calming in a gentle touch and a soothing voice, apparently even for wild creatures. When Allan crossed over the line from hands off to hands on, the loon remained calm and didn’t struggle. Allan had the freedom to fiddle around as he tried to remove the line from the loon’s beak, but to no avail. After fifteen minutes Allan realized he had done all he could. The line was caught around the spike-like projection on the lower portion of the loon’s beak, which, Allan would later learn, was a tool used by the loon as an aid in catching fish.

When I heard Allan’s story, I was reminded of something that happened to me about ten years ago, and I was struck by the parallels in our experiences. I had recently relocated from the city to a small mountain community outside Yosemite National Park. One morning, a robin slammed into my living room window and fell to the ground. He must have been flying at a rapid pace, because the impact knocked him out.  He lay unconscious, breathing rapidly.   

When he failed to come around after several minutes, I picked him up and carried him into the house. I laid him in a box with some water and bird seed, and left him, sequestered in a spare bedroom. When I came back an hour later, he was awake.  I approached the box. He became agitated and made awkward movements as he tried to fly.  But he could not.  One wing and one leg appeared to be injured. I began to talk to him quietly.  Slowly I reached out with a finger and rubbed his head gently.  He stopped struggling and did not move.  Then I picked him up and felt along his body, along his wings, and his legs, all the time talking gently, telling him he was going to be all right.  I can still feel his warm body, relaxed and calm, his little heart beating rapidly under my hand.

The robin stayed with me for four days. Every day he became stronger and livelier. Every day I held him and talked to him. Eventually I took him out of the box, in order to give him a chance to move around. On the third day, when I entered the room I found him sitting on the windowsill looking outside. He had obviously flown up there. Perhaps he was getting ready to leave. I removed the window screen and left him sitting on the sill. When I came back several minutes later, he was still there.

I wonder, what would prompt a loon to trust a man in a kayak? What would cause a robin to hold off his escape through an open window? Is it that these birds somehow knew they were dependent on us, their care-givers?  Did they sense that they couldn’t make it on their own? 

Allan wrote in an email that he believes the loon felt calm because, when they looked into each other’s eyes, they communicated and connected.  Loons have red eyes, deep and penetrating. So it’s easy to understand the power that Allan felt when he gazed into them. But I don’t remember having looked into the robin’s eyes. And yet something passed between us, and I was somehow able to gain his trust.

So, it would have to be more than a sincere look, or even a calming voice or a light touch that passes between two dissimilar beings and creates a connection. Could there be some kind of a universal communication that sets up a bond, one that holds one party to the promise of delivering safety and one that allows the other to lock into the agreement and give itself over to the relationship? Allan is certain that the loon understood his words.  “Something internal happened,” he said, “a trust we both accepted was built, as if we were saying to each other, come on, let’s work this out.” 

In one-to-one human contact trust can be born of intimacy and volition and can bring the greatest happiness and contentment. But human trust can also bring the depths of despair, if broken. In either case, the trust and emotion are deep and long-lasting. “I do.”  What a powerful declaration.  Yes, it says.  We will trust each other all our lives. Entire lives are built around those two simple words. What a responsibility.  Is it only the human being that is capable of that level of connection?  Who knows what an animal feels, what it remembers?

My robin, after working his way out of the box, spent one more day with me, flying back and forth from the floor to the window sill. On the fourth day, when I entered the room, he was gone. I looked out the window and there he was, sitting on the limb of a cedar tree. He sat and looked in my direction for a few moments, and then he flew away.

Allan’s loon had to go through a second vigil of trust after Allan was unable to untangle the fishing line on his own.  As it turned out, a neighbor of Allan’s had spotted him in his kayak. “He came towards me,” wrote Allan, “realizing I needed some help, but thinking I had caught a fish. To his surprise, I had a loon.” Allan asked his neighbor to get a scissors. He described what happened next. “I paddled one-handed to Jim’s dock with the loon in the other hand swimming alongside the kayak.  Jim returned with the scissors. I held its head while Jim clipped the final pieces of fishing line.  When he was finished, I turned the loon toward open water and gently released it, and it swam off slowly.  When the loon was 25 yards away he flapped his wings, raised his head and dived into the water. When the loon was gone, we just sat staring at each other. Did that really happen?”

So, what does the caregiver get out of the deal after the wild one has left?  

A shared moment of disbelief. The stuff of journal entries and midnight musings. Things we tell our children and grandchildren when they ask tough questions about life and death, or when they refuse to kiss you goodnight, demanding just one more story before lights out. These are the images that remain imprinted in our minds, etched on our hearts. They have the power to change our world view, sometimes subtly, sometimes with drama.

For me, the robin’s visit to my home changed me. I was a newcomer to the mountains, fresh from the city, when he slammed into my window.  I was on my own, hadn’t made many friends, and was still getting acquainted with the area.  After the robin experience, I felt more a part of my surroundings, more connected to the natural world I had chosen for my home.  I was a real mountain woman. No subtlety there!

As far as the loon experience is concerned, Allan says he often goes back and relives the event. “It is still a wow moment in my life,” he wrote in a recent email. “It never gets old, just more cherished.” He has noticed three loons that travel together around the lake. When the trio swims into the area around Allan’s dock, “One lags behind,” he wrote. “And he often approaches our dock and looks.  It could be my imagination, but sometimes I feel like he is my tangled loon.”

Unlike my robin episode, however, which, until now, remained with me as a private affair, the story of Allan’s rescue of the loon on Lake Mooselookmeguntic would come to travel across lakes in Maine, to California and who knows where else. Allan would write about it. His wife would publish a children’s story based on the experience. The neighbors would pass the story around.

For Barbara, when she heard of Allan’s rescue of the loon on Lake Mooselookmeguntic, she knew immediately that something special had happened. “Put your hand on a loon? Move its head around?” was Barbara’s reaction. “I mean loons don’t let you do that. People don’t let you do that.”

Barbara has been spending her summers at Rangeley Lake since childhood, and loons have always been a special part of her experience there. “The first night we arrive at the lake,” she explained, “we hear the loons, and I think, okay, I’m here.” Barbara admires the loons’ special traits. Their varied calls provide atmosphere during the day and haunting drama at night, a whole chorus of sounds, loons singing together.  She admires their bright red eyes that complement the striking black and white checkerboard pattern of feathers that adorn its sleek black body. “They’re just a gorgeous bird,” she said.  “So if you see them close up from the canoe, it’s like, Wow!  Look what’s there.  We always have that reaction, no matter how many times we seem them.”

Barbara and her husband frequently travel by canoe on the lake, and the loons are not afraid when they come near. They’ll dive under water and then come up next to the canoe and swim alongside. “They are not fazed by what they see,” Barbara explained.  “They don’t interact, but they don’t run away either.”

But Barbara’s connection to loons goes beyond their striking beauty, their voice and their social nature. About the time that Allan had his encounter with the loon, Barbara, while working with a shaman, discovered that her power animal, the one she most admires and would like to emulate – especially its ease with singing in public – is the loon. “At first it seemed strange to have the loon as a power animal,” Barbara admits.  “But when you think about it, the loon is a powerful bird. It has a powerful song that people relate to.  It’s large and can fly long, long distances.”

After she met Allan and heard the details of the tangled loon story, Barbara, like Allan and his wife, realized she had to tell people about it. And her way of telling people about things is to write music.

She began by transcribing loons calls onto her computer. The flute and clarinet seemed like the perfect choices for imitating these, and many of the calls appear in her piece. Armed with a poem written by a California friend, Barbara created a choral piece with piano, flute and clarinet accompaniment.  In the summer of 2013, she organized a community choir, gathered her musician friends, and, to a packed house in a community church, One Loon’s Afternoon, was performed.

Now Allan’s tangled loon story will live on in the collective memory of that community. Perhaps children at the lake will look for the tangled loon as they learn to steer their canoes and kayaks. Perhaps one of these children will come across an animal in need of help and her innate sense of empathy will kick in.  Perhaps she will remember the loon story and will speak gently and reach out calmly without fear or trepidation.  And perhaps this child will react in her uniquely human way and tell her story, make connections and philosophize. Perhaps she will wonder and analyze, try to figure things out. Thus will the story travel from generation to generation.

It may appear that I am implying that only humans are capable of empathic behavior. Far from it. I believe animals have an innate sense when one of them is in trouble. I have observed helping behaviors in animals.  These appear to be motivated by empathy.

One situation happened between a cat and a kitten. 

At one point in my life I was living with two cats – Mo, an adult cat of two, and Bella, a kitten of six months. Bella loved to chase after Mo. One night, she followed him up to our rooftop, somehow getting up easily.  But when the time came for her to follow him down, she stood frozen, meowing as only a kitten in distress can.  When Mo heard her, he turned around, scooted up an apple tree that butted up to the house, jumped from the tree to the roof, where Bella paced back and forth, jumped back onto the tree to show her how to get down.  He did this three or four times, attempting to get her to follow him.  But poor Bella was too terrified and never did seem to get the message.  We finally had to rescue her with ladder and pillow case. As I watched Mo’s seeming concern – empathy – for Bella, and his determination to get her down, I wondered what his motivation might be. 

My conclusion was, and still is, that Mo was impelled by some inner instinct to care about and to understand when one of his mates was in trouble.  I could think of no motivation other than pure empathy. Being human, I believe it is up to me to tell their story.


It’s Personal: Musings on Living With Drought

Days and days of relentless blue skies and sunshine. Sometimes clouds bring a promise of rain, and I’m hopeful. If they darken, my expectations escalate. But then the sun predictably breaks through, and when the gray gives way to blue once again, I am disheartened. My spirits rise and fall at the whim of the heavens.

On those rare occasions when rain does come, it might bring a few measly drops, hardly enough to dampen the dry ground. Yet, even with its poor showing, the rain is all that exists for me. I am deprived and cannot focus on anything else. I feel myself smile and breathe in the distinct dusty odor given off as the droplets of water stir up the bone-dry soil. It’s a hopeful smell a suggestion that things will improve.

In California we are currently living through the fourth year of what has been described as an unprecedented drought. With the record-breaking heat and months of no precipitation, with the Sierra snowpack at twelve percent of normal, California’s lakes and rivers are shrinking, and her reservoirs are diminishing. In the San Joaquin Valley – central California’s two-hundred-fifty-mile strip of rich farmland – wells are drying up, and many farmers are being forced to let their fields go fallow. Whole farming communities are without water.

In the midst of the dryness, spring wildflowers in the foothills of the Sierra unfathomably pop up out of the compressed earth. They adorn the fields and trails with color. Innately adapted to long periods of no rain, they are an inspiration for their resilience and their beauty. I smile at their defiance of the cheerless drought, and shake my head in amazement.

Four friends go on a wildflower walk. We are all urban transplants to the foothills; from Chicago, Los Angeles, and Pittsburgh. We like to think of ourselves as mountain folk, and we get pleasure knowing we have learned about the nature that surrounds us. We walk along a parched path. My friends are chattering about the flowers, naming them, comparing leaves and petals, remarking about the variety of color.

I try to engage in the conversation, but find myself staring at the unbearably blue sky. The air is cool and the mid-morning sun warms us. What a nice day, I hear someone remark. There’s no such thing as a nice day when the sun is shining, I say. I am snappy. My friends stop talking and look at me. Their mood has changed. They are restrained. Yes, they agree, this is a scary time. We talk a few minutes about the drought and make note of the wildflowers that didn’t make it this year. Then we continue along the road, and the animated wildflower talk begins again.

I feel a bit foolish, almost envious of their ability to seize the day, as they say. It occurs to me they might not want this worrywart on their future walks. I feign sociability. But I am unable to keep myself from glancing skyward, watching and searching, as if by doing so I might make a difference. Like a child, a part of me believes that if I wish hard enough, stare long enough, the rains will come.
Psychologists tell us that magical thinking is not uncommon during stressful periods such as severe drought. Believing in miracles or imagining that you can change outcomes with a wish or a plea can be comforting and, moreover, can help ward off the depression and anxiety that often take hold when we feel powerless. The rain dancer dances. The conjuror summons up a rainstorm.

Then the day comes when I think I detect a slowing down of the water flowing into my washing machine. My first reaction is, uh-oh, this is it. No wishing. No discussions with the sky. Just the mutterings in my head: How much more time do I have? If I have to drill deeper will the water hold out until the drillers can get to my property? That would be a year, minimum. They say that people are having to drill down two hundred and three hundred feet, sometimes more, in order to tap into California’s dropping water table. At a cost of thirty to forty dollars a foot, will I be able to afford it?

Sometimes thoughts can lead to creative and positive places, but sometimes we are driven in an opposite direction. My initial response on that day, I would say, was in the latter category. My mind had turned bleak. Has someone been stealing my water?  I’ve heard that this is happening all up and down the San Joaquin Valley and here in the foothills. Are my neighbors using too much water or tapping into my well?

I have a friend who lives on a very tight budget. For some time now he has been drawing seventeen gallons of water from my well every month as a way of helping stretch his limited income. Suddenly, at the prospect of my well running dry, his seventeen gallons seemed like too much. I began planning how I would tell him that he would have to stop taking my water. My water. How I would make sure he would not sneak onto my property when I’m not at home. My property.

I wasn’t proud to glimpse my ‘every-gal-for-herself’ companion who so easily jumped onto the scene. But there she was with all her fear mongering and problematic suggestions. In my heart, buried deep under the gnawing fear, I knew I wouldn’t act on these. But in my mind and in my gut those seventeen gallons had become a premonition of doom as it struck me that I could no longer take endless water for granted.

The belief in a perpetual supply of water is being challenged on many fronts. On a recent Thursday night, for example, I was seated in a restaurant next to a party of four, two couples who, by the tone of their conversation, were probably close friends. One of the men picked up a sign from the table that read, Due to drought in California, water served on request only. “This is ridiculous,” he said, and tossed the sign back on the table. “How much are we talking about for a couple of glasses of water?”

I tried to imagine how many servers in California were pouring water for their customers at that very moment. How many glasses would be poured the next night, or the next? Every night. It didn’t seem like an insignificant amount. I wondered if the man had considered this when he scoffed at the restaurant’s policy. The man’s friends, who were reading their menus, looked up.  “Well,” one of them remarked, “I guess they have to wash the glasses, too.” And they all sniggered and went back to their menus.

Now, for the most part, at a restaurant we can assume that we’ll receive a glass of water when we sit down at the table. Except for the occasional ‘no ice’ order, the ritual is fairly routine. But, in thinking about the reaction of the people at the table next to mine, it appears that even a token social amenity such as a glass of water can carry great significance, and its removal might feel like an infringement of some sort and, at least, an inconvenience.  In this case, maybe a threat.

In the farmlands of the San Joaquin Valley, the challenge to the sense of entitlement to water has been going on for four years, and continues on a daily basis. “When my dad and I bought our farm forty years ago,” recounted Barbara Thormann, who grows oranges on seventeen acres of land in the central valley, “the owner told us that we’d never have to worry about water because the aquifer for the farm was fed by the Kings River. He told us that it was like we would have a direct pipeline from the river to our land.” Barbara and her family felt water rich until the day when she visited the Kings River after losing one of her wells in the fall of 2014. She was shocked. “You could almost walk across the river,” she said. Barbara anticipates that she would never again be free from worrying about her well not making it. “I live with the constant feeling that I might have picked my last crop,” she said. “I know I’ll be all right if that happens, but it would break my heart to lose my trees.”

In the Sierra foothills there is no ignoring the drought. Even those of us who still have our wells must face the glaring evidence every day of a diminishing water supply. Besides the increasing number of wells running dry, we are seeing reservoirs dwindle, ponds disappear and creeks dry up. We are surrounded by mountainsides languishing for the want of water. As I drive around, whether along the two-lane mountain road to Yosemite National Park, surrounded on both sides by Ponderosa Pine and cedar forests, or on the last leg of my drive home, which takes me one mile east of the main highway with a full view of the foothills, I am stunned to see the proliferation of dead trees, masses of orange and brown forms poking up among the pine and cedars. It seems as if there are more every day, and it feels that they die overnight. I am told that we are only seeing the final evidence of trees that probably died over a year ago.

For urban users, the idea of diminishing water may still be an abstraction. Their water continues to come through their pipes. So it may take more time for them to step up and reduce their water use, even with the new mandated restrictions in place. Such local rules about when and what to water can fuel resentment. For city dwellers, groomed lawns and landscapes are a source of personal pride and the pride of neighborhoods. Their flower and vegetable gardens and their fruit trees connect them with the nature they crave. Reducing water use can impact their lifestyle, their very identity. Even for those who are ready, it may take some time for them to let their lawns go brown and cut back on their gardens.

A sobering thought: If I had contemplated doing battle over seventeen gallons because of a perception of dwindling water – which, by the way, proved erroneous – what could we expect if this drought were to slog on for years, as is predicted? What kinds of conflicts will we see as more and more farmers are unable to irrigate their land, more and more rural homeowners find their wells slowing down, and more and more city folk are asked to turn off their dishwashers and let their lawns and gardens go?

“I’m sure it’s going to get ugly,” Barbara confided. We were riding in her tractor, talking about the drought. She was tilling one of her fallow fields, churning the overgrown brush and grasses into the dry ground. Around the field we went, cutting an ever larger swath of ploughed earth and crushed vegetation. The dry chopped up scrub lay in stark contrast to the lush orange trees on the adjacent field, the last cultivated grove left on the farm.  “The next thing you know, they’ll be saying I’m using too much water to grow my oranges, and that’s why so-and-so down the street doesn’t have drinking water, that kind of stuff. All that’s coming.” Barbara knows of farms where they are digging down a thousand feet to find water. “It’s the big guys that have all the money that are able to do that,” she said. “It’s insane. We have no idea where this is all going. It’s all new territory we’re dealing with, and there are going to be some serious conversations about that, for sure.”

To state the obvious: Water is an essential natural resource for every person living on the face of the globe. And the not so obvious: Many countries worldwide are seeing their water supplies shrink because of extended and severe drought. So what will happen when our natural dependency on water butts up against the diminished supply?   There are predictions that water will become a more valuable commodity on the world market than oil. Can we expect wars will be fought over water?  Price gauging, for certain, will occur. Already there are cases where farmers in the San Joaquin Valley are letting their fields go fallow because their profit margin is greater when they sell their water.

There goes gloomy Gus again, the worrywart. Is it time to stare at the sky? To wish? To dream? I think not. After I came face to face with the prospect of joining the ranks of the waterless, I began to read and talk and ask questions. In the months since my personal experience, I’ve read about people and talked to people who have lost their wells. I learned from them about resilience and hope and how these come with things like realistic planning, connection to others, about not being afraid to make face difficult choices, and to live with their consequences. I learned about community-minded actions by big-hearted people.

Like Donna Johnson, who organized the delivery of free bottled water over a period of months to hundreds of families living without water; and farmer Cannon Michael who, with a group of neighboring farmers, fallowed some of their fields and lowered their water use and, in doing so, made 4.4 billion gallons of water available at a reasonable price to their neighbors suffering from loss of their water and unaffordable water rates. Then there is the farming community of thirty families where all but two wells ran dry, and where the two fortunate households were sharing their water with their unfortunate neighbors. I could go on and on about the good works, the entrepreneurship, the creative thinking of people trying to negotiate the new circumstances we are facing.

But, it was an LA Times feature by reporter Diana Marcum that perhaps had the strongest influence in helping me redirect my negative thoughts and feelings.  For me, reading the article was like going on an adventure, like taking a trip through the fragile, uncertain world of 32-year-old Adam Toledo as he contemplated the inevitable loss of his farm. I read and re-read the pages, and as I did so, I came to admire Adam’s ability to think clearly, to not shy away from unpleasant realities. He seems to be able to make tough decisions, and not without a touch of humor. “You have to have a dog to be happy in this life,” he declared. “I am in the field every day talking to [my dog] like a human.  Telling him my worries.”

Adam is a compassionate man, proud and of a generally positive nature, but who harbors a healthy dose of cynicism when considering the reality of his circumstances. “I held on a little longer than some,” Adam had told his barber friend one morning at the barbershop.  He explained that his well wouldn’t last until the summer. “Only the richest will survive now,” he added. When the barber became alarmed at the gravity of Adam’s situation, and perhaps at having to contend with the gravity of the drought in general, Adam comforted him with a pat on the shoulder. “Don’t worry,” he told him. “It’s Nature.  There’s nothing we can do about it.”  Then, upon leaving the barbershop, with a bit of magical thinking thrown in for good measure, he advised his friend to turn up the volume on the “praise music” that was playing on the barbershop radio.

On another note, in reading through the article, it occurred to me that every issue Adam confronted seemed to be filtered through his relationship with and in consideration of his family.  “If I come home sad and my wife and my daughters are sad and then I act sad too,” he explained, “what are we going to do?  Have a funeral?  No!  So, what, we start over.  As long as a person is breathing, there’s hope.”

When trying to decide whether to water his last alfalfa field, which draws on the same water supply as the house, he reasoned that he would let the field go. “Without water to irrigate, there’s no farm.  But without water for the house, there is no life,” was how he reasoned it.

In the end Adam came to the conclusion that he would probably sell his property to an individual or an investment group.  He predicted that the buyers would have the money to dig a much deeper well than is currently on the farm. They would plant pistachio trees and “maybe make a million dollars.”  Adam expressed confidence in his family’s ability to pull themselves up.  “I have hands and feet,” he said, “and I can work.”

He imagined taking his daughters back to the land in ten years.  “Maybe it’ll be all green and nice and full of pistachio trees. I’ll say to them, remember when we were up here just trying – trying? There was a drought.  It was part of your life’s adventures.”

Is this not magical thinking?  Perhaps.  But why don’t I feel gloomy and become preoccupied with the relentless blue sky and sunshine.  Why am I not wallowing in fear? Because Adam has inspired me to look towards a positive future.  Because I’ve been touched by his fortitude. I’ve come to see that my magical thinking and my fear were just two sides of the same coin, with loneliness at each pole. And in between is everyone else, friends and family, strangers who catch your attention and influence your thinking.  So, yes, Adam was caught up in a kind of magical thinking. But I believe he will do exactly as he planned. I only wish I could be a fly on the wall to watch him as he shows his daughters where they came from and how they got to wherever they will be.

Time to Go: A Personal Story

(Chapter from Fighting Fire in the Sierra National Forest)
January 2015

The call came at five o’clock. “You have been evacuated. Leave your house. The fire is coming in your direction.” I’m prepared. My fire “go box” and computer are already in my car. I throw some clothes into a suitcase. I scuffle with my two outraged cats and finally get them into their carrying cases, and then, per usual, run madly around searching for my purse and car keys. Finally, everything’s packed and I’m off to the evacuation shelter.

By nine o’clock that night the Red Cross has registered us, fed us and set up cots for thirty overnighters. My cats are ensconced in an air conditioned ‘kennel’ set up in a room apart from the evacuees by the Central California Animal Disaster Team (CCADT), an organization formed in 2011 that works side by side with the Red Cross during disaster relief. My cats, along with twenty other unwilling cats and dogs, are making a ruckus, unaware of the fire danger all around and unmoved by the luxury of their five-star accommodations. The staff of the CCADT, patient, resourceful, skillful, somehow manages to calm the animals—the four-legged and human type—and we are all settled in to what will be our routine for the next three days.
Then, to my surprise, I look around and wonder, what do I do now? I am bored. Bored?  Who could have imagined that amid all the panic and confusion, not knowing whether I would have a house to go back to, I would experience boredom?  I blame it on the Red Cross and CCADT. Too efficient.

The next morning after a briefing on the status of the fire, a breakfast is served. The choices include eggs, bacon, pancakes, cereals, juices, fruit, coffee, tea, and cocoa. I make another visit to my cats. Then, again, a sense of what do I do now?  Sweep and mop the floors. Wipe down some tables. Talk to some folks. Bring some coffee to a fellow evacuee. Try to calm a worried woman. Another hour gone by. Another visit to the kennel. Everything under control there. Nothing to do.

A moment of panic. At last!  I think about my house. What’s happening to it? Pictures in my mind of it sitting alone, fire, and the feral cats I feed scurrying about, looking for food. They say that feral animals know how to escape fire. I know they will be all right.

I drive back into town. The roadblocks are still up. I can’t get through. I try to think of a way around them, but the road to my house is pretty well closed off. Back to the shelter. I learn from the notices tacked on the wall that they’ve named my fire the Junction Fire. A Red Cross representative is interviewing a couple. “They’ve lost their home,” one of my new evacuee acquaintances whispers. She didn’t have to say a word. The expression on the couple’s faces, the tears in the woman’s eyes, they tell the whole story.

I call my home, relieved to hear my voice mail click in, and then the beep. I leave a message. “You’re still there,” I say. “I’m thinking about you. I miss you and hope I’ll see you soon.” I would call my home and leave love messages three more times before I am allowed to return.

Evacuation is doing crazy things like talking to your home. Evacuation is being suspended in a limbo state, not here, not there. There’s nothing you can do, what with all the accoutrements of normal life sequestered twenty miles from where you are. The help and company of friends, a meal, a visit, an overnight stay, these all help keep you rooted, earthbound. But it’s always with you: the house, the fire, the not knowing. You never fully engage. In your mind you are sifting through the ashes of your home, searching for things you had to leave behind. You are planning. There’s the insurance problem, temporary living, rebuilding. Maybe it’s a good thing. Maybe you’re preparing yourself for the worse. You’re safe, you tell yourself. The rest is in the detail.

Evacuation is also about miracles, some small, some large. In the shelter people related their stories of miraculous things happening during the fire. We heard about the propane company’s office building burning up into a cinder, yet the giant propane tanks just ten feet away remaining untouched. “If those tanks blew,” one evacuee said, “there’d be a crater four miles wide in this town.” (We would learn later, after everything had settled down, that the miracle was actually the Cal Fire crew’s skill and ingenuity and courage that prevented the tanks from blowing up.)

I experienced some miracles of my own during those days. I almost had to leave one of my cats when she scratched her way out of my grip as I was putting her into her carrier. She ran and hid under a couch. I couldn’t coax her out. Not even her favorite treat could grab her attention. I moved the couch, and she moved with it. I begged her to come out. In desperation, I walked out of the room thinking I would have to leave her. Then back into the room and one last try. In my most authoritative voice I called out, you’ve got to come out, now!  And she did. Like an obedient puppy dog, she walked right up to me. But she’s a cat, and you know what they say about herding cats.

Then there was my phone charger miracle. My children kept calling. They were worried. Should they come? Is there anything they could do? What’s going on?  I had to rush them off the phone because my cell phone charge was running down. How could I have forgotten my cell phone charger, I berated myself. Then the solution came to me. I drove to the business center in town and asked if they could charge my phone. The sales person took my phone to the back and emerged with a charger. “We have tons of these back there,” she said, handing me one, no questions asked. We chatted for a while and I found out she too had been evacuated. We were kinsmen.

This act of kindness was one part of the miracle of miracles of these days of evacuation, the giving, generous community in which we live; local businesses asking, what do you need, opening up their doors, providing services; local citizens and organizations showering us with food, clothing, and personal items—everything from tooth paste to Huggies. As one volunteer said, “We told people we needed deodorant, and fifty deodorants showed up.”

And then there were donations of hours and days of personal time, people arriving and asking, what can I do? Do you need anything? These people, quietly, efficiently, and in good humor going about their work. They take time from their own lives, from their jobs. I think of a couple, Kelly and Dan, with non-stop kitchen duty, cooking and serving meals, cleaning floors and tables, ten, twelve hours a day. What makes people do that? “I was just raised with the idea that when you serve your fellow man,” said Kelly, “you’re serving God. My dad taught me that. My mom taught me that. I taught it to my children.” Amen.

Over the three days of evacuation I learned that there were evacuees of all kinds, as varied as any gathering of people. But the ones that captured my imagination were those who, when told to evacuate, dug in their heels and stayed, determined to wait it out and protect their homes. Or there were those who found their way back to their houses, traveling as much as fifty miles out of their way over forest roads, to retrieve pets left behind. Why do they do that?  Does it work? I try to picture myself on the roof of my house, hose in hand. Where would I start? What would happen if the water pressure ran low?

“We come across those kinds of evacuation issues with every fire,” said Karen Guillemin , Cal Fire prevention officer. “Some people won’t leave their homes, and we have to force them out of there. They don’t think about all the equipment coming in, huge fire engines, bulldozers, water tenders. We need a lot of area to work. Helicopters come in a drop buckets of water. You could be knocked off your roof. You need to be out of there.” Karen admits that under some circumstances people can save their homes by hosing their roofs, but she urges people to educate themselves about the right conditions to do it, and then to know when it’s time to leave.

After I am finally allowed to return to my home and find everything as I left it, I cannot settle down. It’s like having an engine running inside me. I drive around town, walk along charred hills. I see places where the fire has burned up to the hill behind a house and stops its advance. I see a property with the skeleton of a shed twenty feet from a house that stands untouched. How does a fire decide where it is going to go? I visit the site of the propane company. The office building lays in charred ruins. The enormous white gas tanks sit quietly nearby. I am overcome with gratitude.


Welcome to the WUI

We’ve chosen to live in a forest, tens of thousands of us in eastern Fresno, Madera, and Mariposa Counties. Not just any forest, but a Sierra forest. And that means we’ve chosen to live with the certainty of fire. To complicate things, our communities sit at the edge of the million acre Sierra National Forest, where wildfire is as natural as the wind.

Welcome to the Wildland-Urban Interface, commonly referred to as the WUI (pronounced woo-eee). This label describes areas such as ours, where wildfire and structural fire commingle, and where firefighters with skill in defending homes work side by side with those trained in suppressing wildfire.

In the Sierra, the roots of our WUI can be traced back to the Gold Rush. The settlers that poured into the area after 1848 built their towns and ranches and farms in the midst of the forest. They fenced in their livestock and planted orchards. Such permanent structures made them vulnerable to ruin by wildfire. But it was a desirable place to live. And more came.  And here we are.

Although official firefighting policy concerning the WUI was put in place a mere twenty-five years ago, catastrophic wildfires involving human encroachment have been occurring in the United States for over a century. Amongst the earliest are the Peshtigo, Wisconsin fire of 1871 which killed over a thousand people and burned a million acres; the Hinckley, Minnesota fire of 1894 which killed over five hundred people; and, in 1910, a firestorm of hurricane-intense winds that roared through national forests in Idaho, Montana, and Washington. Dubbed the Big Burn, this fire—before unseasonable rains could douse the flames two days after is began—killed almost a hundred people, annihilated seven towns, and destroyed three million acres of timber.

After that fire, the government acknowledged the need for federal and state firefighters to work together during wildland fires that threaten population centers. In March of 1911 Congress passed a piece of legislation called the Weeks Act which, among other things, provided for interagency firefighting cooperation. This provision of the Weeks Act is relevant to this day.

Fast forward a hundred years: Research on the WUI during the last decades of the twentieth century produced data on fire behavior related to wildland fuels and to building materials and design. Other research focused on wildfire management. And others looked at the effects of wildfire on structures related to distance. For example, in a series of studies it was found that 100 feet acts as a buffer between the large flames of burning shrubs and tree canopies (crown fires) and a home’s wood exterior. Thus the mandate of defensible space.

In 1986, the first conference on the wildland-urban interface took place. Sponsored by the National Forest Service, in conjunction with the National Fire Protection Association, this gathering spawned the Firewise Initiative, which started out as an information source to awaken awareness of the WUI problem. Over the twenty-five years of its existence, Firewise has evolved into a national program of community involvement.

So here we are, learning to adopt such ideas as defensible space and firewise living. We’re becoming familiar with terms like backfire, crown fire, blow up, and fire storm.  We’ve learned to read the signs of fire—the telltale sky when the sun turns orange behind a shroud of brown haze, or when the air is persistently smoky, day after day. We’ve become accustomed to seeing homemade signs adorned with flowers and hearts and happy faces tacked up on fence posts and telephone poles, thanking firefighters for saving our homes.
If you haven’t already experienced fire, what will be your initiation? A robocall from the county telling you to evacuate because the “fire is coming your way?”  Will you wake up one night to a sense of something wrong, only to see a strip of flame creeping over the ridge along the edge of your property?  Maybe your introduction will happen during a wildfire that chokes the air with smoke for two weeks, and firefighters become a fixture in your town.

Whatever your personal experience, if you have lived through a summer in the foothills and mountains adjacent to the Sierra National Forest, you haven’t evaded fire. You have not been spared the warnings of foresters, fire ecologists, firefighters, and government officials that fires are inevitable.  You have developed a sense that wildfires are getting hotter and harder to contain, that firefighters increasingly struggle to keep fires from encroaching onto private property. In other words, you’ve become a full-fledged member of the WUI, whether you had realized it or not.

Email the Author
Copyright © 2015 Marcia Penner Freedman
Contact me through Facebook