I sat up most of the early morning hours of Monday watching towers of flame burning north of my home.
From my second-floor porch, I had a good view of the Tubbs Fire, north of Calistoga, as it broke out and began to spread.
I had gone to bed around 10 p.m. Sunday night with a book, but one of my staff called to say there was a fire on Atlas Peak. Thinking this was just another small event, easily handled by our firefighters as most such fires are, I told him we’d follow it in the morning.
Within a few minutes, however, it was clear this was much more than just a small vegetation fire. By 11 p.m., all hell had broken out at both ends of the county – fire on Atlas Peak, fire on Partrick Road, fire on Tubbs Lane.
My staff scrambled into the newsroom in Napa and I did what I could from home. Then the power went out, sidelining me for the night.
My neighbors and I stood watching from my porch for a while. My wife was out of town. My son and I had packed the car, ready to leave at a moment’s notice.
My son went to grab some sleep and my neighbors drifted off to pack their own vehicles.
I was alone in the dark, listening to my portable scanner and watching the angry glow to our north.
With every wind gust, the flames would push higher, like a blacksmith’s bellows coaxing the maximum heat from the coals.
And with every gust, the fire pushed progressively to the west and south, up over Petrified Forest Road. I knew I was watching friends up there lose their homes, and that nearby Santa Rosa was in a straight line of the wind.
Despite the strong winds headed west, the Tubbs fire managed to spread eastward too, though at a much slower pace. Finally, the fire crested a small hill and I could see the individual trees burning. Small explosions rang out several times – transformers? Propane tanks? It was hard to tell.
Miraculously, the fire stalled at the crest of the hill and advanced no closer to Calistoga. I grabbed a few fitful hours of sleep, full dressed and ready to leave if the fire came closer.
For a couple of days, we seemed to be safe. The worst damage was in Santa Rosa and in the hills on each side of Napa, but Calistoga seemed to escape the devastation.
Around 4 a.m. on Wednesday, though, police swept through our neighborhood. The fire has sneaked up the side of Mount St. Helena and the threat of strong winds from the north put the city directly in the potential path of the blaze, just like Santa Rosa days earlier.
As you read this, you probably know what became of my town and my house. As I write these words, I have no idea. I don’t even know where we’re going to stay tonight. We’re just like countless thousands of others in Northern California, adrift in a situation that we can’t control.
And that’s what struck me in the early hours of Monday, as I sat watching the flames from my porch. It was terrible and beautiful, like a scene from “Apocalypse Now.” It was like watching the world end.
I knew that if those flames came in my direction, there was nothing we could do but run.
We like to live in a world that is predictable, safe, and well contained by human ingenuity.
Fire reminds us that the real world doesn’t always oblige us.