This last month my local valley libraries had their annual writing contest. I decided to enter their theme of Wildfire Summers and ended up placing third. Down from second two years ago, but I sort of half-assed it, writing it two days before the deadline. But still, I placed…. amongst 5 people. Ah, small town. I have to laugh.
But I thought I would share. I don’t think it’s good enough to ever submit to any literary magazines, but who knows. Once I publish it here, I wouldn’t dream of submitting anyhow.
She called the summer wildfires ‘Fog Wildfires’ after the way the fog of smoke would sink down the mountains just like the fog rolling into San Francisco Bay. However, unlike its counterpart, this kind of fog was hot, dry and smelly. The golden disk of the sun was no more than an amber colored stone, and it gave the land an eerie sepia tone like she had stepped into a western film. Or an aged photograph. Still air with not even a hint of movement made the smoke and heat push down on her. It made her feel anxious and restless.
Days like this, where the smoke was a thick as fog you could cut it and call it marshmallow, except for the nasty, noxious smell of it, which marshmallows were not, was when she wished for the foggy, coastal-like mornings of early January. She loved the cool, winter fog. The kind of fog that was so wet you could see each individual droplet hanging in the air; a fine curtain of silk. The kind of fog that dripped off the eaves and made the earth and trees smell like she was in some exotic damp forest. The kind of fog you find on the coast where you can breathe as deeply as you want and it never hurts because the mist was like a balm to your lungs. Today she wished it was fog instead of smoke.
She had hung her laundry under the porch eaves as ash sifted down like shavings. Ashy pine needles, fragile as talc, floated to the ground in shades of grey and white. Easily crushed under foot. Sifting down like snow, except a whole lot less pretty in her mind. The air was dirty. When the wildfires were at their worst, like today, the sky was obscured by thick, dirty, grey smoke. But of course smoke was dirty. The day so hot you could melt, but then not hot enough as the smoke, thick grey would hide the sun enough to cool it down. And amber sun was not warm.
Stagnant air. Smelly air. Smoke filled air. The air perpetually permeated with the acrid, sharp tang of burnt trees; thousands upon thousands of wilderness burned to a crisp of blackened giant’s toothpicks. Nothing left.
She missed the days that would clear up to blue sky, but only when the inversion lifted. That was always nice because she could breathe again, filling her lungs with fresh mountain air, warm from the summer sun and smelling of fields of grass and wheat. The resin of pines and firs a spicy sweet scent that she could never get enough of smelling. But the lifted inversion meant that the fires would worsen, the blazes having more wind to ignite the downed debris. Then a plume would form, one that you could see for miles, and by late afternoon, the smoke would settle in again, thickening the air, and obscuring all of the scenery.
The laundry had taken forever to hang as she tried to find places around the porch to clip clothespins and hangers. Doubling up clothes on the line she had strung around the eaves. The sheets hung, folded twice to make room for everything. Socks hung double by one clothespin. One couldn’t walk around the porch without something wet hitting them in the face. However, because it was so still, the dampness hung like its own cloud under the roof. Step out from under and she was assailed by the heat and dry smokiness. Step back under and it was a step into the south; damp, muggy.
She couldn’t win. She wanted that misty day where she could sit in her favorite window, the fire warm and dry in the stove as she sat sipping a cup of tea. She didn’t want to be figuring out the best spot to dry her favorite shirts, knowing that they would still smell like smoke for days once they were dry. She was tired of the heat, the smoke, and the incessant smell of it permeating every nook and cranny of her life. Tired of having to sleep with her windows closed because the smoke was so thick she couldn’t see her neighbors.
Every year it was the same thing. Every year there was a wildfire that set up a blaze that lasted months. Every summer she dreaded that first hint of chlorine in the air; her first indication of a fire started in the mountains. Every year she had to make due with hazy days and always smelling like smoke.
She sighed as she took down the burnt smelling sheets. Maybe it was time to invest in a new place to live. Maybe she needed to move to the actual coast. Fires were rare there. Maybe she could find herself a little cottage near the water and breathe mist all day.
She smiled to herself, almost a little giddy at the thought of never having to deal with the wildfires again. It made her bounce around and hum to herself as she took down the laundry. Yes, that’s what she would do. She would live on the sea and have foggy mornings every day. She would never smell smoke again.
Just as she was about to call her cousin who was a realtor she stopped and frowned. If she moved to the coast she would never have the summer heat that she loved. She wouldn’t have the snowy winters and the autumns that were like a storybook waiting to explode in perfection.
Darn it! She was going to have to deal with the smoky summers if she wanted all her other favorite things. She sighed again. Well, at least she could dream of her misty mornings that came in January, and remember them when the smoke was too thick.
Like right now. It was time for another night of closed windows, a stuffy house, and her hair smelling like the burning pine needles. The fires would finally go away, the skies would be blue, and the world would be clean and fresh again, like the mountains should smell. She just had to get through the next few weeks in this foggy kind of smoke.
Such was the life of living where wildfires were a common enough thing every year.