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Creek Running North

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November 16, 2005

Fire weather

A typical view of the dog At home sick yesterday, I watched the wind cover our lawn with live oak leaves. This was unusual. The oak is east of our lawn. We get plenty of wind, but it's almost always from the southwest. Yesterday, my windmill was pointed at Utah.

Weather like this makes Californians nervous.

Fourteen years ago I spent a Sunday at a retreat meeting, trying with about 24 co-workers to iron out the dysfunction in the non-profit that employed us. It was a contentious meeting, with decade-old grudges and a legacy of mismanagement weighing on us. We had a few professional facilitators who did team-building tricks, asking us to pass rubber balls around in circles out in the yard. Frustration at the uselessness of the exercise raised the hair on the back of my neck.

Or was it something else?

In October and November pressure builds over the desert. Air pushes west to the ocean. The wind is dry, having been squeezed over the mountains, and warm, gaining in temperature as it descends toward the coast. Meteorologists call them "Föhn winds." In Los Angeles they're called "Santa Anas," and "Chinooks" in British Columbia. Every once in a while, someone in the Bay Area will decide we need our own name for them and trot out the colorful phrase "Diablo Winds," after Mount Diablo, which is to the east of a small part of the Bay Area. It never catches on.

Surfers love the winds, as they generate giant swells. Everyone else curls their lips. Some say the winds themselves agitate people, the sheer dry prickle of them. Or perhaps it's body memory, a recollection of what previous winds have brought.

Early that Sunday afternoon, I was distracted and not paying attention during the meeting - business as usual - when I suddenly smelled smoke. My co-worker Steve and I ran out to look for the fire. We found a small bonfire on an adjacent lot, downhill a bit. A man sprayed it with a garden hose, waving at us as if to say everything was under control. We waved back. We turned to head back into the house.

And we stopped. And stared, jaws slack.

A giant column of smoke boiled from the Oakland Hills perhaps five miles north.

We ran back into the meeting, which broke up in less time than it took us to finish our sentences. I rode with Steve toward the fire. His house was right beneath the plume, mine only a little further away. I spent the next two days breathing in smoke and soot, running out now and then to hose down the garage and wooden steps. Live embers the size of chickpeas rained down on our yard. The heat of the wind dried the wood within ten minutes. I slept little.

Twenty-five people died in the Oakland Hills Fire, one of them a close friend of a close friend. A hundred times that many houses were destroyed, and more than 400 apartments. A few of our friends - some of whom we would not yet meet for years - lost their houses that day.

One of them was Becky's friend Suh. Suh lived in a block of apartments near the center of the fire. It was incinerated. Suh was out of town that day, but her cat - Oliver - was at home.

A week after the fire Becky and I walked past the Berkeley - East Bay Humane Society, and I suggested we go in. What if the building had collapsed part-way before the fire, or if Oliver had clawed his way out a window screen? He might be in there, and Becky would recognize him.

Becky was doubtful, but agreed. We walked past a row of caged dogs to the cat room, and I saw a few gray cats there that matched the description. Turning to ask Becky whether any of the cats was Oliver, I noticed for the first time that she wasn't in the room.

I poked my head out the cat room door. Down by the entrance to the shelter area, at the very first dog cage right next to the door, Becky was rapt. She stared into a pair of brown, moist eyes, which stared back at her.

Those brown eyes are clouded over now, but they still noticed the oak leaves blowing in odd directions on the lawn yesterday. He stood in the warm wind, shivered. A leaf skittered to his feet. He bent painfully, sniffed it, looked up at me. The hair stood on the back of his neck.

I know how he feels.

Posted by Chris Clarke at November 16, 2005 03:47 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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All roads lead to Zeke around here. I wonder if your invocation of the Oakland Hills Fire might prompt a certain lurker to delurk? It is, after all, old home week.

Posted by: Miguel Alondra at November 16, 2005 06:46 PM
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Miguel, you say that like it's a bad thing!

Posted by: Space Kitty at November 16, 2005 10:49 PM
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OK, Miguel, since you've beckoned, I'm delurking just for you.

Yesterday, the silent message of that warm wind was with all of us with roots in this place. Walking up toward the Campanile with the leaves swirling at my feet and the dust blowing in my face, I too thought back to that October day when my family home burned. So, even though it is old home week, I can never go home again.

Posted by: jg at November 16, 2005 11:51 PM
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I'm very much in love with Zeke, but I'm new around these parts and don't know how to pronounce his name, which is disturbing. To rhyme with meek? or Becky? or something else entirely?

Thank you for your magnificent writing.

Posted by: qB at November 17, 2005 02:15 AM
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my daughter is 16, and she doesn't remember the fire. i told her yesterday how unusual it is to have "fire weather" so late in the season. she's heard the fire story many times -- my good friend literally lost everything, but they did save their cat.

jg, i'm so sorry.

Posted by: kathy a at November 17, 2005 06:55 AM
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Chris-- I remember that fire so well. We have a good friend whose dad lost his home in it. There is something about those winds that blow in from the east. They are always so warm and arid; it feels like they are straight out of the Great Basin. I've been in the Santa Ana's down in southern Cal, and experienced 140 mph Chinooks in Boulder. Always nerve-jangling and electrifying.

So, it is lovely to think someone as sweet as Zeke came into your lives because of those winds.

Posted by: Rexroth's Daughter at November 17, 2005 08:15 AM
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p.s. -- zeke has the most excellent pedigree! our wonderful dog buddy came from the berkeley/EB humane society, as did our fabulous feline persephone. [they chose us, but it was mutual love on sight.]

Posted by: kathy a at November 17, 2005 09:51 AM
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Zeke sometimes spells his name Zeek, and that's how its pronounced.

Posted by: craig at November 17, 2005 11:31 AM
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Just wanted to say - your writing is gorgeous. I've been lurking for awhile and I've felt a little guilty for enjoying and not saying so.

Thank you.

Posted by: anne at November 17, 2005 01:45 PM
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Growing up in the coastal Santa Monica Mountains i lived with Santa Anas year in and year out. The ravaging fires that threaten our home nearly every year it seemed, would lead to mudslides and road blockages and so much more in the winter and spring. Joan Didion, a wonderful friend (my god what a tragic 2004 she had), wrote a great deal about her dread of them, mentioning at one time:
"I have neither heard nor read that a Santa Ana is due, but I know it, and almost everyone I have seen today knows it too. We know it because we feel it. The baby frets. The maid sulks. I rekindle a waning argument with the telephone company, then cut my losses and lie down, given over to whatever it is in the air. To live with the Santa Ana is to accept, consciously or unconsciously, a deeply mechanistic view of human behavior."

Raymond Chandler chastized them as well:
"Those hot dry [winds] that come down through mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen."

We were just leaving the Bay Area when the Oakland fire started. We had been in Santa Cruz following a couple of weeks of activities memorializing the life of Bill Graham who had 'crashed and burned' a week before Halloween. We were intending to take 24 through the tunnel to Walnut Creek but chose to stay on 80 because the traffic seemed to flow better. Only when we got home did we know how bad it had been for all of you; and a reminder of our own precarious situation in the Sierra gold country high foothills.

one surfing quibble though: "Surfers love the winds, as they generate giant swells." The winds don't generate the swells; they re-make them into positively wonderful riding surfaces, carving off the various choppy aspects from winds and other off shore junk, and leaving these immensely-peaky, hanging-forever, thick lips that make dropping in such a rare and lovely treat.

Posted by: spyder at November 17, 2005 02:10 PM
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revisiting my tired and very old memory getting my dates mixed up, we had been in the bay preparing for the Grateful Dead special Halloween shows that followed Bill Graham's death. When we came back a ten days later we were shocked by the devastation and loss of so many of our friends houses. We then stayed in Berkeley for the next two weeks and tried to help as best we could.

Posted by: spyder at November 17, 2005 02:14 PM
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I remember that fire; in fact I'll never forget it.

I had just moved to California from Virginia for grad school that June. I was living in a crumby studio for $250/month down on San Pablo Avenue with the hookers, because that's all I could afford.

I woke up late that Sunday morning, walked out to San Pablo Avenue, felt the hot wind, and saw the giant plume of smoke arising out of the hills. WTF?

That night I stood on the roof of my apartment building and watched the hills burning. Even from the flatlands, I could see individual towers of flame erupting every time a eucalyptus went up. Those flames must have been 100 feet high. I'd never seen anything like it, and I hope I never do again.

Posted by: Mike Anderson at November 18, 2005 09:43 PM
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Eek! Smoke and fire. That is scary stuff. When ever returning home I have this fear of finding a smoking shell. :( I'm one of those people who goes around turning everything off before leaving the house.

Posted by: Walter Jeffries at November 20, 2005 10:42 AM
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Just wanted to say this was a great piece! Thanks!

Posted by: a nut at November 21, 2005 10:48 AM
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