My Mother and the California Fire Season
When I was telling the story of my mother and the Pacific Crest Trail, I mentioned that one of the things she did upon becoming a grandmother was to join the County Volunteer Search and Rescue team. Some might have found this odd but after 13 years as a Camp Fire Girl and another 18 years as a group leader she (probably unconsciously) lives her life by the laws of Camp Fire*, the second of which is Give Service. To help people and the community actually makes her happy.
After her beginning training her very first call out was to find a teen girl who had gone missing in the very same state park where she would take my group camping every other weekend. The girl was found in the morning just fine and had probably been hiding, afraid of getting into trouble once she realized a search party had been called.
My mom has continued her training over the last five years, rising up through the levels, pushing herself through wilderness evaluations that take out people half her age. All this despite the fact that most of her callouts are for old people with dementia who have wandered away from home and tried to catch buses to places that no longer exist.
Last Monday she texted me to say that she’d been called out to Butte county for search and recovery. She’d be leaving at two in the morning and she’d message me when she got back. I noted it was search and recovery, not search and rescue. We’d spent the last few years sure this would happen at some point.
If you watch the videos on the New York Times site or the Washington Post you might have seen her, one of a group dressed in head to toe white hazmat suits, poking through ash and rubble that was hardly higher than their ankles.
She was only up there for two days. That was as long as it was considered “safe”. We talked a bit when she got home. Just a bit. Normally she is more than willing to talk about learning to find shell casings in grassy crime scenes, or the autopsy she got to witness.
She said it reminded her of the pictures from Nagasaki after the bomb. Everything flattened to ash and the occasional bit of melted, twisted, metal. Her team was assigned a forensic anthropologist who could tell the difference between shattered rock and bone. And human bone from animal. She said there were no bodies to find, just bits of bone in the ash. She kept mentioning the toilets. They went house to house and would check the bathrooms, since that’s where people hide in fires. She kept mentioning that there were never any toilets. The fire had burned so hot even the thick porcelain was reduced to nothing.
After two days the team was put through a full decontamination, because apparently the ash is carcinogenic and the chemicals can seep through the skin. Another team was brought up to take their place and there will be another after that. The ground is still to hot and the air too bad to bring in dogs to work the scene. The scene being an entire city.
I had a video call with her the next day, mostly so she could talk with her granddaughter about school sports day and the upcoming dance recital.
Her lips were dry and cracked and I could tell, even on the little phone screen, that they had been bleeding. She looked tired, and older that she is. My dad thinks she has a little PTSD going.
They’re both in Vegas right now at a time share avoiding the smoke and working on their NaNoWriMo projects. My dad is writing at YA comic fantasy with a talking horse. My Mom is writing a thriller where a wild fire is a key plot point. I wonder if that’s going to change.
*The Laws of Camp Fire (as I remember them)
Hold on to Health