The Slatest

Ahead of the Flames

On Saturday, we left our home as the Mendocino Complex fires got close. We don’t know if we’ll ever see it again.

The burned out remains of a home in a residential neighborhood.
The burned-out remains of a home in Redding, California, on Friday.
Josh Edelson/Getty Images

We probably should have known when the midday sunlight turned an eerie red that it was really happening, we were going to have to evacuate. At 12:30 p.m. on Saturday we noticed this strange reddish light, and went outside together, to take in the smoky sky and the odd, apocalyptic feel of our town, Lakeport, California, about 100 miles north of San Francisco. Although we couldn’t see it, we knew the River Fire (part of the Mendocino Complex) was raging a few miles to our west. Our 17-year-old foster, whom the law requires me to avoid naming in print, tried to get some video, hoping to share the odd light and odder feeling with the friends he keeps in his ears, via oversize headphones, nearly 24/7.

We felt restless and tired of waiting for news, and so we decided to take a trip through the McDonald’s drive-thru, something to do while we waited to hear news. As my wife reached for the bag of burgers, we heard her phone buzz with a text alert—residents of Lakeport, California, were being advised to evacuate. Ash was falling from the sky like light snow as we pulled up to our house, so we ate quickly, then packed the cars. The kid joked about wanting to stay and loot the houses, pretending to be hard. He also found a half-packed backpack (containing my baby blanket and the Icelandic sweater I’d gotten on my honeymoon) and rescued it just before I pulled away and left it behind.

Before all that, in the early morning, Cassie and I had woken to news that the fires near Hopland and Route 20—two of the three roads out of town—had grown overnight and were moving in our direction. They were just a few of the 20 or more fires now burning across California. Cassie and I began an evacuation plan while the kid and Mandy, Cassie’s girlfriend, slept. We accepted a kind offer to stay with a friend in Oakland. We talked about what we’d take (our new microwave, the gaming systems, everything the kid moved in with) and what we’d have to leave behind (the television, the crock pot, the kid’s new bike). Cassie would drive the Corolla with Mandy, the kid, and our two dogs. I’d take the Prius with the cats, whom our friend couldn’t accommodate. If necessary I’d take them to shelter before going on to Oakland, but we’d try to find a friend of a friend to take them on.

But that wasn’t the beginning—far from it. The red light of wildfire has colored our life in Northern California, in this town we’ve grown to love, from the day we decided to move there for my wife’s work.

The director of the Lake County Mosquito Control District insisted Cassie come and interview in person because, she said, the remoteness of Lake County had led others who’d taken positions to leave almost as quickly as they came once the reality sank in. We were having lunch in a restaurant on Main Street whose walls held remembrances of the Valley Fire, where four people died and nearly 2,000 structures were destroyed. Wildfires in California have been worsening, along with drought, and reminders of both were unavoidable even on a three-day trip during the rainy winter of 2017 with our future looking bright.

The work was exactly what my wife was looking for, a chance to direct her own research into mosquitoes and other pest insects, and at a higher salary than either of us had ever made. We weren’t bothered that Lakeport was rural and remote; we’d already fallen in love with the fairy-tale beauty of the mountains and the lake. Still, we agreed, better to rent than to buy property here. We wouldn’t want to buy our first house only to have it burn down. It took some looking, but we found a three-bedroom house to rent for roughly what a one-bedroom apartment in Boston would have been, walking distance from Main Street and Cassie’s new workplace. It had space for Mandy to have her own bedroom, and a fenced-in yard for the dogs to play.

Lakeport is a town of fewer than 5,000, and so everyone knows when you’re new in town. “Why on earth did you come to Lakeport?” was a question we grew used to fielding as soon as people understood we weren’t just visiting, and when we answered we found that everyone knew the Mosquito Control District Office where my wife worked. The people in and around Lakeport are like people everywhere, except perhaps a little prouder, a little sadder, and a little more willing to help a neighbor in need. One of my wife’s co-workers is far-left feminist; another has an NRA sticker on his truck. Our being both queer and polyamorous is certainly a novelty, but not one that’s been met with any real hostility on the locals’ part.

Last winter the rains didn’t come, and we knew then the pleasant sunshine foretold a dry tinderbox surrounding us in the summer months. But no one knew we’d have weeks of unrelenting heat with highs of 107, hot weather so intense we’d hide inside, day after day, going out only during the cool of the early mornings or at night. Fire has been with us through the drought, formally declared for Lake County in May, and in the record-setting heat. It’s been out there on the tawny dried-grass hills all summer, only waiting for a spark to let it loose.

In our first summer, fires raged in neighboring Mendocino County; a couple months afterward we drove through Middletown and saw burned-out cars, foundations where houses once stood, a husk of a gas station: the corpse of a town. A few hours to our north is the much larger town of Redding, where Mandy and I go to see a doctor who’ll treat transgender patients. Redding is burning now, and five people have died. As the acreage of the Mendocino Complex grows, we know that Lakeport may be next. On Route 20 north, the one remaining way out of town, we were joined by our neighbors and friends as we all scattered to other towns, other cities, unsure whether Lakeport will still be standing when we come back. It’s one of a million rural towns that no one knows, and no one seems to want to know. Maybe it was even dying already, but people, including us, still call it home.