SEPTEMBER 2018 - THE GREAT MENDOCINO COMPLEX FIRE


You’ve heard of the Great Chicago Fire that burned down half Chicago in 1871. Well now, we folks in Lake County, California, have our own Great fire to brag about. It looks like we will be having more fires every year. The new standard, because of Global Warming and according to our Governor, is drought, dry summers and more disasters from the flames. The Great Chicago fire was bad enough, but ours was no peanut fire. Chicago’s conflagration lasted two days; ours isn’t over yet. Chicago lost more people in that city and burned 3.3 square miles. To our good fortune, we had plenty of good neighbors who put us up and lots of open places where we could escape. Still, our fires burned plenty of homes and barns, singed cows and it’s already burned more than four times the area. Our fire was personal. It burned my neighbor’s home across my road and crept close enough to melt the asphalt edge of the road in front of my farm. As bad as it was, nobody’s leaving. We country folks love our homes and no piddling fire is going to drive us out of one of the best places on earth. Our County brags on a half-dozen dormant volcanoes, one of the world’s most beautiful lakes and the freshest air anywhere, except after a fire and until the winds carries the smoke to other parts. Just so I don’t leave anyone feeling frustrated or gloomy, I add this piece of good news that came out of the disaster; a Community Watch Program. The folks in my part of the County, and probably, by the time of his writing, other towns in the County, are hard at work on plans, which will, along with our excellent County Fire Fighters, help us fight future fires. What triggered the Watch Plan Idea was the fire that sent Cleo, my cat, and me, packing to escape the flames. The day began in a pretty ordinary way. I went to the front porch to sit and watch the sky from one of the two new deck chairs my kids bought me for Father’s Day, while Cleo claimed the other. We enjoyed the cool morning breeze and the summer sun without a word between us. I smelled smoke. My nose has learned to smell smoke pretty well. I can smell smoke a hundred miles away. That’s because of all the fires in Lake County last year have trained my nose to be a good smoke smeller. When I looked at the sky above the hills across the road, there was a smoky haze on the hills, not a lot, but enough to notice. Knowing the folks in Redding, north of us, had a big fire, I thought a South Wind might have brought some of the smoke to us. I heard my phone ring. When I went in to answer, our Sherriff was on the line. “Prepare to evacuate Witter Springs and Bachelor Valley,” he said. ‘What was he talking about?’ I said to myself. ‘Bachelor Valley never has a fire.’ No sooner did I hang up the phone when it rang off the wall a second time. ‘What now?’ I wondered. It was my good neighbor, Linda, who lives in the farm next door and brings me her good apple pies. “Get ready to evacuate,” she said. “The fire is coming closer.” I figured Linda knew what’s what. She worked with the Fire Department and the Police Department once and knew what was going on in Lake County. I could see, both, Linda and the Sherriff, were dead serious so I filled my pillow case with CD’s of the stories I had written, packed my shaving razor, folders of my usual monthly bills.…just in case…and went back to my writing. I had not been working for five minutes when the Sherriff paid me a second call. “Residents of Witter Springs and Bachelor Valley must evacuate immediately,” he said. That’s all she wrote. Into my Kia went the pillow case, my bills, my shaving razor, and my Laptop Computer. I was ready to go. It was then I noticed something was missing. I looked at my list again and discovered Cleo, my cat, was missing. Outside I went to call Cleo. I called her until the neighbors must have thought I was out of my mind. But no Cleo appeared. Around the house I walked calling. “Cleo? Cleo?” Still no Cleo. With Cleo’s Cat Carrier box ready and waiting I had to stay until I found my cat. After all, where would my career be without Cleo? Nowhere, that’s where. Her famousness helps pay the bills. When people stop me on the street they never ask me how I am. They always say, ‘How’s Cleo?’ I know on which side my bread was buttered. I thought of my outdoor cat, Calico, but Calico was nowhere to be seen. Besides she is semi-wild and I knew she would never allow me to put her in a box. My pond has water and she is wild enough to live off the land for a few days. Just to make sure she was all right I called the Animal Shelter and asked to send someone over if the evacuation order lasted too long. Christine, one of the helpers, promised they would. Just when the sky turned black as blood and I saw flames, Cleo came sauntering in from the front room. You would have thought, by the devil-may-care look on her round furry face, she hadn’t a worry in the world. “Where did you come from?” I asked. She did not reply. Being the crafty creature that Cleo is, able to pass through solid walls, she had come indoors when I wasn’t looking. “In you go to the Cat Carrier, Cleo,” I said. She was not ready and I could not persuade her, so I tried stuffing her in head first. That didn’t work. She spread out like a circus tent and hung on to the Cat box opening for dear life. She hates the Cat box. As a last resort I turned her upside down and stuffed her in like sausage in a skin, butt first, and we were ready to go. Even as the engine caught fire, the flames licked at my heels. Off we flew down Bachelor Valley Road to Highway 20 on my way to my daughter Dolly’s house in Redwood Valley, twenty miles down the road toward Ukiah. My daughter was forced to evacuate Redwood Valley last year but this year her home was the safest bet. That’s where Cleo and I headed. I’m glad we did. Five of my friends, who invited me to stay at their house until the excitement was over, lived in places on Highway 20 along the North Shore of the Lake, small towns like Lakeport, Kelseyville, Upper Lake, Nice, and Glenhaven. I was grateful but it was lucky Cleo and I didn’t accept. Highway 20 closed later and was overrun by the fire. We would have been stuck in Lake County not able to leave. All the places, where I was invited, had to evacuate like I did. If I had gone to any of those towns to stay until the fires were out, where could Cleo and I go next? Chico? Eureka, the Moon? On my way, a mile from Bachelor Valley Road, I stopped at a clear spot at the side of the highway to look at the Armageddon from which we were fleeing. The sky was piled high with black smoke. The whole country was burning. The fires of Hell could not look any worse. When at last we pulled into Dolly’s house, the gate was open and she was waiting with a smile on her face. We were here. I took what few things I brought and Cleo in her Carrier and went into our new home. Out came Cleo to inspect her new diggings. While I was putting my things away, Cleo disappeared. “Where did Cleo go?” I asked Dolly. After searching under beds and sofas, in closets and corners, we found her. Cleo had made herself at home on Dolly’s bed. Dolly wanted Cleo meet her new friends; Pixie, Dolly’s white cat, and Angel, Dolly’s 93-pound Great Pyrenees doggie. I thought Angel might eat Cleo. Angel was big enough to swallow my cat in one bite. Instead, Angel wanted to play with Cleo but Cleo wasn’t in the mood right then. The long and the short of the meeting was that each of the three creatures decided to mind their own business and Cleo went to sleep under my bed. I watched the news reports and wondered, with a hollow feeling in my stomach, what I might find when I got home. Would I find, like happened for many of my friends, nothing left? Would my mementos and pictures of fifty years be dust in the wind? Would Jeannette’s favorite Rocking Chair, my books, my paintings, my collection of hand-made antique automobiles, my music, my photographs, all my reminders of Jeannette and the house we built fifty years ago, be only stone and ashes? I put those thoughts aside. I don’t think that way most of the time. I believe this day is the first day of the rest of my life. How I spend that day, and the rest of my days from today, is more important. I have an obligation to live life to the fullest no matter our tragedies. The only things that matter are the people; not the things we collect over the years. Life is, and will always continue to be, a wonderful mystery waiting to be discovered. I counted my blessings. I had my writing and my work. I had a place to stay until the storm receded. I have my children and my friends. Cleo was with me and my semi-feral outdoor cat, Calico, who chose to stay behind, had food and water. Besides, the food was great. My sweet daughter, Dolly, is a wonderful cook. Almost everything comes from her amazing garden and her dinners beat the finest cuisine I have tasted on the Rue de La Paix or at the George V Hotel Restaurant in Paris, France, where once I was a visitor. Cleo was happy. She found a million hiding places and windows out of which she could see the world. I watched no doors were open that might allow her to go wandering. Cleo might decide to leave and not come back. I would lose a friend and she would no longer be around to give me stories to write about. I kept busy and watched the spread of the fire on the Internet. I watched the fire creep around my small valley, ringed by mountains, in a giant burning horseshoe with my home in the center. I read my e-mails, answered some, and wrote my stories. There were columns to send to magazines and newspapers in Kansas, Indiana, Illinois, Colorado, and California. On the fourth day I decided to find out, first-hand, whether Highway 20 would be open soon. My friends know me; I must know for myself if something is true or not. Voices of Authority often make mistakes and, since I am responsible for my life, it was up to me to find out what was going on. At the Potter Valley turn-off, where I’d heard Highway 20 to Witter Springs was closed, people were going to their homes in Potter Valley from Ukiah and passing through that junction. Loaded with police cars, everyone was checked to make sure they lived in Potter Valley. When my turn came I asked, ”How soon will Highway 20 be open?” “It may be open soon but not yet.” I was told. “Fire is burning on both sides of Highway 20 for eighteen miles all the way to Bachelor Valley.” Dolly and I drove to the Local Help Center in Redwood Valley. Daniella, the young woman in charge, helped fire victims. I needed a change of clothing to wear while Dolly washed my old clothes. Having only the clothes on my back, I took pants, shorts, shirt, socks and some things to take home for dinner. If that wasn’t enough, Daniella slipped Dolly a forty-dollar gift certificate. She said it was for me and was good at any Walmart Store. Daniella was a good helper and a wonderful lady. Daniella is one of those folks, as young as she is, who have learned how important it is to help others. Thank you, Daniella, and thank all the good folks that contribute to help the fire victims. I often speak and write of people’s innate kindness and willingness to offer a helping hand to others less fortunate. It came home to me in spades that day. I waited…and waited some more. Several times each day I called Cal Fire and searched the Internet for news. Cleo always sat upon a table looking out the front window and hoping to go outside and play. She looked so longingly outside she brought tears to my eyes. I thought of Oscar Wilde’s poem, ‘Ballad of Reading Gaol’;

​‘I never saw a cat who looked With such a wistful eye Upon that little tent of blue Which prisoners call the sky.’

Morning of the Eighth Day, Linda, my neighbor, who had taken her dogs and gone to Chico during the fire, called me on my cell phone. “I just got word that Witter Springs people can go home,” she said. I was loaded in ten minutes. I stuffed Cleo into her Cat Carrier. After a hug and a big thank you to my dear daughter, Cleo and I drove past twenty miles of black, burned-out hills that might have been the half-way house to Hell. No matter. The hills would soon be green again and we were going home. Wheeling up my drive, I saw that Calico had been fed and watered. I unloaded and put everything back in its place ready to go to work. My first order of business was the talk I promised to give to the Lower Lake Democratic club next day. My second obligation was my monthly Town Hall Meeting two days away. I kept my talking appointment. I told about Lake County’s four hard-fought elections for the County Seat in 1861 to 1867. Except for the hired votes from out of the County and keeping Lower Lake citizens from voting at the point of a gun, it was like most elections. Lower Lake lost the vote. That’s politics, I suppose. I thought nobody would come to a Town Hall meeting until the fires were over and the smoke had cleared. Claudine, a Board member, changed my mind. ‘Let’s have the meeting,’ she E-mailed. ‘People need to talk about the fire.’ She was right and we had the meeting. I was surprised. The Upper Lake Senior Center was filled to the rafters. What’s more, we discussed a Community Watch Program to help fight the next disaster to come. Another fire will come as surely as day follows night. When it does, Cleo and I will be even better prepared.

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Copyright ©2018-2020  Gene Paleno, PAL Publishing Inc.

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