At the end of a long, ash-soaked day on a farm hit by the Witch Creek Fire, low clouds and darkness are over-taking the light, and there is the smell of rain in the air. Working on a wooden garage frame burned by the flames, I look up as two enormous hawks fly low overhead. They are beautiful, with white underbellies and blue-black wings and tail tips. They screech as they pass over.
Life is returning rapidly to this land, with small green shoots already emerging from the ground and birds all over the place. I see a pair of red-topped woodpeckers walking up a burned tree, probing for bugs, then flying off. And so many other birds I don’t recognize quickly flying in and out of the remaining trees and fallen branches.
My dad found water on his land, a lot of it, but the plastic pipes he laid above ground got burnt up in the fire. So my brother in law Will worked days in a row to get a quick fix in place that, with the aid of a generator, began pumping water.
Then, in the course of two long weekends, Del, a contractor who is also a good friend, his employee Jorge, and I pull new electrical wire through new pipe, replace fried connection boxes, and restore the electrical system. We then replace a one-inch pipe coming off the main well with a two-inch pipe, and I felt, as I never had before, the farmer’s age-old love of gushing water in a parched land.
My dad’s old place has huge sycamores that grace the view with the enormous trunks slanting at different angles to the ground and great limbs that curve and twist. But they have been badly burned at the base, along with so many other trees in the creek bottom. The main objective for me is to get water on the trees and around them, to give them a chance to come back in the Spring.
So I haul hundreds of feet of hose around the grove, set up rainbirds and let the pressure of the two-inch water pipe do its thing, pushing water in long streams around the burnt trees, sending puffs of ash into the air as the spray hits the burnt trunks.
As the water comes down, the gray, ash-littered ground turns to black and brown, overlaid with yellow sycamore leaves, the colors of Fall. And thus normalcy returns to the natural cycle as drop by drop, the land’s memory of the scorching hell of the fire fades away.
The scars will remain for years and years to come, the blackened trunks, the burnt hollows inside trees where bees had been and where the flames found hospitality. And come Spring, there will no doubt be a fair amount of tree-cutting to do. But with the saintly blessing of the water, the grove will come back.
Tromping out of the creek bottom in the afternoon, I find Stephanie the insurance adjustor from Farmer’s who has come to look in on the farm. She is a disaster specialist, a job that intrigues me, not unlike the job I had as a reporter, going from plane crash to earthquake to plagues of bugs.
Young, fit and direct, she explains the coverage division between the main building, untouched, the electrical system and water systems that support it, covered under the main house’s policy, to the destroyed tool-shed, covered under a limited, second buildings term, to the trees, 500 a pop up to the max of five percent of the coverage on the main house. “You’ll max out on the trees,” she says.
There remains the question of the storage container, which contained most of the contents of the house from when my dad died three years ago, right around this time. They are “contents,” under the insurance policy, and count against the main coverage of the house. The fire raged all around the container and turned it into a massive oven, which the adjustor will not enter.
So I spend an afternoon pulling the blackened contents of the container outside, so she can look them over. Jazz records, books on cinema, old tax records, kitchen stuff, lamps, mattress, a trophy the cinema students at PCC gave my dad in appreciation, at the end of the school year, in the form of an old movie camera mounted on a wood base with a plaque that concludes with the word, “Bravo!”
Jorge helps me. And because it is hard work, the ghosts flying out of the container seem to slip off my back. And maybe the time, like the land’s quick turnaround, this one has been longer, but the anguish is almost gone. I dwell less on my dad’s hard passage.
Driving up north, in the evening, a light rain peppers the car and a cool mist is down on the land. It is such a healing balm, cool and fresh, carrying with it the gift of renewal, in such extreme contrast to the deadly ferocity and angry appetite of the fire that burned across the same land, just a couple weeks ago. A bit like life and death.
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