There was a fire on the way home last night. We could see the fluffy, spiral plume of smoke for miles as we drove home on the freeway. It was a sickly yellow, sort of cream and brown as well. It rose off the hillside of dead grass and into the blue sky. I watched it as we sped along, trying to see red flame beneath the yellow, but I couldn’t. I watched, noting that the plume up top was large; immovable, but that smoke rolled off the hills beneath, curling to join the rest. The sunset made the cloud a deathly red.
KPCC, our local public radio station, is calling it the Azusa fire. Evacuations from last night have been lifted and the fire burned a few hundred acres. This is all the technical information I have about it. Azusa is close to us. I used to go to school at Citrus College in Azusa and my friend Emily works there still. It’s not the proximity of the fire, that I care about. I have been closer to fires. It is fire in general.
I can’t see a plume of smoke coming from a low hill without thinking about Vesuvius, and wondering if the people of Pompeii also watched a curling cloud of ash rise from the hills as unconcernedly as I always do. I even watch with a sense of wonder. I thought this during the Claremont fire, over ten years ago now, as well, about the vacationers in Rome on their last days on earth. Gray ash rained down from the heavens for two days and the world smelled like camp. The light was eerie, like a foggy day only the fog had no substance; no dewed weight. It was dry, made of filaments, and warm. My clothes were smeared with white and black bits clung to my hair. My lungs felt heavy. the night was especially black.
I was bussing tables at the local dinner theater during the Claremont fire, and still living in my mother’s house. During the first act of the show, our break, some of the staff climbed to the top of the hotel next door. Just past the high school we could see the glow in the darkness. The flames crawled nearer. We watched them spread toward civilization, flickering and gaining hold on the burning grasses faster than an incoming tide. One of the waiters got a phone call from his mom. He had been evacuated, and he couldn’t go home that night. Even I had packed a box and put it in my back seat, not wanting to tempt fate.
It’s strange how a plume in the sky turns into something real as it creeps toward us. Instead of being something to watch with fascination it becomes something to run from as it crawls across the dead hills. Is this fascination why few in Pompeii got out? Is the distance why I tend not to pay attention to reports of fires during California’s long fire season? I don’t know. But I know that natural disaster has always plagued humanity, and that it always will.
The plume had dissipated this morning, but the sun rose through a milky gray haze that settled evenly over the horizon. The evacuation order was lifted. This fire is done.