I went to the Napa County fairground two days ago in Calistoga to check in with—and on—Tim Locke, the cheerful Executive Director of Four Springs Retreat, the small center located where the oaks met the pines on September 12th and formed a flaming alliance. No one was sure if Four Springs managed to escape being burned, but—mirabile dictu!—it had. Tim’s first posting, which confirmed the survival of Four Springs, mentioned Chaz the cat’s continued material existence first. “People are asking about our cat, and he is OK,” wrote Tim. “That rascal wouldn’t get in the truck!” Chaz, the rascally cat, is extremely lucky. The fire burned right up to the vineyard that borders the property. Firefighters used the vineyard’s irrigation system as a firebreak. A much bigger firebreak in the shape of a storm front subsequently moved in, bringing rain with it, which fell copiously on Middletown and Four Springs. Chaz the cat, inconvenienced by fire and padding around in a rain-soaked compound, is perhaps wondering in his catlike way why things have been so fucking turbulent lately.
Forty-six miles away, the Napa County fairgrounds in Calistoga had been re-purposed as an evacuee center. It bustled with activity. “Welcome Evacuees” read a hand-painted sign. The large field next to the parking lot was packed with tents. The exhibit hall had been turned into a medical station. Inside the concrete hall, about hundred cots were lined up next to each other. People lay on them, many elderly.
“How are people doing?” I asked a volunteer nurse named Sue, rather lamely. (The supine bodies worried me.) “They’re okay,” replied Sue. “People are mostly dealing with smoke inhalation.”
Sue had a sensible haircut and luminous, kindly blue eyes. I suspected her bedside manner was reassuring. There were a lot of volunteers in the room, which was no surprise: on the Lake County Office of Emergency Facebook wall, there was offer after offer of help, like this posting from Kathleen Bisaccio: “I am a retired nurse and will volunteer where ever you need me.” Sue had clearly heard the call and come down to help. She looked like she’d never become unnerved by the demands on her time and attention; would never scatter and run. She’d stay put.
I felt an almost desperate gratitude to Sue and the others: the people at the volunteer table, the woman sitting behind the State Farm insurance table, the volunteers who were calmly sifting through all the goods that came flooding in. Everywhere you looked, there were heaps and mounds of clothing, tents, books, pallets of water, art supplies, toys for the kids. It looked like a massive garage sale. The volunteers were picking and sorting and schlepping and dealing with all the stuff that that been donated. The only thing that was missing from the growing pile of stuff was arguably what the people in the camp needed the most. A home.
Lake County is really on the map right now. I’m not sure how the people in Lake County feel about that: the place is mysteriously mysterious. To get to Lake County from San Francisco, you exit from the 101 at Hopland and take the 175, a dizzying (and potentially nauseating) mountain road and drop down into a long, broad lake basin. Sonoma county lies to the west and Napa county is directly below it. The county is proximate to the wine county, yet… not of it. Lake County is not a wealthy county, though there is wealth in it. The median household income is 36,000 dollars. My friend Gail wrote, “The economy has always been sluggish and a great number of the population is on some kind of assistance. Lots of meth labs and pot farms. But through it all, a core of good middle-class workers. I always liked Middletown. It was diverse with Harbin Hot Springs new-ager’s and blue-collar steam power workers, teachers, farmers, retirees and lately winery folks.” Hard to believe, living and writing from the culturally denuded landscape of San Francisco, that there are still small towns in California that possess this cast of characters; this sort of unconscious eclecticism.
Lake County has the distinction of having California’s largest natural lake in it, called Clearlake, a startlingly huge body of water that a surprising number of Californians know nothing about. The first time I saw it, I gaped at it. I was in Lakeport for a friend’s funeral, Marla Ruzika, who was a human rights activist killed by an IED in Iraq in 2005. Years earlier, Marla told me where she was from. When I said I’d never heard of it, she told me not to feel bad about my ignorance. “No one knows about it, ’cause it isn’t off 101,” she said.
This isn’t really the time or place to go into a long tangent about the fascinating geologic and hydrologic history of Lake County, but I’m going to, because it’s wild. Did you know Lake County has a volcano, Mount Konocti? It does and it’s still a threat. The USGS says, of the volcano, that “intermittent seismic activity and the presence of heat at depth indicate that the system is still active and eruptions are likely.” (Good to know.) The next time you’re in Calistoga, stand on the main street, and lift your eyes east to perceive the basalt crowns ridging the western escarpment of the Mayacamas mountains to the north, and the Palisades range to the south. Think about Mount Konocti. Then, consider the area known as the “geysers”, the largest geothermal field in California which is spread liberally over the crest of the Mayacamas. It supplies power to Mendocino, Lake, Sonoma, Napa, and Marin counties. The earth belches steam and heats water because of a large magma chamber that sits four miles below the ground of Lake County. Harbin Hot Springs, Four Springs and probably lots of other anonymous hot springs owe their existence to the eight-mile wide magma chamber of Mount Koncocti.
Lake County averages at least 12 small earthquakes a day, because of Calpine’s practice of injecting effluent into the ground—fracking, in other words—to increase the output of steam. Since Calpine started doing this, the number of earthquake has steadily crept upward. Lake County and its residents experience the by-products of the fiery volatility underfoot each day in the form of cluster earthquakes and the healing waters of the hot springs resorts in the area. I wonder how many small hot springs, not contained in private resorts like Harbin, are known and used by the residents of Hidden Valley and Cobb and the other small settlements of the Mayacamas mountain. I bet if you asked locals, you’d get tips on places to bathe in the healing waters of Lake County; places you didn’t have to pay to access. But they’d have to like you to give that kind of information up. One gets the feeling that the people who live in Lake County like it quiet. They don’t want a bunch of people tromping in and settling down.
The Lake Countians, though, like being settled down just fine. Arguably, this might be hard to do in a place where earthquakes shake the ground every hour or so. Throughout the Mayacamas, they’ve made places for themselves in small towns like Cobb, and sometimes not in small towns, but in ad-hoc settlements so typical of California’s foothill and mountain communities. This is a pleasant way to live when nature is cooperating. “We always felt Anderson Springs was a safe haven,” a evacuee The Sacramento Bee. When it isn’t, it can be deadly. The Valley Fire was exactly that for three people, as of this writing. There will likely be more. It displaced 17,000 people and destroyed 535 residences. The tents in the evacuees camp are place-markers for the homes that burned as the fire barreled though the hills above Middletown.
In trying to understand the disadvantage of being burnt out of your home, it might be wise to consult with recent census data, math combined with a Google drive down Highway 175 on Google maps. That’s how I found a pre-fire shot of a mobile home tucked away off McKinley Drive, a short street that runs parallel to 175 for a few yards (Lake County, according to the 2000 census, has the highest percentage of mobile homes of any California county.) I’m going to posit a fictional, but totally plausible scenario: A single mom lived in this now-destroyed mobile home, with her two children and several dogs. She works as a sales associate at Walmart. This is also plausible: Walmart is one of the top employers in Lake County. The current wage for a sales associate at Walmart is $9.32. It will rise to ten bucks after January 1st, 2016 because of AB 10, which raised the minimum wage. But as of this writing, it’s $9.32. If this fictional mom —whom I’m sure exists and is maybe even living at the Napa County fairgrounds with her two kids in a tent—works forty hours a week, at $9.34 an hour, she makes, after taxes, 433.90 a week. Annually, that’s 20,827.20 a year. The Living Wage calculator for Lake County says that an hourly living wage for an adult with two kids is twenty-five bucks an hour. Annually, that’s about forty-seven thousand (again, after taxes.) My fictional mom is obviously not making that. She’s probably on assistance, Medical, most likely.
This construct is ponderously tendentious, but you have to start somewhere. It’s hard to re-situate yourself in a dwelling with all the costs it takes (first month, last month, deposit) making 20, 827 a year, especially after losing everything. It’s hard to make ends meet on twenty thousand a year just staying put, but the day-to-day routines, scenarios and situations of life give you at least a chance to plan for the change headed your way. (If you see it. In this right-to-work state, you may not.) Staying put within your admittedly constrained economic limits at least gives you the ability to think, perchance to dream, of stepping up one rung in the economic ladder. Displacement bursts those limits wide open.
What is the difference between an evacuee and a refugee in Lake County, CA? Is it just a matter of closing the gap between the current minimum wage and a livable wage? Or is it a designation assigned by time and locale? The longer you sleep on a cot in a concrete room, the more likely it is that your identity, destroyed by disaster, reconstructs itself around other people’s diminished expectations for your long-term prospects. My friend Christie astutely pointed out that volunteer help was more likely to be needed in a few weeks, after the first flush of altruism wears thin, compassion fatigue sets in and people stop volunteering. Do you stop being an evacuee the morning you wake up and realize that the act of seeking refuge for too long has turned you into something troublesome and unwanted, something people build walls to keep out?
Here’s a quote from Jelani Cobb: “History, social science and common sense have made it increasingly difficult not to consider the term “natural disaster” as a linguistic diversion, one that carries a hint of absolution. Hurricanes, earthquakes and floods are natural phenomena; disasters , however, are often the work of humankind.”
Which also means that the work of humankind can prevent disaster. I think of the weird mixture of gratitude and desperation I felt looking into the calm blue eyes of Sue, the volunteer nurse. Later, well-meaning friends thanked me, with the same gasping relief (thank god that someone’s doing something!) I felt fraudulent. I hadn’t performed a single act of support. I just observed.
Later I thought, we’re all so afraid we won’t do the right thing. However we define that.
Right now, the “right thing” might be giving money to North Coast Opportunities for relief efforts for fire victims. FEMA has given a grant to assist with the huge job of fighting the fire, and providing some evacuee support. But nothing I’ve read makes it sounds like FEMA re-builds homes. How will they get rebuilt? For those with private fire insurance, this might not be a question. But for those without? A natural phenomena—exacerbated by climate change and drought—will do exactly what all the other fires, floods and famines of the past have done: metastasize into a disaster. “Crap! Looks like we’re homeless!” an evacuee wrote on the Facebook page of Lake County Office of Emergency Assistance. “It was a good little house that protected us well.” They didn’t mention anything about re-building it.