NOVATO, Calif. — It was 90 degrees that afternoon, but at a rest stop along Interstate 5 in the mountains of Northern California, it snowed flakes of ash on my pickup. The wildfire raging nearby was about as bad as anyone could imagine, but our imaginations hadn’t reached November yet.
This was August, long before we lost Paradise and much of Malibu, before the fiery hellscapes at opposite ends of a state under siege lit up screens around the world. This was before the long-fading myth of California as Eden was scorched into some sort of Mad Max dystopia, before teams of forensic examiners were sent to sift through the ashes to find the dozens, maybe hundreds, of missing dead.
It was when there was still hope that the latest big fire would be the last one to worry about for a while.
The hot, smoky summer air smelled like campfire. A worried asthmatic woman headed to San Diego asked me when it would end.
Other side of Redding, I said. I wasn’t sure. Maybe Sacramento. Just keep going.
The Carr Fire burned for six weeks and scorched about 230,000 acres — a bigger area than the five boroughs of New York City combined. It destroyed about 1,600 buildings and killed at least three people. Its smoke carried halfway across the country, proving that California’s influence spreads in peculiar ways.
I followed the woman south through the mountains and soon spotted something moving under a long bridge, below the choking haze. Down on Lake Shasta, there were boaters and water skiers.
I laughed. That’s so California, I thought. Heavenly and hellish, sometimes simultaneously.
It’s after Election Day now. The Camp Fire in Butte County is now the California’s deadliest ever, and the Woolsey Fire in and around Malibu chased out a quarter-million evacuees in its first days.
I live in the Bay Area, nowhere near the fires but persistently reminded of them. My neighborhood slinks through the rugged hills of dry grass and trees, terrain not unlike what we’ve seen burning on television. It hasn’t rained in six weeks; before that, not since spring. The toxic drift from the Camp Fire has made our air so murky that schools closed. Ash falls again on my truck, parked in the driveway.
Twitter delivered the first message from President Donald Trump about the fires.
“There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor,” Trump wrote, finding little use for empathy or truth. “Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!”
It was the latest in a series of perplexing verbal missives aimed at California. Californians know all about outsider ambivalence toward the Golden State. It has been going on for generations. Love it or hate it.
Now those feelings have spread wide and deep into the national political discourse. All across the country, California represents a foil for people who worry that it foreshadows the future of the country, as it always has.
“Are we going to turn into California?” one candidate for governor in Nevada said in October, a derisive echo of campaign talk across the West.
California, we were told, was an overpriced and overregulated land of marauding immigrants and straw-less restaurants. And now, postelection, look at it — burning at both ends, the recent setting of another unexplained mass shooting, a place with both abject poverty and astronomical housing costs, everyone waiting for the big earthquake.
Funny, I think, every time I hear California insulted. I choose to live here. There is no other place I’d rather raise my children. I’m always proud to say I’m from California, a beautiful and messy place unlike any other, in a moment unlike any other.
California Is the Enemy or the Answer
One in 8 Americans live here. If California were a country, it would represent the world’s fifth-biggest economy. It is the most diverse state in the country, by measures of geography, economy, culture and demographics.
Always a trendsetter, California today is the United States of tomorrow. That scares plenty of people. It relieves others. California has a unique combination of influence and ambition, an assuredness that rubs some people the wrong way, and now it feels ready to use its power to blunt the forces from the White House, 3,000 miles away.
California already has sued the Trump administration 44 times, on issues involving immigration status, health care, the border wall and fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles. The administration has sued California three times, including over net neutrality and sanctuary status.
Pick a side: California represents a threat; California represents an ideal. It is the enemy or the answer, a roadblock or the resistance.
It’s much more complex for the 40 million of us who live here. It is more paradox than paradise. Life would be simpler someplace else, if I thought that was the point. I bemoan the ever-worsening traffic. I’m aghast at the levels of homelessness. I’m disappointed in the public schools.
I bought my house six years ago, and there is no chance I could afford it at its supposed value today. I worry that I’m raising children in a place they will never afford for themselves. I hope they don’t have to leave to find the life they want.
Some have had enough. The population still climbs because of arrivals from other countries and higher rates of birth than death. But for years, more people have left California than moved into it from other states.
Most of us are digging in. It’s exciting to be on the front lines to many of this country’s biggest problems — climate change and energy, economic disparity and infrastructure, race and immigration among them.
Ingrained with a wanderlust that I try to foist on my children, I probably see more of California than most. If I plotted my in-state movements over the past three months on a California map, it would look like someone confused, looking for an exit, circling like a caged cat.
On one Saturday afternoon, I crossed the northern border from Oregon and drove more than 1,000 miles, all in California, by Sunday evening. (It’s a long story.) I have made trips to Crescent City on the northern coast and San Diego on the southern one. I have been to Sacramento, Fresno, Bakersfield and Tehachapi, all on separate trips. I have been to two national parks (Yosemite and Redwoods), 500 miles apart.
Here might be the most California sentence of all: The only reason we canceled our weekend camping reservations at Lassen Volcanic National Park in October was that my son had an appointment at the Department of Motor Vehicles, and the earliest it could be rescheduled was December.
All those excursions came as California-bashing boiled over. It changed my perspective as I looked around. What will California represent once the smoke clears?
Just a Few Charred Trees on a Hillside
The grapes were plump on the vine, and there was little sign of the swath of death and destruction that began here a year ago, off tiny Bennett Lane just a few miles north of Calistoga in the Napa Valley. Just a few charred trees on a hillside and more on the hill after that.
They named it the Tubbs Fire, because it was initially thought to have started off Tubbs Lane, not nearby Bennett Lane. It was, at the time, the most destructive fire in California’s history. Like a nightmare, it started after dark and did most of its damage by dawn. It killed 22 people and destroyed about 4,000 homes, fueled by 80-mph gusts and the element of surprise.
The inferno mowed through miles of rugged, dark mountains and through a seemingly random sample of golf-course homes of the Fountaingrove area. A year later, most of the lots now are clear and dormant. Many are for sale — this scorched one for $270,000, that one for $395,000 — their former occupants presumably paid off by insurance or chased out by the ghosts. The course is still green, though.
The fire reached Santa Rosa in just a few overnight hours. It burned down a Hilton, just missed a hospital, jumped the freeway and took out a Kmart and a mobile-home park. And it roared through 1,300 homes of Coffey Park, a compact and quiet little city neighborhood, far from the hills.
Now the neighborhood is a hive of construction, a resurrection of cut lumber and framed walls amid a few scorched tree trunks. The clear air is punctuated from dawn to dusk by saws and nail guns, Mexican music and chatter in Spanish. Trucks — electricians, plumbers, window installers, taco sellers — clog the streets.
Fire represents both destruction and restoration. California knows the cycle.
The Tubbs Fire was just one of several that broke out in little-known corners of wine country late that night. I live about 30 miles south of Santa Rosa. I had returned home the night before, after a week in Las Vegas, where I helped The New York Times cover a mass shooting. Among the 58 dead, I learned once I got there, was the mother of a girl on my daughter’s soccer team.
I was reminded of that again this month, when someone gunned down 12 people at a bar in Thousand Oaks. My family has been to Thousand Oaks too many times to count, because my best friend used to live there. The night after the shooting, he was awakened in Florida by text messages telling him to evacuate because of a rapidly growing blaze soon to be known as the Woolsey Fire. It’s sad and strange to think that if the fire had come a couple of days earlier, nobody would have been at the bar to be shot.
The day I returned from covering the Las Vegas shooting, my home phone rang around midnight — late enough that you knew there was no good news on the other end.
It was my father-in-law. He and his wife, both in their 80s, lived in a seniors-only neighborhood near Santa Rosa and were awakened by a ferocious wind rattling the windows. Fearing shattered glass, they rushed to the spare bedroom. It glowed orange from the light outside.
A nearby ridge was aflame. Neighbors gathered in the street, in the howling wind and smoke, trying to make sense of it. There had been no fires when they went to bed. The blazes not only seem to be getting bigger, but faster.
My in-laws called to say that they were taking their dog and heading to the safety of a grocery store parking lot a few miles away. Ninety minutes later, they called again. At 3-something in the morning, they showed up at our door, certain that they would never see their home again.
For 10 days, they stayed at our house as fires burned in uncontrolled blotches around theirs.
Their house survived. The hills are still scarred black. They recently couldn’t see the hills at all, because thick smoke from the faraway Camp Fire had settled into the valley.
My wife and I hiked in those burned hills a few weeks ago. The coastal redwoods deep in the shady canyons were among the few trees to survive. They almost always do. Redwoods are naturally resistant to fire, which partly explains how some have lived 2,000 years and grown nearly 400 feet tall. It’s the state tree, which feels appropriate.
It rained at my house in early October, for the first time since May, and the brown hills where I run in my free time soon flashed a hint of undergrowth. In California, the grass is greenest in winter. I’ve always found it a fitting metaphor, now more than ever.