Thursday, October 20, 2011

Poppies for the Pensive

A different kind of memorial was held near me today, one covered by the news media but hardly front page except in the Oakland area. October 20, 2011 is the 20th anniversary of the tragic Oakland firestorm. The evacuation point was two miles west of where my hilltop house sits so we were spared any property loss. In all 3500 Berkeley and Oakland dwellings were turned to ash, among them the homes of eleven of my friends who lost nearly everything as the firestorm spread to the upper Rockridge area. Some of them had ten to twenty minutes to evacuate. After your pets, how do you decide what to take? One of my friends, an elderly woman psychologist who had become agoraphobic, refused to leave her home in the Hiller Highlands and lost her life. Just down the slope from her house two Hiller residents took refuge in the athletic club outdoor pool where they hovered for two hours, their beach bags and cosmetics on the pool deck turning to liquid, before they evacuated safely.

Compared to the fire victims my loss was insignificant. Still, it has affected me deeply, as it has my whole community. In October I find I never sleep deeply and then it hits me why… Shortly after the fire I had my picturesque shake roof removed in favor of somewhat ugly but fire resistant asphalt shingles. As soon as I could afford it I had my wonderful brick fireplace replaced with a metal insert and a fake gas log. Shrubs and trees I loved were pruned back to ten feet of the house. These were appropriate but hardly elective modifications and small accommodations in lieu of being spared the trauma of loss so many suffered. For months one wall of a bank in Montclair was smothered with photos of missing dogs and cats, among them Herbert Henry, a long-haired monster sized cat with an equally monstrous personality belonging to my friends Judy and Marlene. Like most of the displaced animals he was never found.

My old ranch house sits on a natural level ridge with deep canyons on either side, canyons that would be the natural pathway for a fire moving from the west to the east. Of course the pathway of fire is unpredictable in our fall winds. I have careful evacuation plans in event of fire, of course, but I hope I never have to take refuge in my own deep pool, for the unheated water temperature rarely exceeds forty. Double brr. I still keep at least one car gassed up and emergency water and dog food in the trunk. Somehow these concessions to safety do not comfort me. The events of twenty years ago still haunt me and hang like a dark cloud in my otherwise sunny hall of memories.

Nature is fickle. Curiously a 3.9 earthquake hit South Berkeley as I wrote this, reminding me to avoid any sense of complacency no matter how hard I try to feel prepared. To calm myself I finished painting the Matilija Poppy shown above that grows so contently on my front bank oblivious to threat of fire or earthquake. This summer they reached seven feet. Curiously to my pleasure the gophers find them less than tasty. I love their delicate papery leaves and find them amazingly soothing as they flutter in the evening breeze coming in the Golden Gate.

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