In some ways the most terrifying video footage from the Fort McMurray conflagration is the video I’m linking below. It’s home security video with no one in the home, like that famous sci-fi story of a home after people have disappeared, an automatic building going on by itself, dutifully feeding the dog and, after it dies of old age, putting it in the garbage. Eventually there is a fire and the alarms sound, the telephone calls firefighters that don’t exist, and finally the house collapses. The built world only needs us for a while. Then it goes back to being debris.
About the time Fort McMurray began to be swept by holocaust conflagration, my little office heater exploded. Actually, it was the connection between the power strip and extension cord. Probably they’d been overloaded all winter and gradually eroded. Crackers the ancient cat loved that heater and snoozed practically up against it. I canNOT get her to move to a heating pad. But she moved fast when the explosion came. Unhinged but unsinged.
The main thing I learned was that my carpet is fire resistant. A loud noise, a cloud of soot, and a few flames flickered, easily stomped out. Another discovery is that the bedroom circuit is the same as the bathroom, which was the closest 3-prong plug-in with a fuse protection outlet because it’s over the sink. Every breaker from power strip to outlet to house main box flipped. The heater survived, as did the computer on that side of the room, which wasn’t turned on. The new power strip is far more powerful and has a “surge preventer.”
May is a tricky month on high prairie, both more cruel and more soothing than adjacent months. We’ve had a few days of glorious sun, perfect for working on the yard, which I didn’t. Then abruptly we’re in a winter pulse, coming down from Alberta where I hope they’re also getting rain and cold — but they haven’t now for a long time. My brain connected their huge cross-province fire with my little splurt of flame, and also a lightning strike on a friend’s place in Appalachia that fried all appliances, including computers. They were insured.
Part of the secret of living a life on the edge of civilization and income is just flat denial, and part is hyper-alert paranoia about what might happen and what a person ought to do as a precaution. So Big Paul, who does property management for a living and also sells and maintains fire extinguishers, coached me on what I should get. He says the one I already have sitting here is worthless, likely to have lost its charge by now. He subscribes to what he calls an internet “doomer list” which does exactly this denial/prevention thing on a planetary level. Bomb shelters, stored food, and all that. It can give you bad dreams. Oddly, it seems to come out of Rainbow children who want to leave the grid.
The evacuation convoys that are snailing out of Fort Mac are not problem-free. People are moving very slowly in line and didn’t know to have their gas tanks full in advance, so they begin to go empty and block traffic. The police and emergency responders are telling them to stay in place and wait for gas to be brought to them, but I don’t know how they can do that while looking at two-hundred-foot walls of flame coming their way, jumping a four-lane highway.
Still, the only deaths so far have been from cars crashing, driving on the divider strip or the wrong way. There is only one highway to the south. Teams are going back through the town, looking for people who were homeless anyway and had no transportation. The RCMP and the Canadian army are organizing flights out for those trapped in oil camps to the north.
Last night late my niece called me from the road, not because it was an emergency but because she was driving from Eugene to Hermiston, up the Columbia Gorge, a drive I’ve made many times. She has her iphone rigged so it’s no hands. We were blotted out every time she came to a tunnel (quite a few along there) and the signal sometimes got pretty thready, but we rarely have good chances to talk, so it was worth losing bits here and there.
She has been teaching bovine fertility at Oregon State University for years as well as running her own business centered on bovine artificial insemination, pregnancy testing, and related services. (You wanna talk “fisting”?) Recently she bought a business like her own which has doubled her clientele, some of which is now east of the Cascades. She stays with friends, arriving in the late night and going quietly to the guest room. They know she’s coming. Tomorrow she will pregnancy test heifers. Her two little boys are staying with grandma and dad. They’re attending Montessori and kindergarten now — Big Boys.
I try to think about why some people thrive and form successful networks while others sink, try shortcuts, and find themselves trapped. Then freak out. You can hear the women in cars leaving Fort Mac, hysterical. Is it in their genome? Are they a mismatch with their environment? Is it education? Or is it surviving past calamities? Something about morality? Or a lack of courage to explore?
But then I realize that by the standards of many, I myself am unsuccessful and sinking or sunk. The marker of success my family and I expected (publishing) has itself sunk. The writing is there, but not the machinery, and not the meaningfulness that made it valuable. Teaching, previously a backup, has become grotesque, from small towns to major universities.
Poets and Writers, an organization and publication, persists in giving useful advice and explanation, but they’re also in denial and over-optimistic. http://www.pw.org A young woman, now published sends an automated testimonial that she could not have become a writer in Portland without PandW — which is nonsense. There have always been classes, publications, mentoring senior writers — even publishers — in Portland. I have a friend my age (76), a Reed student, who could have been an excellent poet and had the backing of a prominent writer, but threw it all away. Powells alone has been a major support to writers for recent decades.
But I left Portland several times. Since 1999 I’ve been sitting in the Catbird Seat in Valier, gleefully gnawing my way through one kind of writing or another every day. Blogs lifted me over the disintegration of publishing. It just doesn’t matter now. I have a whole houseful of books and a library willing to use Interlibrary Loan, plus the Internet research resources. And then I had an extraordinary friend, Tim Barrus, who kicked my “game” far higher than I thought I could go.
When I came, the Southern Baptist church next door was a remnant of old people hanging onto the WWII world that had made them proud. Most of them are dead since then. Their estates paid to re-side the building, put a metal roof on it, and cut down all the tall evergreen trees planted too close, affecting the foundations. Since these "improvements", they’ve been struck by lightning three times by my count. BLAMMO! They must have some kind of lightning rod in their little cupola that houses the electronic Big Ben. There’s never perceptible damage or smoke. Sometimes the “bonger” goes berzerk for a while. Silence is nice. I hope they have a maintenance contract with the guy who comes up from Great Falls to fix it.
This morning was clear, but now the wind is rising and bringing in more smoke from Fort Mac. We're used to getting it in August, when they used to just let the muskeg and boreal forest burn since no one was there anyway. But this time it is affecting a significant fraction of the oil production of Canada, even the world. Best to leave the denial and turn to high-level paranoia.
For those who imagine I'm close to this fire relax. It's 582 miles away.