There’s a picture of me at three cutting my hair with kitchen shears hoping to look like my two brothers, leaving me with stubby hair bordered by bald spots, leading to haircuts for all my dolls. I paraded their shorn heads around the house. My brother, Mark, suggested that we burn them. I agreed. Sparks from the burning plastic flew into the dry grass, the fetid stench scattered by contrary winds, sounding like hundreds of tiny firecrackers going off.
My father trained a garden hose full blast but the water dissolved into the fire’s waiting maw. My brother and I threw pails of water at it, while my mother called the fire department, and I marveled at her depiction of hell as a large fire that continually consumes the hapless inhabitants, a Dante’s Inferno.
We lived east of Los Angeles on the edge of the Sonoran Desert, where the biggest excitement tended to be the kid-sized tumble weeds that rolled over the landscape. Around us orange groves and wide open fields filled with dry grass were horses grazed. The land was teaming with the horny toads I liked to pet, their little horns tickling the skin of my fingertips. And the Gila monster, a large lizard about 18 inches long,patterned not quite like tiger stripes, but with that same feel, orange mixing with the black, allowing the creature to disappear when under the shadow of plants. It’s hard to find them, they’re lighting fast.
I wouldn’t have cared to start fires on my own, but Mark had just started Boy’s Scouts and wanted to practice his fire building skills. He taught me how to build one with dry kindling and balled up newspaper, and to detect the vinegary smell of burning wood before flames could spread like a sooty fogbank over the land.
One day when I was six, we found refuge in a dry creek bed full of rocks, brown weeds, and scrub. Mark thought a good place to build a campfire. We put rocks around a cleared out area and placed twigs in the middle of it. Mark knew from Boy Scouts to form a teepee from the twigs. He rubbed two sticks together and created a flame in seconds. As the flame took hold, I settled on some rocks to enjoy the flaming beauty. But the fire quickly went out of control and my heart beat madly almost to the point of dizziness trying to scrabble out of the way. The flames were insatiable, consuming all the weeds and dry bush in its path. We hadn’t thought to clear a wide enough swath around our campfire.
Mark sustained second degree burns trying to stomp the fire out with his sneakers. I talked him into abandoning the fire and running back to the house for help. My father called the fire department, while my mother applied burn medicine and cool water to soothe our blistered skin. There’s nothing worse than being burned, the pain lasts for weeks, sometimes months, and the skin can easily scar. To this day, Mark has a number of burn scars from that time.
But Mark was not easily deterred. I watched him develop his firefighting skills, learning how to starve fires to death, a skill that demanded peak fitness, endurance, the training of an elite warrior.
Several years passed. One summer—I was a teenager then—a fire broke out in Old Cajon. My brother’s Boy Scout troop joined the firefighters and I tagged along, unbeknown to my parents, helping removetrees, stumps, roots, leaves, grass and weeds, exposing the nakedness of the earth to onlookers. No one averred their eyes. They must have realized that the mother earth has feelings, and that her modesty drives her to cover herself with plants. A wanton thing, reveling under the gaze of firefighters, she hoped to excite their lust before the unruly flames blinded them with its heat. Fires are an ornery lot; they leap around the hills like phantoms, especially on inclines where they burn twice as fast, covering more ground than fires on flat ground. Fires typically burn at 1500-to-1800 Fahrenheit, hotter than any oven. I didn’t feel the need to follow the men in their hazmat suits, and never yearned to get close to that gothic theater of embers. I stayed far back with the most conservative of onlookers. My respect for fire power was legion; having already experienced several harrowing encounters with the beast. In the words of William Faulkner “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Charred skeletons of buildings and cars dotted the area. A cargo train sat idle on tracks, abandoned by its engineer. Iridescent flames of red, gold and copper licked the skies, heading into that pincushion of fire engulfing Lone Pine Canyon, and choking on smoky air. Helicopters whirred in smoky darkness, and in the distance bulldozers razed wide swaths in an attempt to contain its fury.
Trees toppled over in cascading showers of flame sounding like cracking bones shattering my eardrums. Soot clung to my exposed skin, and my entire body felt hot and sweaty. Likely I was breathing toxins. I wondered how Mark was doing, and hoped to spot him emerge out of the ashy clouds. My greatest fear, for him to be caught in its grip, every nerve end screaming, skin boiling, and dragon breath trapped in his lungs. When he emerged from his hazmat suit, he looked exhausted, his eyes teary, and high-fived me and everyone else, his smile as big as the sky.
From then on, Mark was hooked. He fought many big ones that consumed much of California. I moved far away, no longer sojourner in the land of drought. His stories of daring move me, but I’m no longer there to share the sooty air. If it wasn’t for my memories, I wouldn’t believe that fire unchecked is unruly, unbearable, and without mercy, just like the ocean that strives to contain it.
Joanna’s work has appeared in a handful of literary magazines and newspapers. Years ago, she was a regular freelance contributor for the New Jersey Regional Section of The New York Times, and several regional newspapers and magazines, including The Cleveland Plain Dealer and Asbury Park Press. She received a few awards for essay and feature writing from the Society of Professional Journalists.