We have been cranky and out of sorts. Everything feels vaguely threatening. A simple question is spoken, or perceived as an inquisition. Our normally sleepy elderly dog has been incessantly licking her paws or when we stop her doing that, she licks the floor or her bed. Montana is on fire. There are 45 listed fires and more than one million acres have burned. Harvey, just 9 days feels both fresh and like an eternity ago. The fires feel perilously close and Irma has cranked up the pressure. We fluctuate between being glued to the news with worry or being overwhelmed with the emotion we did not notice the frenzy of flood-prevention efforts for Harvey.
The smoke from the wildfires feels threatening, depositing thick dust on everything inside and out. The moon is blood red and the sun obscured by smoke. The air quality is reported at the hazardous level and elderly people and those with chronic health conditions are warned not to spend extended time outside. Feeling guilty to add to global warming, I cranked the air conditioner down to try to blot out the feelings of smoke-related claustrophobia by cooling off. I spent hours dusting, vacuuming and scrubbing the kitchen floor as if it would somehow make the smoke less dirty.
Sometimes I feel a sense of urgency to pay attention, to try to figure out if something is really wrong. There is smoke, but what should I do? The entire state of Montana and our neighboring states are struggling in the wildfire smoke. We have seen satellite photos that show the thick band of floating ash riding over our countryside. We check Inciweb to see how the fires are going. We try to read the reports clinically, not emotionally, but reading what amounts to a weather forecast of what and how the world around is is going to burn, burns.
The site includes the expected end date for the fires. Those are listed as November. That is when they expect the snows to come. We expected rain to come. We had the wettest spring on record. Then the rain stopped. We have had only a few sprinkles in two months. We left the desert where our house burned and moved to climate that was more than four times wetter on purpose. Here we sit with desert climate and a forest full vegetation that grew because it was wetter but is suddenly starving for hydration where there is none. We have ample fuel and it is dry.
About three days ago we discussed what it would be like if we lose this house. Strangely, we both recognized some comfort in the knowledge that we knew how to go through the process.
Before Harvey I felt some guilt for living in what we now call the “rural margins” meaning we live “out from town.” When I was a kid people lived “out” because they farmed. Now many of us live out because we desire less built environment around us than we can find in town. Logically I knew that natural hazards were not prohibited from occurring within city limits but statistically I knew that wildfire consumed more suburban and rural homes than urban ones. Harvey set my notions straight. My mind swoons at the statistic that there are 560,000 applications for FEMA disaster housing assistance in the Houston Metro area. That is the equivalent of one application for every other person in my entire state. Or, Montana can offer two burned acres for each flood application. Either way, I cannot wrap my mind around it.
As I cleaned, I set aside things from our restored household wealth for a friend whose house burned in a wildfire and for a friend whose house was destroyed in the flood waters of Harvey. Two piles. One really likes bed linens and textiles, the other an older person, like us, lost family things. I have set aside some antiques that I think she will like.
While I clean the ash off of the surfaces of my home feeling suffocated by smoke and still aching from the physical exertion of bailing water to protect Mom’s house from Harvey’s flood waters, I contemplate how profoundly different it is to protect something. After our house burned there was nothing there. There were no floors to clean or doors to keep water out of. As I look back on our 2012 fire, I think how thankful I was that everything was just gone. I didn’t then, and don’t think now, that I could bear flood. I think my heart would break to hold in my hands a water-ruined life. From that perspective, empty hands were better than full ones. My prayers for all those in who have to face loss in these coming days of flood and fire is that whatever their hands hold will weigh less heavily than it could.
In remembrance of those whose lives were touched by September 11