'When we return our California home might be a burnt-out shell'
Irish writer James Claffey had to evacuate his home on an avocado ranch as wildfires devastated the area
James Claffey, his wife Maureen and their daughter Maisie, with their sign saying thank you to the firemen who battled wildfires near their home in California
James Claffey, a writer from Co Westmeath, lives on an avocado ranch in Carpinteria in California. Recent wildfires ripping through the region have forced his family from their home.
At 2.31am on Sunday morning, December 10, 2017, the klaxon alert of the emergency text message system for the looming Thomas Fire wakes us from our sleep: “SB County Office of Emergency Management: Mandatory Evacuation Order issued for Carpinteria East of Ladera Lane/Toro Cyn, North of Hwy 192, South of Camino Cielo & West of Hwy 150.” The burning hillsides are visible from our front yard, and the neighbourhood of Shepard’s Mesa to the northeast is engulfed in a reddish-orange glow.
My wife, Maureen, and I rouse our five-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Maisie, and bustle her out to the car. She asks, “Can we evacuate with the Christmas tree?” and for a moment I consider tying it – fairy lights, ornaments, the whole kit and caboodle – to the top of the car. Floating ash tickles my cheek and mixes with tears as I realise when we return it might be to the burnt-out shell of our home and the Christmas tree a mess of melted lights and ornaments.
I do take my 1927 copy of Ulysses, the signed Samuel Beckett book I bought years ago on a now-closed credit card, my laptop with all my writing, and photographs of the family saved to the cloud.
Apart from tax documents and other essential papers, possessions I can’t leave behind boil down to my Irish passport and my USCIS government-issued Green Card, a few yellowed photos of my grandparents, and some childhood photos from holidays in Mulranny. The print of Jesus by stained-glass artist, Evie Hone, that hangs on my office wall, will keep a sacred eye on our house, I think, as I unplug the Christmas tree, forgetting to replenish its water.
I close the door, and the holiday bells that hang on the doorknob ring behind me as I make for the car. As long as I’ve got my family and a few cherished family mementoes, we’ll be alright.
It’s 4am and our cattle dog, Rua, peers from the boot of the green Mini Cooper, her pointed ears visible in the eerie glow of the nearing fire. Maureen has fastened Maisie into her car-seat. Beside her, our suitcase is buried under bags of water and snacks, and a sports bag stuffed with irreplaceable possessions fills the rest of the space behind the front seats. The poor child could get crushed under the weight of it all if I corner too rapidly, or have to slam on the brakes for any reason.
We’ve also had to pack my wife’s truck with the inventory of jams and marmalades she sells at local farmers’ markets and retail stores and she drives the truck to a family house down by the beach, hopefully far from the fire. Ashes fall like snowflakes, covering everything with an off-kilter whiteness. In the pre-dawn, flames lick the crest of the mountains to the east, and the relentless ticking of an invisible clock presses us to get on the road.
I take a last look at our wooden cottage in the rearview mirror before we pull out onto Foothill Road and drive to safety. The structure was sawn in three in the 1940s and moved a quarter of a mile from the beach at Santa Claus Lane, and deposited on the family avocado ranch. Two 8ft-long metal plates secure the wooden beamed roof of our house together. Six generations of my wife’s family have made their home in this house, through floods, earthquakes, and now the threat of approaching forest fires.
The day we brought Maisie home from the Ventura County Hospital after a difficult birthing experience, we brought her to the warmth of a fire in the grate, and the floral scent of burning avocado wood. The idea our house might not survive these fires is a sobering one, and the fragility of our happy and comfortable life hangs by a thread made from a thousand firehoses.
After securing the truck at the beach house and covering everything with a tarp for token security, we drive into the hills above Santa Barbara, 10-15 miles from the fire, where our friend, Riven, has offered us sanctuary. As we navigate the winding road at 4.30am, the winds are howling and ash swirls about, making visibility practically zero.
Relishing the prospect of fresh air and the absence of falling ash, we agree to drive north
The scene reminds me of the old black-and-white Hound of the Baskervilles film and the thick fogs of Dartmoor’s Grimpen Mire. Maureen and I are wide-eyed as a weary coyote crosses the road directly in front of the headlights and an owl flaps its way into the trees by the side of the road.
To see wildlife in flight through the veil of ashes is uncanny, and realising these creatures are our fellow evacuees, I wish them well. Riven’s house is in darkness and nobody answers the door, despite several attempts. She isn’t responding to text or phone messages either, and with the winds strengthening we decide to go into Santa Barbara, find a warm coffee shop, and come up with a new plan.
We drink coffee in a sketchy Starbucks on Victoria Street at 6am and discuss whether to stick around and see what happens, or head as far away from the oncoming fire as possible. Our friends, Katie and Dan, in Oakland, offer us their guest house for a few days, and relishing the prospect of fresh air and the absence of falling ash, we agree to drive north.
Our eyes are seldom far from our iPhones and the fire maps that change rapidly and show the encroachment of the fire in our area. Phone calls from worried brothers in Ireland and London allow me to share the fears I have for our small green house nestled in the avocado trees.
I feel almost guilty buying $20 espresso beans from a fancy food market, while so many of our family and loved ones are back home trying to survive the disaster.
Three days exploring San Francisco, including a visit to the Zen Center, where Maureen finally breaks down at the enormity of the disaster, fail to distract us from the threat to our home and community.
There is nothing but the stench of burnt trees in the Californian air
We check in constantly with family and friends still in the Santa Barbara area. News from home tells us the danger seems to have passed and we decide to head back to Carpinteria after our respite in Oakland.
By Thursday afternoon, when we drive back to Carpinteria, the fire has moved away from our house, west into the hills near Santa Barbara, and plumes of smoke are visible from 30 miles away. Traffic is strangely light and we arrive before dusk to our green house, intact, ash-covered, untouched by the flames that scorched the nearby hills to a gray, barren moonscape.
In the evening gloom, the roof appears to be covered with a light dusting of snow, and I’m reminded of January 1982, in Dublin. Eyes closed, I can picture the footprints of birds in our snow-covered front garden, and the icy tickle from the snowball my brother pegged at my face. Here in Southern California, the whiteness is only the remnants of decades of dry brush that’s been torched in the fire. There is nothing but the stench of burnt trees in the air.
On Saturday morning, we hose the cars off, and try to eradicate the trail of muck we’ve brought in on our shoes. Paintings we put back on the walls are already crooked again; a semblance of life returning to normal.
The scorched hills around us bring home how close the fire has come to our doorstep, and even the usually annoying loads of laundry in the washer and dryer are tasks we carry out with relief and gratitude.
Maisie dances in the living room – oblivious to this natural disaster – as Christmas FM streams Frosty the Snowman on the iPad speakers. She has deposited her letter to Santa Claus in the fireplace, eager for St Nick to fulfil her demands. In the corner, the Christmas tree twinkles as if to say, “All is well, and all will be well.” Outside, on the fence, a sign Maisie made with her mom says, “Thank you, Firefighters.”
James Claffey’s novel The Heart Crossways will be published in early 2018 by Thrice Publishing.