The Hollister Fire burning in Alegria Canyon on Saturday. | Credit: David Levine

I happened to be hiking with friends to the Gaviota wind caves on a perfect Saturday morning when it began; I was alerted by a text from my husband, and soon enough we could see the ominous smoke plume spreading, and with it came the all-too-familiar sense of worry and vulnerability. Fire is a regular part of life here, likely increasing with global warming, but this particular fire was suspicious. Its location, in the backcountry of the Hollister Ranch, was odd, and it was atypical for the time of year. (I understand that a trespasser near the scene when the fire started has been detained.) [Editor’s Note: The Sheriff’s Office has since reported that the arrest is unrelated to the fire.]

By the time we made it back to the Ranch gate, emergency vehicles were already gathering, and we had talked our way in just to go home, get our always ready “go-bags,” and evacuate. We made the decision not to rush around grabbing things. There was something light and quick about simply taking our essentials. Furthermore, I must confess that I was imagining someone in Ukraine, fleeing with a suitcase while bombs were dropped, and it put our own situation into perspective. We left, not knowing where we’d head, but everything is luxurious if no one is trying to kill your family. 

And talk about luxury, now came the texts: Are you okay? If you need a place to stay, you’re welcome here. Anxiety gave way to gratitude and a free-wheeling sense of absurdity. Gratitude for friends. Gratitude for the firefighters, the security staff, the community. Suddenly we had a network of neighbors texting updates and helping one another. We were seeing, as Rebecca Solnit has put it, that “extraordinary upwelling of ordinary people in a crisis, reaching out to do what needed to be done to take care of each other.”

Despite wind, firefighters were able to confine the fire to a hundred acres, and we were allowed to return the same night. This Sunday morning, smoke had abated, and we walked to a ridge in howling wind to look down at the scene of the fire: slopes burned to ashy gray, smoke rising, vehicles and crews coming and going. A helicopter appeared, seemingly out of nowhere. Retired Battalion Chief Scott Coffman told me that two houses in the path of the fire had been spared by “defensible space” — the homeowners had recently worked to clear a wide swath of brush. Their foresight allowed the professional firefighters to defend the homes. Hard work and cooperation paid off. 

I love this land, its ruggedness and resilience, the tenacious way it clenches its own wildness. But I also love the people who steward it, the consolation of community, the way we sometimes rise in times of trouble to be better than we were. Sometimes the vulnerability we share helps us to understand how much we need each other. Maybe fire illuminates what really matters.

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