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California Thanksgiving: Fire and Rain

by on November 28, 2018 5:00 AM


We came to California ready to strap on the N-95s we’d bought at a paint store in State College.

Everybody out there knows what I’m talking about. N-95s are respirators, the good ones, the kind that would keep us from inhaling gasified car parts and other toxic matter that burned in the Camp Fire.

When we exited the jetway at San Francisco International Airport, we saw some travelers in masks, but most without. On the street, the same thing. No sign of a mass freak-out.

There was a tang of smoke in the air and there were halos around the street lights, but there are often halos around street lights in the famously foggy Bay Area. Within five minutes of leaving the airport I had a headache.

He who claims to be making America great again flew in the same day we did to do his duty as consoler-in-chief, a job for which he has no aptitude whatsoever. While in “Pleasure,” the name by which he mistakenly referred to the devastated town of Paradise, the president again chided California land managers for poor stewardship of the forest, a subject in which he has no expertise whatsoever.

California needs to do as Finland does, Trump said, and rake the forest floor. That bit of nonsense prompted playful Finns to bring gardening implements into the woods so they could upload photos of themselves doing their part to prevent forest fires.


The next morning was sunny and hazy, again, not too different from many a Northern California day, except the haze looked yellower and dirtier than it does when good, clean fog is burning off. Before we went anywhere we checked the Air Quality Index. Much of the Bay Area was in the red (unhealthy) zone.

Masks or no masks, we wanted no part of that, so we scrapped our plan to spend the first few days of the Thanksgiving break on the coast and fled to Lake Tahoe. We had plenty of company. The local roads were packed. So were the grocery stores. So were the hiking trails. But the air was breathable, and the lake and the High Sierra were beautiful, even though the sky lacked its normal alpine clarity.

On Tuesday we descended into the Sierra foothills and made our way to Sonora, where we used to live and where we return most years for Friendsgiving. Along the way we passed signs announcing that Ebbetts Pass would close at 3 p.m. in anticipation of the first winter storm of the season.

The next day, the storm arrived: snow in the high country, rain everywhere else. It was the first significant precip since May. I thought my drought- and fire-weary hosts might bang on drums, dance merry jigs and raise their faces to the streaming heavens like the parched Kansans in the 1956 movie “The Rainmaker.” Instead, they gamely strung tarps from the trees and snacked and drank away the afternoon, same as they would have if it had been a warm, sunny day.  

I mostly shared in the general rejoicing, but in the shriveled recesses of my soul I was disappointed: Going to California for Thanksgiving has always been like time travel for me. Their late November usually feels like our early October. I had looked forward to drinking my coffee while basking in the morning sun, then going for an afternoon hike.

Not this time.  

Thanksgiving Day was better. There was a break between storms that allowed us to play bocce ball before dinner. The holiday meal, as always, was a tableau of abundance. Our friends Tom and Wendy have 40 or 50 people over — friends, the children of friends, and now the children of those children. Everyone contributes to the feast or the cleanup, but it’s still a vast amount of work for the hosts.

Amazingly, they have the whole crowd over again the next night for leftovers and turkey soup. The generosity is mind-blowing.

During Soup Night I chatted with a veteran of California’s firefights. Sharky used to fly the planes that dump pink retardant on the flames. This year he had just returned from delivering supplies to folks in Paradise who had been burned out of their homes.

All fires are the same, he told me. Everyone who loses his or her house is in the same state of shock, has that same thousand-yard stare.

What’s different, he said, is how fast fires move now. Apart from the odd cabin in the woods, you used to be able to steer wildfire away from residential areas. Now we’re seeing entire towns go up in flames.

When I got home on Sunday, I was thankful, as I always am, that I have a home, and that it was still standing.



A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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