Girl On Fire
I believe myself to be one of the luckiest people on the planet. A family, a life, virtually free of tragedy in this hectic world — it doesn’t happen often. Because of this, I’ve always felt like Cinderella, that I’m enjoying my time at the ball, but that at any moment, midnight will strike and my fantasy, my happiness, will be jolted away from me.
So when my family received a call on September 17, 2016 that said our property in Northern California was on fire, I felt that this was it. This was the time where I’d lose my glass slipper and weep at the bottom of my wilted pumpkin carriage. I was ready for my heart and soul to go down in flames too.
Things had been smoldering in my life — both literally and figuratively — for some time when we got that call. My anxiety and depression had been acting up, my future felt incredibly uncertain, and my family was getting into lots of disagreements. Not to mention, the month before we had lost our dog of fifteen years. The same day that we drove back from the Mammoth Lakes vet with an empty collar, a lightning bolt struck the side of the mountain next to our property. This was on August 4th, a full six weeks before the September 17th fire that would ravage our land. Blessed with outstanding fire crews and the right direction of wind, that August 4th fire wouldn’t spread onto our property. We did, however, fall asleep that night watching the fire ignite trees in the canyon outside our window.
For the next few days helicopters dropped their buckets in our pond and jets flew overtop of us. On August 12th, the fire was deemed 100% contained.
Little did we know this fire would smolder underground in organic material until September 17th. Apparently lightning doesn’t have to strike twice in one spot — one flash from the heavens is enough to ignite two separate wildfires, six weeks apart.
This time, we weren’t so lucky. The winds were not in our favor. I sat in Jackson Hole at a wedding, powerless and defeated, as fire crews marched into battle, defending a land that wasn’t even their own. A land that was my most sacred place, my Mecca. They fought my holy war for me.
My family bought this land on the Owens River in 1998 when I was just six years old. For nearly twenty years I have spent every summer in the Sierra Nevada. This place has always been my stabilizer — the place that I knew I’d return to each summer, the space where I could find serenity. This is the place where I found my soul, where I feel most like myself, a space free from society’s expectations, free from errands, to-do-lists and ordinary life. I hate to think who I could have become without this place. Here, I don’t listen to the news; I try not to think about the evil in the world. Instead, I walk outside, looking over meadows and mountains, and believe myself to be in a personal Eden.
So as calls kept coming in and we heard that the fire had spread across our land I was ready to believe that paradise was lost.
The next morning my mom and I drove the twelve hours from Jackson Hole to Mammoth. My heart was broken; my glass slipper, lost. I was ready to accept defeat.
When we finally turned the corner on Owens River Road and saw what had become of our land, I felt I had entered the apocalypse. The fire was mostly out, but the land looked like the moon. Black mounds of earth, charcoaled trees, sage skeletons, and an air thick with smoke. It was fifteen square miles of burn. When we drove through the canyon, we saw logs still on fire and a car fried to its bones. My lungs cried for help. But on this moon, green patches of oases existed among the miles of burned land. These oases were none other than our buildings.
When we spent twelve hours in the car imagining our future, we envisioned total destruction. We had heard news that most of our buildings had survived the fire, but we expected them to be so smoke-damaged that nothing would be salvageable. When we arrived, we found that the firefighters had fought through hell and preserved all our essentials. The chickens still clucked in the barn and our buildings barely smelled of smoke.
It’s a weird mix of emotion — to be so utterly thankful and so utterly devastated at the same time. “It will all grow back,” people said, but still, my holy land was torched and there was no way to see around that.
The emotional toll of the fire seemed to have numbed my insides. I returned to my home on the east coast and could barely leave the house for days — but I wasn’t really depressed, I was exhausted. I kept waiting for the pain of my anxiety and depression to fully return, to reignite just as the fire had, but all I ever felt was a flicker.
A few weeks later I came back out west. We sat at the dining table with one of the firemen. We heard his story of the fight — the fire tornadoes, the buckets of water arriving by helicopter just in time to extinguish a critical tree and the throngs of bugs that flew into their helmets as they fought.
We found our own ways to thank these firefighters, but when we asked one of the fire chiefs what else we could do, a specific favor finally emerged. He asked my mother if we could write something, if we could write about the importance of fire prevention that had served us so well. His men had saved us, but our efforts to be best prepared for a wildfire had helped them do their job.
We had removed brush close to buildings, planted grass with sprinkler systems and knew where designated water sources were for the firefighters to use. We were sure to not have any tree branches hanging over our structures and removed leaves and pine tags from our roof. We limited the amount of flammable material on our porches. Like Smokey the Bear says, only you can prevent forest fires. These little proactive approaches made the fight just a tiny bit easier for these firemen and they were grateful. The chief said that he wished more people would take these steps to facilitate the job of his crew. That if more people had their own fire plan with known water sources for firefighters to use, that maybe more structures would be saved in the future.
I returned to our property this June — nine months after the fire. During this gestation period Mammoth experienced one of its snowiest winters. This time when I turned the corner on Owens River Road I wasn’t met with destruction; instead, I faced rebirth and resurrection like never before.
The burnt trees and sage still sit around like skeletons, reminding us of the graveyard that was our land, but the earth has come back anew. Hills of sego lilies, poppies and sticky-yellow-throats, a meadow greener than anything in my memory.
I have returned to my holy land. Walking these resurrected meadows I’m reminded of how the world works. How this fire seemed to be the end of my world, but now I walk the land again and see new beauty and life. How the ugly and painful grow to be beautiful and joyful again. How life gets better, bad things will pass, and doomed days give way to new, wonderful ones — a lesson I must always cling to.
While I still believe myself to be one of the luckiest people in the world, I have learned that escaping this fire wasn’t just luck. This was dedication, the hearts of those firefighters, their bravery and perseverance, and this was prevention, irrigation systems, and clipped brush.
You never know when midnight will strike, when lightning will set your life ablaze, so it’s best to do as the Boy Scouts say, to always be prepared. And know that even when it does, when flames takeover, that those stories of the phoenix are true. Out of the ashes you can be born again.
Addie Gottwald is a graduate of Davidson College. Though she lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, her soul lives in the Eastern Sierra of California.