The Quality of Fire, Ash, Mud

An Excerpt from Don’t Try Sleep
Maureen Foley
Featured Image: From “Thoreau Noir” © Charles Philip Brooks 2020

I want to describe the quality of the Thomas Fire ash. The fire began miles and miles away, in Ventura, twelve miles south of here. I heard about it, like everyone else, by way of the news. Radio, TV, pick your poison. I heard about it two days before I felt the white-gray-white ashes flaking onto my skin, covering cars, rocks, grass, great blue heron nests, the blue roof of Foster’s Freeze and the wooden deck of the Lucky Llama coffee shop. The ash cloud blew away from Ventura, north, and parked above my town: Carpinteria, California.

The ash reminded me of dandruff, or sooty snow, falling naturally from the sky, almost. Here in Santa Barbara County, natural wildfires are an annual summertime occurrence, seasonal, like monsoonal rains or tornadoes or frozen pipes in other places. Ash falling is not out of the ordinary, but still disturbing, annoying, problematic. The Los Padres National Forest burns a little bit, regularly, and then the fire is extinguished as the fall rains set in.

Not this year, not this fire. The Thomas Fire arrived in December, during a hot wind event. Let’s put this in perspective, after all. This was never normal. December is the Southern California rainy season, not the time for fire.

The fire’s arrival unexpected and the duration even more confusing. Who invited this conflagration? Who asked it to stay a while? Even after the first day of ash fall, second day, third day, I continued working, cooking in a kitchen for my jam and marmalade business, windows unfortunately forced open by the heat inside. But by the weekend, the fire neared our hills and houses and avocado ranches, and the farmers markets were canceled, schools canceled, and we, too, closed the doors and stopped working. My daughter forced home from school, we all played and worked inside. That, by itself, a punishment in this temperate and beautiful geography where we only linger inside by necessity and rain forces us inside for only a handful of days per year.

What I noticed six days in, was the lack of wind to move the ash. Not even a breeze. The lack of airflow allowed the ash to accumulate. That, I will always remember. Great layers of giant ash flakes, so that quickly breathing became a burden. Face masks were inescapable and at the Albertson’s parking lot volunteers from the Santa Barbara County Public Health shoved one, two, five into our hands. Check the correct HEPA measurement. Wear it outside. Refrain from exercise. Child size masks for my daughter. “It must be an N95 mask,” they said.

Rub the ash between your fingers and hold it up to your nose: smoke, clean burned wood. Sometimes, a white sage leaf would burn precisely and float down from the backcountry intact until I touched it and then it would instantly disintegrate.

When we finally fled our home for the Bay Area, evacuated by a police officer in the night because of the approaching flames, the ash was still falling and it didn’t stop for days and days, so that as far as the eye could see the landscape was transformed into a white ashtray. A breeze would send up ash tornadoes, cycling through the parking lot and across the road.

I want to describe the quality of the smoke. During the day, the smoke looked like dense fog from above, except for the smell of damp burn. Dense, it forced the cool temperature down further, forcing us into sweaters, jackets, during the sprint from house to car, facemask covering openings except for eyes.

About five nights after the fire started, my husband, James, and I slept with our iPhones right next to our bed so that the County’s emergency alert system of coordinated text message warnings would wake us with any changes in the fire’s status. But the smell of smoke forced me awake at about two in the morning, just minutes before the mandatory order flashed on our screen: Leave now.

People burn wood in Carpinteria, in their fireplaces, barbecues and beach bonfires. Surrounded by avocado orchards and a state park campground at the beach, this is a place where families have an abundance of wood and enjoy grilling tri-tip over oak wood, roasting marshmallows while on vacation from Irvine, or burning logs dragged in from the trimmed orchard on a cold night in the winter.

But this smoke invaded my home. We’d taken the batteries out of the smoke alarms years ago when my daughter, Maisie, now five, was an infant because we’d been worried that a burnt dinner would set it off and disturb her precious baby sleep. We’d forgotten to re-insert the batteries, so the smoke alarms didn’t go off.

After the emergency alert, James and I unlocked the front door, pushed open the screen door and saw, above the foothills behind our house in two directions, flames approaching, clear despite the dark and smoke.

We packed our cars, three of them, the red Toyota pick-up truck filled with all my jam business inventory for the holiday season, and drove two in turns to the beach, where we hoped the flames would not invade. We woke my daughter when only the station wagon remained, and we drove away to a friend’s house in the hills, ten miles from the burning back country.

Our friend’s house perched on the top of Las Pesetas Lane just above Rattlesnake Canyon, high in the Foothills behind Santa Barbara, where the smoke obscured our view and limited our visibility to five feet in front, the ash kicking up and swirling. I didn’t understand why the smoke kept following us there, appearing even thicker sometimes than at our house. I guess the smoke drifted along the mountain ridgelines, following the edge of the hills to the top of Las Pesetas.

The smoke closed the world into a tunnel. As we evacuated, with our life’s important possessions in the hatch with the dog, the smoke must have been blowing straight towards us. Whoosh, an owl full-winged across the road, then a few feet on, just below my friend’s house, a baby coyote fled across the road, running away, like us.

I want to describe the quality of the flames. Reddish orange and gorgeous, surging up with oxygen suck or dying down briefly, moving along up and down ridges, canyons, hillsides, faraway. I could hear the flames sometimes, depending on where we stood, the faraway crackle of immolation. I was struck by the purifying bargain that nature struck, as she took away air and life from everything she touched equally.

I want to describe the quality of the rain. A microburst above plant-starved land, the sound on our roof like gunshot, a once-in-200-years chance deluge: they recorded .46 inch of rain in five minutes.

I want to describe the quality of the mud. I could tell you that our house shook when the mud swarmed around us, but that would not explain the kinesthetic terror of your own bones being threatened by moving rock. The smell reminds me of a mildewed bathroom, but everywhere, outside, tinged with ash, too. Burn and mold make no sense together, but the earth is black and moving black and moving and sucking your boots off so that the quality changes day by day as the water evaporates and the frogs will benefit and the plants and tadpoles and hawks and steelhead and whales, of course the whales, what have they not seen? They watched us from the water, I’m sure of it, safe, the mud sliding through the waves and the flames reflecting orange. I want to be a mud-being, the beaches zones of impact with baby dolls abandoned by reaching hands and truck doors wrenched off and sunk and battered and boulders the size of cars and cars the size of trucks all wrenched off and buried.

I want to describe the quality of memory. When the act of writing occurs, it can replace memory. I don’t want to replace these memories, so I keep them here. Safe. As a record, of a disaster passed. The danger’s gone, now, but ash and mud remain.


Maureen Foley is a writer, artist and jam-maker living near the sea in Santa Barbara, California. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including Spittoon, the Nassau Review, Inlandia, and Ontologica. Her novella, Women Float, was published by the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography and she won the Dead Metaphor Press Chapbook Award for Epilepsy. She completed an MFA in Prose from Naropa University and is currently working on a novel about the experience of new motherhood and loss. She also owns and runs Red Hen Cannery, a farm-to-jar jam and marmalade company, with her husband, James. Visit her at maureenfoley.com.