Burning

What the local news stations are calling a “brush fire” has been smoldering three blocks from my house for the last three days. I finally saw the scene of the fire today, driving by on 17th Street between Independence and George Anderson. I don’t think brush fire is an appropriate phrase to describe what I saw. The fire, which started on the far side of 17th, a divided four-lane road, jumped the road and median and caught onto the woods closer to my house. Black tree skeletons and piles of smoking debris line the trail I used to walk along at least once a week. It was a monotonous green landscape of pine trees and bushes last Friday, five days ago, the last time I walked on that path. Now it looks like the scene of a post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie or the remains of a war zone. Dark and smoking, it looks like a home for ghosts.

Our street was not evacuated on Monday, when the blaze started. But we were the perimeter. Every house between our street and the scene of the fire was evacuated. Three streets down, on Charles Payne, three houses were damaged, at least by smoke if not the flames themselves. This is my neighborhood. These are my neighbors. I wave to them when I walk by. Most of them talk to Jack and wave. Now their backyards are seething.

We told friends that the house smelled like a campfire Monday night, and that was a friendly image. S’mores and laughter and tents. But that’s not really true. Campfires are smaller and kinder, and they don’t last for three days. The smoke still stings my eyes and makes my throat raw. Jack keeps asking to go outside to play, but I balk, thinking about the effects of the smoke on his tiny lungs. I even joked with Brian that it probably wouldn’t be much worse for us than staying with my dad for a weekend, back when he was alive and smoking like a chimney in the house. But that makes it even more sinister. Dad died of lung cancer. This stuff is toxic.

Nothing will ever be the same. The things I took for granted, that path that even got boring sometimes, the people who always wave, are now different. Thank goodness no one was injured, and everyone is still here, in the neighborhood (or returned, after the evacuation). But the fire still seems to have changed everything.

I graduate from the MFA program on May 12. I’ve been here in Wilmington for four years. Here, I have given birth, I have lost my dad, I have begun to raise my son. I have written two books. I have loved my friends and colleagues, such a great community. I have gotten used to walking through the halls of Kenan, the paths on the UNCW campus. All of that is ending soon. And I don’t know what comes next. It’s scary and different. I keep having dreams that I’m in a post-apocalyptic sci-fi thriller, complete with smoldering trees.

I was talking to Brian about it this afternoon, how shocking and sad the fire has been for me. Then he said, “Yes, but it helps future growth, doesn’t it?” And the metaphor clicked. Yes, of course. In areas where fires have cleared the forest, the ground is more fertile. Something about the charcoal left behind encourages new life. And a new green sprouts up. It takes a while. It takes a lot of work. But it comes. Life comes back. Eventually.

Today, though, I still sit with the ghosts, sniff the charred air, watch the smoke drift and rise and blow away. And hope for rain.

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