Upfront: The Smoke Filled State

Last Wednesday afternoon, I was perched at the home office in deep West Marin when my nose got that familiar little tickle going. Say it isn’t so: is that smoke?

I didn’t think much of it at first. It’s been a pretty smoky summer already. Then I checked my email—the local Next Door community had lit up with news that Black Mountain in Nicasio was on fire. The Mount Vision fire of 1995 was invoked. People were losing it.

Oh man, I thought—here we go again. The last time I smelled smoke in my house was last October, and that fire was 50 miles away scorching vast tracts of Sonoma and Napa counties. This one is much closer to my coastal home base, and is the largest fire we’ve seen in Marin or Sonoma counties this year. Let’s hope the 45-acre Black Mountain blaze remains just that.

Local fire departments are on high alert and warning residents to remain vigilant. Bolinas fire chief Anita Tyrell-Brown posted on the Next Door board, “We have all been very aware of the devastating fires burning in California. Thankfully, we have not seen anything as dramatic locally, but it could absolutely happen here despite our lovely fog.”

She’s imploring residents to sign up with the Alert Marin county fire-warning system—especially people who don’t have a landline—in the event that the big blaze blows this way. (Sign up on the Marin County Sheriff’s Office website, marinsheriff.org.)

If half the state is on fire, the other half is quite clearly on edge, especially in places like Santa Rosa, which endured last year’s trial-by-fire and whose collective nose is sniffing for any sign of a new outbreak of torched terror.

If there was a third half in the state, it would be scratching its head at President Donald Trump’s lash-out at liberal California last week for letting so much rainwater spill into the sea that firefighters are running out of water. That’s why Mendocino County is burning up, he believes. Also, because of juvenile smelts, somehow. Don’t ask me, I’m just reporting this stuff.

In the smoke-filled state now under siege by the Carr fire, the Holy fire, the Mendocino Complex—and the Trumpster fire—no wonder everyone’s on edge, wondering if and when it’s their turn to feel the burn.

In the smoke-filled state, the California Senate’s standing Conference Committee on Wildfire Preparedness and Response this week focused on fuel reduction, a somewhat less thorny issue than last week’s meetings focused on utility liability in the fire—with a new public-utility industry focus and embrace of “the new normal” which PG&E hopes will extend to its future liability for fires.

But now they’ve moved on to fire reduction. State Sen. Bill Dodd co-chairs the committee and says, “As we watch unprecedented fires break out across the state, it has become increasingly clear that fuel reduction and better forest management practices are essential. It is absolutely imperative that we stop fires before they start to prevent the kinds of devastating losses we’ve seen over the past year.”

Committee members earlier this week heard presentations on how forest policy can be improved to meet the new challenges. And they met just as the Department of the Interior’s Ryan Zinke proposed that clear-cutting California’s forests would stop the fire risk in its tracks.

The adults in the room in Sacramento are meanwhile addressing “funding for healthy forests, wood-product markets and biomass policy.”

As the committee met, Sen. Mike McGuire was announcing that the state had just pushed out $26 million in new grants for fire prevention and healthy-forest initiatives undertaken by agencies across the Sonoma, Lake, Marin and Mendocino counties region. Marin County received three grants: the Southern Marin Fire Protection District ($53,680) and FIRESAfe Marin ($71,288) scored grants pegged at fire-prevention planning and education, and the Marin County Parks and Open Space District got $75,000 for fuel reduction. No grants were awarded to study fire-breathing smelts and their role in the devastating wildfires now afoot. We await the outraged Tweet from Washington.

Last Wednesday afternoon, I finished the bulk of work for the day, got up to speed on the nearby fire, and then took a quick spin through Jonah Raskin’s Pacific Sun cover story this week, about Napa’s underground agriculture economy. It’s a great and timely story—and parts of Napa county are, by the way, currently ablaze in the County fire.

The gist of Jonah’s story is that, as it turns out, some people grow these things called “vegetables” in Napa County, along with all those grapes. It’s a fun read with a not-fun current-events backbeat: the 2017 wildfires cost Northern California farmers $1.2 billion.

By Thursday last week in the smoke-filled state, the Black Mountain blaze was extinguished and the good news kept on coming—or at least the small and empathic victories. As the fire was put to rest, the Agricultural Institute of Marin launched its new and totally above-ground vegetable-outreach program: a produce-mobile, called the Rollin’ Root, that will make stops at locales around Marin County, serving Marin-grown produce to the elders. Just be careful when you char that asparagus, folks.

On Friday last week, the firemen at Black Mountain were still parked in a gravel lot near the hillside burn, which came right down to the roadway (or traveled up from it—the cause of the fire is still under investigation). Numerous fire rigs from area houses were parked in the gravel lot, also the site of a small farmstand, which was spared. Even though it was “only” 45 acres, the post-fire landscape was blackened and scary. Red flame retardant streaked the mountaintop, courtesy of Cal Fire choppers deployed to the scene two days earlier.

By Saturday afternoon, the fire trucks were gone and life was back to normal—at least as normal is defined on the iconoclastic coast. The parking was a nightmare, the bicyclists had again taken over the West Marin roadways, and the sprinklers were in full swing at Star Route Farm along the Bolinas Lagoon. Apparently, and despite the Trump administration’s declaration to the contrary, there is plenty of available water to put out the fire and water the kale at the same time.

The smell of char was still in the air along Pt. Reyes-Petaluma Road as the bustling summertime Saturday farmers market hit its mid-morning stride in Point Reyes Station—offering the local bounty from Big Mesa Farm, Wild Blue Farm and from various fermenters, potters, ranchers, restaurants and champions of chutney.

In social media and over cold beers, longtime residents recalled the infamous Mount Vision fire, which scorched some 13,000 acres. One local had just returned from checking on his family’s spread in Mendocino County. It was spared—but blacksmith Dylan Flynn returned to his West Marin home to discover that his view of the mountain had been radically altered while he was away. The Black Mountain blaze was tiny by comparison to the Mendo nightmare and the Vision blaze from decades ago, and was quickly extinguished, with no reported property damage to the nearby farm stands, farms or hi-tone houses.

All were spared, except the scorched top of the 1,300-foot massif, which is alternatively and locally known as Elephant Mountain and, as local land stewards often point out, overlooks vast tracts of protected space in Marin County. Later, on the road to Fairfax along the lush and forested Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, the fire signage at Samuel Taylor State Park spoke to the vigilance afoot throughout a nervous county: Condition Red.

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