Column: California burning — The fire in my backyard

When you catch the coronavirus, you experience coughing and shortness of breath, usually accompanied by bad headaches, a sore throat and congestion. Later comes a high fever, occasional chills, a sudden loss of taste and smell. You feel tired and nauseous; your immune system short-circuits, then grows weaker.

These are the symptoms of catastrophe. They are the impact of a virus that has promised to destroy countless American lives. COVID-19 has already killed hundreds of thousands of Americans.

Now our planet has also fallen ill.

Two disasters are sweeping the United States in 2020 — a pandemic and climate change.

California is burning, along with Oregon and Washington, in one of the worst events of climate despair in recent history. And as with any sickness, there are signs: eerie ochre lighting in suburban backyards, layers of coarse ash on car doors and rear windshields, the apocalyptic sight of orange-yellow skies — as if a child had smudged his dirty fingers over the horizon.

The sound of helicopters choppering overhead. The earthshaking approach of an aerial firefighter. The stench of something acrid in the air.

As of this writing, the Bobcat fire has been burning in Southern California for nearly two weeks since September 6, the date when it first kindled. The blaze has charred 55,000 acres of the National Angeles Forest and briefly threatened the Mt. Wilson Observatory, along with various foothills communities.

The worst of it passed earlier this week when flames devastated areas east of Arcadia. The fire was only miles from my home.

The Bobcat Fire is seen from Arcadia in September. (Photo by Chloe Wong)

For those few days, it seemed like the calamity put our neighborhood routine on hold. There were no nannies rolling strollers down the streets, no kids playing in their front yards, no dogs running leashed next to their owners. Fires smoldered day and night in the nearby foothills, leading to on-and-off evacuation orders that were difficult to track.

Smoke smothered every inch of ground; the weather was thick, dirty and foul. It was impossible to breathe without feeling like something was spinning cobwebs in your lungs. Crosswalks, parks and avenues remained deserted, even in the middle of the day. You could feel the tension in the air, a real, tangible thing. Everyone was uneasy and on edge; panicking, and trying not to.

But on Monday evening, as my family stood on the sidewalk and watched flames edge slowly but surely down the San Gabriel Mountains — silently reserving fears that the fire would reach us too — a glossy white BMW parked itself across the road. It was one of several unfamiliar cars that had passed through that night and likely originated from some exotic locale somewhere: Riverside, Pasadena, maybe even San Marino.

The side window rolled down. A hand shot out of the half-opened sunroof and waved a phone around. “Wow,” I heard someone inside the car say, as though the raging fire, the plumes of hoary smoke and bits of ember, were part of some elaborate circus show. “Wow. Look at that!”

They clicked a quick photo — fire tourists, I thought idly. Then the car sped off into the night, its headlights briefly throwing a beam of light onto the asphalt road.

Like all the others who had suddenly taken an interest in our quiet residential area, they were heading towards Elkins Avenue. That street had the best view of the fire and was currently milling with nervous residents, firetrucks and expectant spectators alike. Some were watching the fire anxiously, some with uncharitable awe.

I thought about the fire tourists long after I went inside, feeling irritated for reasons that were difficult to name.

Maybe it was the fact that my family had spent half the day packing up our possessions in anticipation of evacuation—passports, pets, photo albums compiled over decades, prized souvenirs.

Or maybe it was because some of my classmates had called in with spotty WiFi that day, their cameras turned off to conserve phone battery because they had evacuated to hotels with poor reception.

But mostly, it was that a few of our neighbors — people whose names I did not know, who I had never even seen before — knocked on our door or stopped us on the street all weekend long. They asked if our family was evacuating; when we were evacuating, if they would have to leave their homes behind.

I wondered how the people in the car could be so callous. Didn’t they understand that everyone else was worried and afraid? That it was hardly the time to spectate?

But multiple disasters have swept the United States this year, from a devastating pandemic to a summer of racial tension, to a political climate that grows more divided every day.

In some ways, these fires are the figurative icing on the cake, another tally mark on a long list of tragedies.

We have gotten used to misfortune, desensitized to it, even. I’ve made jokes about 2020 being the worst year in human history and browsed social media sites boasting countless memes with the same message.

Why be surprised by record-breaking wildfires, when that record is broken every year? Why be worried about a global pandemic when millions of people can’t summon the common decency to wear a mask?

That’s why it’s hard for me to blame the people taking photos in the white BMW, the removed onlookers on the very edge of the crowd. We all live in the same world. Whether we like it or not, we have all been observing one colossal wildfire.

The only difference is that this one burned close to home.

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