The Smell of Burning in the Morning No Longer Affects the Californian Fight or Flight Response

A fire burns at all hours of the day in California. It’s difficult to know just when one should really be alarmed about the smell of smoke anymore. The distinctive odor—at times, like a barbeque gone wrong—is pervasive, making it distinguishing to the Californian’s nostrils no more. Without that erstwhile dissimilitude, how is one really supposed to experience anything like “alarm” anymore when faced with this former source of olfactory concern? Alana Brighton had lost the ability long ago, living in one of the hotbeds of wildfire “season” (extended to all year long) in this thing called the post-apocalypse. She lived in Butte County, which had become more known for fires than anything else (save for also boasting many of the scenes in Gone with the Wind being filmed there). Namely, Paradise. A place she had lived her entire life, like most of the residents there. At thirty-six, she was more jaded than a Morrissey-worshipping teenager in the 80s. 

But what can you really do with your trauma except move on? In this regard, she didn’t find the welcome sign to the town’s rather mocking tagline, “May you find Paradise to be all its name implies,” to be much good for its post-Camp Fire image, but one supposed they wanted to put it back up for posterity. Sort of like the “Freedom Tower” after 9/11. Like maybe if they “showed Mother Nature” that they wouldn’t be “deterred,” she would leave them alone. But of course she wouldn’t. Had humans ever left her alone? It was no wonder she raged constantly these days, brewing firestorms that had their own separate climate systems from the outside world. 

A cop shouting, “Mandatory evacuation!” didn’t startle the townspeople anymore. Some even chose to ignore such a demand altogether. Californians at large had become so blasé about asking, “Are we all gonna die?” whenever a major environmental cataclysm like this occurred that it seemed they were almost half-hoping the reaper would just make his presence known already. And possibly in a less “slow burn” (pardon the pun) manner. Alana, like everyone else who returned to Paradise after The Fall, was still shellshocked, but felt a strange loyalty to the town. An obligation not to abandon it just because it had turned to ash and rubble. She was part of the class of people who keep coming back, like moths to a flame—literally—to a scene of decay and destruction. Who can’t seem to acknowledge that no matter how hard they try to recreate something, what once was will never be again. 

Even though this “go-around” wasn’t all Mother Nature’s fault so much as PG&E’s, the townspeople knew there was an appreciable risk in returning to such a fire trap. One that had been, as pyrogeographers noted, a result of 1800s-era “timber barons” beating the Forestry Service to California. Alas, the latter institution wasn’t formed until the early 1900s, and so, as usual, the capitalists fucked nature up and changed the way fire operates in the surrounding forest of Paradise and other Butte County towns. Allowing flames—once started and spurred by the wind—to “hopscotch” erratically through the forest’s patchwork pattern (stemming from its early pillaging). Alana never much cared for games of hopscotch, even as a child. What she cared for even less was a certain orange man posing as the U.S. president showing up to the town as a publicity opportunity for himself and later telling news outlets, “What we saw at Pleasure—what a name right now. What we just saw, we just left Pleasure—” Finally, the others standing next to him can take it no longer and correct, “Paradise.” He shrugs, “Or Paradise.” Watching that on TV later, Alana wanted to vomit. She despised California’s continued reliance on federal aid for just about everything. Particularly a catastrophic emergency such as this. FEMA might as well have a giant penis attached to it to more visually represent fucking California up the ass with its whims and “dance, monkey, dance” demands. So long as they were dependent, they were at the mercy of goons like this overstuffed walking Cheeto. 

Although the situation was dire, the determination to move back into the town won out. Yet no one knew just how bad things were until they were told that the ravages of the fire had caused benzene to appear in the water. What was formerly one of the cleanest sources of agua was now something one shouldn’t even risk showering in, lest the benzene seep in through their skin. Some days, Alana just wanted to turn the faucet on and let it cascade down her body instead of dealing with the fuckery of boiling bottled water. We all die a slow, painful death anyway, right? It’s just a matter of how. Alana’s—like many others who had moved back—was going to be much quicker than she expected, however. For not even three full years had passed since the Camp Fire when a new “rager” materialized. He was called the Dixie Fire and his merciless flames certainly put the “dix” in “Dixie.” 

Alana first took note of him somewhere around three a.m. that hot July morning. Too hot already at such a wee hour. The smell itself didn’t awaken her because, again, the Californian nostril had become somewhat immune to interpreting smoke as “off” or particularly potent. Instead, it was her bladder that awakened her and, because she had left the bathroom window open, the severity of the “barbeque gone wrong” odor was unavoidable. She peered outside, ignoring the sense of dread that had bubbled up from the pit of her stomach. She knew she didn’t even have to look to confirm the worst. The surrounding trees were starting to burn, picking up momentum right before Alana’s very eyes. 

She had really only two choices: try to flee before the obvious evacuation order came, or simply stay in her house and let the flames overtake her this time. Like so many residents, she was tired. And she wasn’t sure if she had the strength to once again leave and then come back to rebuild. Especially knowing that every rebuilding effort was tinged with the foreknowledge that they’d likely have to do it all over again. Forever, ad infinitum. So long as they kept on living in these fire-licked epicenters, this was the price they would pay. Which made Alana ask herself: why did they keep on bothering? Maybe because that saying about home being where you hang your hat isn’t true. Place matters when it comes to feeling at home. Yet why did so many feel at home in such an inhospitable environment? Did it say something about their own psychology? About being unable to pick up on the signs of when they weren’t wanted? Others would say that continuing to fight by remaking the land every time it made its lack of desire for the inhabitants clear was a testament to “human strength.” More specific still, the “California spirit.” But what if that spirit was less about fortitude and sheer force of will and more about denial and ego? 

Alana wasn’t allowed too much more time to think about this fine line, for she had decided to let any amount of perseverance left within her own spirit perish in the mounting fire along with her. 

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