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How losing my home in a fire taught me to value what we have inherited and protect it for future generations

The fire burned my home to the ground. The history of a lifetime — books, paintings, photographs — all gone.
Updated Feb 13, 2018 09:54pm

I’m looking out onto a perfectly calm and placid Sausalito harbour. Blue stippled with the motionless white of docked boats. The ocean today perfectly fits its appellation. Pacific. It's hard to believe that not long ago, massive wildfires of unprecedented fury wrought paths of destruction that would drive thousands of people, including me and my family, from our homes.

It was around 10pm on an October Saturday, when I began to notice the unusually strong wind. I had been working late in my little office, a cabin detached from our main house, when the trees began to creak and small branches and acorns began to fall on the roof.

Almost nine years ago, I fell in love with this quirky house in Glen Ellen, a tiny village in northern California’s wine country. Apart from its picturesque setting, Glen Ellen is associated with the author and social activist Jack London.

The house and its surroundings overlook the land Jack London acquired in 1905 to build his home, now the 1400-acre Jack London Historic Park. My home is cradled by huge oak trees on all sides. At first sight, it had reminded me of a childhood treehouse in a giant banyan in downtown Karachi.

I was a thin little girl then, so slight that I could swing easily from its aerial roots. A child with introspective tendencies, I found both reverie and physical enjoyment there. Now the wind rattling through the trees had made reverie impossible, so I thought I would call it a night.

As soon as I opened the door to cross the deck to the living room, I was struck by the smell of smoke in the air.

The author's studio before it was burned down. —All photos by the author
The author's studio before it was burned down. —All photos by the author

This in itself was not unusual; autumn is fire season in California, vegetation is bone dry and the greening rains of winter have yet to arrive. Something was indeed burning but I assumed it was far away and it would soon be controlled. I went to bed but could not sleep; my anxiety level rising with each new fire engine rumbling down the street, sirens blaring.

Finally, around 2:30am, a fire truck came up our lane and warned us via a megaphone that the fire was heading our way and we needed to evacuate NOW.

Despite the urgency of the warning, I did not fully comprehend the gravity of the situation. Wildfires do occur in California but it is relatively rare that homes are lost to fire. We could smell smoke but could not see any fire. Surely we were being evacuated out of an abundance of caution?

Almost as an afterthought, I threw a change of clothes and our vital documents in the car and we drove off, thinking we would return in a few hours. We could not imagine that this was the last time we would see our home.

Driving down towards the town of Sonoma, the smoke seemed to be everywhere. We joined the steady stream of cars that came pouring down the roads like ants and headed east, away from what we thought was the source of the fire. Little did we know that there were multitudes of fires erupting like angry red rashes all around us.

A mountain in flames framed by the darkness of night is a sight at once terrifying and beautiful. Seared in memory, it burns on in immortal phosphenes behind curtains of shut eyelids.

Sukhawat Ali Khan, son of late Ustad Salamat Ali Khan, and Mindia Devi Klein on bansuri in concert at the author's home.
Sukhawat Ali Khan, son of late Ustad Salamat Ali Khan, and Mindia Devi Klein on bansuri in concert at the author's home.

After being turned around several times by the highway patrol as roads closed down one by one in the fiery onslaught, we finally managed to reach an evacuation center in Petaluma, after three white knuckled hours. Slowly, the shelter began to fill up with hundreds of bleary-eyed families who, like us, had fled the raging infernos.

Outside the evacuation centre, the fire department had a large truck hooked up to a generator with a television coverage alternating between different burn locations in Sonoma, Napa, and Mendocino. Clusters of Public Works officials on standby were getting radio dispatches. From them, I learned that there were no less than 60 large and small blazes burning simultaneously.

Even seasoned firefighters had never seen anything like it, especially not the pace at which the flames advanced, fuelled by hurricane-speed wind gusts of 90mph. It was the high winds that had caused downed power lines to fall on trees, sparking fires. The wind caused embers to blow far and wide, multiplying the conflagrations with unexpected rapidity.

However, beyond the immediate cause of the apocalyptic history making fires lay a deadly trifecta of conditions. An unusually wet winter, an unusually dry summer, and unusually strong winds.

The first two culprits are clearly hallmarks of climate change. Like the rest of the planet, California has been experiencing hotter and hotter summers.

A few weeks before the spate of deadly fires, temperatures set new records throughout the state. In Glen Ellen as well as other towns in northern California, we had several consecutive days where the temperature reached 109 fahrenheit ( 42.78 c), whereas our area rarely sees temperatures more than 102 fahrenheit.

A view of the kitchen inside the house.
A view of the kitchen inside the house.

We Californians like to joke that we are three hours and 20 years ahead of the rest of the US, and this is especially true when it comes to environmental policies.

However, with the election of the Climate Change Denier-in-Chief in the person of Donald Trump, California finds itself increasingly at loggerheads with the federal government’s climate policy.

Prior to being appointed head of Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt was fighting 19 lawsuits against the very agency he now leads. This proverbial fox in charge of the henhouse takes his orders from the fossil fuel industry and meets with their key executives on a regular basis.

No one knows exactly who or when because his schedule is kept secret and he has a 24-hour security detail.

Anyone meeting him has to deposit their cell phone with his security. In contrast to the dramatic and distracting ineptitude on display at the White House, Pruitt is dismantling Obama-era environmental regulations slowly and systematically.

From our wildlife refuges to our air and water quality regulations, California is a state under siege. America is a country under siege. And the world can do little but watch helplessly as Trump and his cronies chart a course to certain climate catastrophe.

The author's books inside her library, reminiscent of her days in Karachi, also burned down in the fire.
The author's books inside her library, reminiscent of her days in Karachi, also burned down in the fire.

In the two weeks since the fire started over, a hundred thousand acres of some of the most scenic countryside in the world was laid waste.

Several large fires burned but the ten thousand firefighters, armies of bulldozers, and numerous aircraft combating slowly gained the upper hand.

I had no doubt that eventually, this too shall pass, and become part of the history of calamities to befall our increasingly fragile planet. At the same time, it was impossible not to notice that we are adding to the roster of such calamities at an alarming pace.

Jerry Brown, the governor of California, warned that such cataclysmic fire seasons could well be the new normal. The prospect of such “normalcy” is deeply disturbing.

Suddenly my phone beeps. It’s an alert from the Sheriff’s office. Parts of Glen Ellen, under mandatory evacuation since the 8th of October, are open to homeowners. My husband and I waste no time jumping in the car.

It's a 50-mile drive from Sausalito to Glen Ellen but it feels like an eternity. My mood is swinging wildly between hope and fear the whole way, sinking when we drive past charred hillsides and brightening while passing unharmed patches of scenery.

About two miles from Glen Ellen, we encounter a police roadblock. About a dozen cars are pulled over on the shoulder. I recognise some of my neighbours arguing and pleading with the cops.

I approach an officer who tells me that due to extensive looting of abandoned and half-burned homes post fire, they have imposed a state of martial law in the area. I want to tell the officer that the last time I heard the words “martial law”, it was on the 5th of July 1977, when General Zia took over and forced secular-minded officers like my father out of service.

Ismat Chugtai wrote in the author's notebook in Bombay, circa 1977. The book was one of the objects lost in the fire.
Ismat Chugtai wrote in the author's notebook in Bombay, circa 1977. The book was one of the objects lost in the fire.

Ahmad Faraz's message to the author in one of her books, circa 1990, after a mushaira in New York. The book was also burned in the fire.
Ahmad Faraz's message to the author in one of her books, circa 1990, after a mushaira in New York. The book was also burned in the fire.

Qurratulain Hyder, an old family friend of the author, signed in the her notebook as Ainee Khala, circa, 1977.
Qurratulain Hyder, an old family friend of the author, signed in the her notebook as Ainee Khala, circa, 1977.

Of course, I say nothing. After decades of living in the US, I have acquired a Person Of Colour’s reflexive distrust of Law Enforcement. Only police-escorted visits will be allowed to homeowners with valid IDs if they have a valid and urgent reason for visiting their property.

The woman standing next to me says she needs to retrieve her cat. An officer nods and she hops in the police car. We have no pets, but I am desperate to learn the fate of our home, so I tell the officer that my husband is allergic to western medicine and that I need to collect his herbal remedies from our house.

The ruse works. I’m in the car, along with three other homeowners. Our house is on Warm Springs Rd, the main artery that runs through Glen Ellen Village The landscape bears an eerie resemblance to the black and white photos of World War II-era bomb sites.

A ghostly grey ash covers virtually every surface. House after house is nothing but rubble with only the odd brick fireplace still standing. Burnt-out cars and trucks line the driveways. The cat lady’s house is the first stop. Miraculously, it is still standing. A nonchalant feline is stretched out on the front porch. The woman bursts into tears.

The author's prized possessions, The Collected Works of Anna Akhmatova and Agha Shahid Ali, were also burnt along with her other books.
The author's prized possessions, The Collected Works of Anna Akhmatova and Agha Shahid Ali, were also burnt along with her other books.
The material history of objects — earring from Alhmbra, a purse from Azarbajan, and a dupatta dyed by the author's Khala — all gone.
The material history of objects — earring from Alhmbra, a purse from Azarbajan, and a dupatta dyed by the author's Khala — all gone.

Now it's my turn. I am hoping for another miracle but no such luck. The fire has burned my home to the ground. The material history of a lifetime — books, paintings, instruments, poetry journals, family photographs, and heirlooms — all gone.

The generous canopy of ancient oaks and maples framing the house and filtering the sunlight lies in charred hulks like a giant shipwreck or the limbs of a torched leviathan. I climb to the top of the hill, on the footprint of the rubble. It's a crisp fall afternoon. I have never had such an unobstructed vantage point before.

The view of Jack London Park is stunning. Buried out of site in the dense forest are the remains of Beauty Ranch, the home that London spent the bulk of his fortune building, which burned down the night that it was completed. He spent the remainder of his days in a modest cottage.

The author's son, Kabir, with a grape harvest behind the house.
The author's son, Kabir, with a grape harvest behind the house.

In the weeks that follow, we busy ourselves with the mundane details of life post catastrophe. Finding a rental, buying daily necessities and school supplies for our son.

The bitterness of losing what one has spent a good part of one’s life creating is not something that is easy to overcome. Yet ultimately material objects are just that, objects. They acquire significance only through interaction with us.

The inheritance of loss is perhaps the most important lesson in a human being’s lifetime because it profoundly alters our relationship to the present.

The Native Americans consider fire to be a kind of sacred purification that reveals the true essence of a situation. For me, it made abundantly clear that the most pressing preoccupation of any thinking, feeling person in the Age of the Anthropocene has to be how to preserve what remains of our rapidly degrading collective home, so that loss is not the only inheritance we pass on to future generations.


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