My children’s half-sister lost her house and all outbuildings in the 2020 Glass Fire that swept the mountains above Santa Rosa. She later said her father had always told her it was not a question of if fire came but when. Patricia Malone lived five years in the foothills of the Southern Cascades with the same fear of not if but when. And yet when it came, she was totally unprepared. Charred is her account of the 1992 Fountain Fire.
Malone and her husband were driving home from a doctor’s appointment some thirty miles from their home when she spotted a dark puff n the cloudless sky. “It’s a cloud, Patti. It’s all right,” her husband told her.
It wasn’t all right. Once home, they didn’t even have time to unload the car before a law enforcement officer drove up with an immediate evacuation order. Their three dogs were all they could save. Left behind were feral cats, a peacock, a rooster and two beloved goats because they got cantankerous and there was no time to deal with them. The animals were the reason they called their patch of land “Pandemonium.”
Through Malone’s account, the reader is almost in the back seat as she roars down the road to rescue a grandchild from day care, only to find the highway closed by fire. Back home, then on the road again, anxious about her husband who should be behind her and isn’t and bargaining with God for the safety of the children in day care. You can almost smell the fire—and the fear. Her account takes you to the Safeway parking lot crammed with motor homes, vans, pickups. Evacuation headquarters. The granddaughter is found and reunited with her parents after their six-hour drive that should have been one and a half. They had to skirt the ever-growing fire. Exhausted, Malone realizes she is still wearing the jewelry she wore that morning, her white jeans are filthy, and she is grateful her husband didn’t get to unload the whiskey they’d bought that morning.
Next morning, they get the news that their home is gone but the new one, just barely under construction, survived. Malone never liked the A-frame they lived in for five years, but they have lost all their worldly goods.
Charred is as much about recovery as it is the fire. The reader walks with Malone, learning that tree stumps can smolder for months as fire travels along their roots and eventually re-ignites. Walking on burned ground is treacherous because it will suddenly give way, plunging a walker into a pit of smoldering ash. Heavy boots are a must.
She forces herself to go, alone, to the now-gone house. The land she had loved is now a blackened wasteland, trees dead and dying, the once-roaring creek now stagnant with charred debris. Part of the house still stand, but the roof is completely gone. She can find no trace of her existence—there should be remnants of the stove in the kitchen area, but there are not; the brass bed would have melted, but where did it go? The silver she left in a pile should be a melted blob, but she cannot find it. She drives away, leaving behind photographs, heirlooms, her history. Later, she quotes Erica Jong: “Without memory, we have no existence.” Moore needed proof of her previous existence, from childhood to the woman-who-does-lunch.
There are the practical matters of living. Malone experiences both survivors’ guilt and a sense of victimhood when her husband takes her to the Salvation Army temporary headquarters for lunch and then to the Community Room where she can pick out clothes. Told to take whatever she needs, she mutters, “I don’t need anything. I have insurance.”
Finishing the new house is primary. The region is flooded with men who advertise themselves as carpenters but whose shiny, clean tool belts give them away as amateurs. The building inspector finds flaws, and there are delays. Three months turn into six, but finally come the buying sprees for new furnishings. Malone even gets the AGA stove she has coveted.
But what of her little farm? Read the book to find out.
Patricia Malone is a good writer, her accounts vivid, her honesty sometimes painful and sometimes rife with ironic humor. But I want the rest of the story. True, the backstory of her San Francisco background and lifelong dream to live in the country is told in a sketchy form in the text, but where and who is she now? Did she just write this, or has it been in a drawer or on a desk since the 1992 Fountain Fire? She apparently has not written anything other than this slim but intense account. Read it in one spellbound evening.