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Excerpt: Sunny's Summer


Chapter One

Signs of the fire were everywhere. As Sunny drove north toward Chico along Highway 99, she passed hundreds of acres of grassland and pasture burned in the blaze. While the flames had ignored century-old stone fences marking boundaries, new grass, and blackened fence posts were the last reminders of the catastrophe that had devastated this beautiful part of the Sacramento Valley. Arriving in Chico, she turned east, taking the Skyway upward into the Sierra foothills toward the town of Paradise and shocked at the extent of the destruction around her—mile after mile of scorched earth topped by dead and dying trees.

She had read of the fire, seen pictures, interviewed survivors who came to the insurance office where she worked. Nothing prepared her for the emotional impact of seeing it all first-hand. She blinked back sudden tears, moved by the enormity of the tragedy.

How did this happen? And how were people able to survive? Many had been asking the same questions since the dramatic events last November. The local congressman came, followed by the governor, the U.S. president, and countless other officials. All were seeking answers to the same unanswerable questions.

The Camp Fire, named for Camp Creek Road where it started, was the deadliest wildfire in California history with eighty-five lives lost. It was also the first time, entire communities had simply vanished.

Sunny remembered the “Paradise Lost!” headlines, but Paradise was not the only town to go up in smoke. Concow was gone, as was more than half of Magalia. Pulga and other small Sierra foothill communities were damaged or destroyed, leaving some fifty thousand people displaced.

Butte County will have a tough time recovering from this, Sunny thought. In fact, this was a big enough disaster to have a ripple effect across the entire state. All of California may have a difficult recovery.

Sunny, who had spent her childhood in the Gold Rush towns of the Sierra Nevada, knew the mindset of the survivors, the tens of thousands whose homes, belongings, businesses, or workplaces were now nothing but ash and rubble. Many had lost everything they knew—all they had ever known. Some had also lost loved ones—people who either did not receive word of their impending doom or who chose not to evacuate until it was too late.

I can identify with some of this, Sunny reflected, maybe more than people realize… maybe just a little too much.

“Are you sure you can handle this?” her Aunt Olivia had asked.

Sunny had answered that she could—that she wanted to do it. Now she wondered.

As a jane-come-lately student in the schools of Destiny, California, Sunny knew the pain of being behind all her classmates and struggling to catch up. She knew what it meant to rely on the kindness and community spirit of a small town to bring her through trauma and loss. She even knew how it felt to lose someone, although her losses were not the same as the losses of those who had lived through the fire. She thought of her mother, taken by a heroin overdose, and of her sister, Skye, in jail on her third DUI. Where there’s life, there’s hope. I’m trying not to give up on you, Skye, but you’ve got to try, too.

Thinking like this wasn’t helping at all. Sunny deliberately turned her thoughts to her current project. In less than a month, she would graduate with a degree in U.S. history, something her high-school history teacher would find hard to believe. Things changed as I grew up. I’m so glad they did!

She had applied to the California State University system for grad school. With luck, she’d be accepted at Chico State, her first choice, or Sacramento State, her second. Truth was, she’d go anywhere in the system if it allowed her to work toward graduate degrees and a possible future in teaching, maybe at the college level or maybe in high school. My high-school history classes always made history seem like a bunch of boring names and dates. If I could teach it the way I know it now, as real people living their lives and making the best choices they could, what a difference!

She thought of last night’s conversation with her roommate. Libby started by asking a question similar to the one Aunt Olivia had posed: “Will you be okay with this? It’s going to be hard.”

“I’ll be okay. I need to be. This paper will finish out my degree and get me started on my thesis as well, assuming my eventual graduate committee accepts my proposal for it. The real question is, are you sure your folks are okay with this? They run a bed-and-breakfast for a living. Doesn’t seem fair for me to impose.”

“You’re not imposing,” Libby assured her. “Mom and Dad are looking forward to having you there. As long as you leave before the rental crush during Chico State’s graduation, they’ll love it. No worries.”

“That’s very generous. I couldn’t afford to make this trip without their help.”

“They’re happy to help. They may want a copy of your paper, though.”

Sunny laughed. “I doubt that. The dry, academic style Professor Liu requires isn’t particularly readable.”

“They’ll probably want to read it anyway. They’ve been affected by the fires, too.”

Of course, they have. We all have. But maybe I can make something good come of it, and not just for me. If we see how this happened, maybe we can keep it from happening again. Sunny could almost hear her cousin Amber’s voice asking, “Are you sure you’re up to this, Sunny? This project would be tough for anybody.” And especially tough for someone like me. Is that what you mean, Amber? But she couldn’t fault Amber for caring. I’m grateful  I have family and friends who care.

Most of her conversations lately had taken the same direction. No one seemed to understand her drive to do this—to see the devastation for herself and record everything she could of all that had been written and said about it. She was especially interested in people’s first-hand experiences. Documenting the Camp Fire, the way a true historian does will make for a great master’s thesis. I probably already have enough for Dr. Liu’s class, but to do the job right for a thesis, I’ll need another sixty or seventy interviews—and I have to be back to school and work in just two weeks. Better get busy. Sunny pressed the accelerator and picked up her speed.

She passed the entrance to the Tuscan Ridge Golf Course—or, more accurately, what had been a golf course. It had become the staging arena for the utility company crews working in the burned-over areas: assessing property damage, removing dead and dying timber, clearing toxic materials, doing all the clean-up work no one ever realized needed to be done until something like this happened. The service camp had once covered acres, though little remained of it now. Maybe this will be a golf course again someday. Maybe there will even be people to play here.

Farther up the road, she could see into the canyons on both sides of the Skyway and witness the way the fire had swept over the ridges and into the canyons. Fueled by gale-force winds, the flames had funneled down those canyons toward the valley, becoming a voracious monster that devoured everything in its path for miles. She shuddered. Hell, on earth. It was a literal hell on earth. It’s a wonder so many got out.

As the elevation increased nearer to Paradise, the burned growth grew heavier. Soon she was entering pine forest, what little remained of it. This must have been a beautiful town, thick with trees and shrubs, much like Destiny. She stopped herself short of realizing that her hometown of Destiny in the foothills above Sacramento could burn just like this. Just then she passed the place that once held the town’s welcome sign: “May you find Paradise to be all its name implies.” She remembered the “before” pictures of the beautiful sign for a lovely community. Little remained of either now.

The surreal experience of driving into the burned-out town came as a second emotional jolt. It’s like entering a cemetery. Fire-seared chimneys stood like headstones and seemed to announce Here lies the Smith home or Here lived the Jacksons. They stood in rows, one after another, block after block, a graveyard for families’ former lives that stretched as far as she could see, clear to the edge of the charred forest.

Some lots had been cleared, dying trees logged for their timber, rubble hauled away, ashes removed, even the scorched topsoil taken, its brew of toxic chemicals carefully disposed of elsewhere. A few spaces even had new construction underway, but most of the plots of land looked just as they must have since the flames were finally cooled by the quenching rains. Those lots were littered with the remnants of heating and cooling systems, kitchen sinks, melted windows, and even a sporadic burned-out vehicle. Each scorched vehicle that remained was marked with a large, spray-painted X indicating to search crews that it contained no bodies.

It’s hard to believe… difficult to imagine. But Sunny didn’t have to imagine what that first ghastly morning had been like. She had seen the videos shot by panicked people, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, friends, and neighbors who recorded their flight as they scrambled to outrun a raging wildfire. Some prayed as they drove. Others sobbed as they recorded what they believed to be their last words, hoping their cell phones and the record found there would outlive them. The terror reflected in every video was poignant and raw.

In several videos, Sunny watched homes burning on both sides of the road, burned-out shells of vehicles still on fire, trees exploding into flame all around. One video showed fire blocking the road as a shaky voice announced, “There’s no way out of this but through it. I hope we can get past this. If we don’t, remember we love you.” A baby screamed in the background while a young child’s voice quavered, “Mommy, are we gonna die?” Sunny’s throat tightened every time she thought of it. What must it have been like?

She drove through several neighborhoods, simply staring at the devastation. At some point, she realized that all she was doing was driving and gaping I suppose some shock is natural. Destruction on this scale is hard to fathom. Still, I came here for a purpose, and it’s time I remember that.

Sunny got out her camera and began to document all she saw.

On the two-acre lot that had once been his own small piece of Paradise, Evan Millett worked steadily, stacking most of what remained of his home and belongings into piles: one for trash removal, one for toxic waste and potentially hazardous materials, and a third small stack for items that might be worth keeping. There was very little in the third stack. Everything I dreamed of, all I wanted, gone. Just gone. It was almost too much to face.

He hadn’t faced it at first. Throwing himself into work, he avoided even driving past this place. Later, when he finally made the pilgrimage, he was horrified to find all the trees being removed, even those the fire had missed. Finally, a state-certified botanist explained that the heavy rains that followed the fire, leaving flash flooding and debris flows in their wake, had washed the smoke and toxic gases from the air back into the soil, poisoning the hardy plants that survived the initial disaster. It will be a hundred years before this forest recovers. He hated even thinking about it.

Almost as much as I hate the vultures who’ve swept in since. Evan knew not everyone felt as he did. Some were grateful for any intervention and saw all outsiders as sources of help. But the attorneys and insurance investigators who set up shop in the area before the fires were extinguished, struck him as scavengers, feeding on the remains of all that had been here, looking for someone to sue to recoup their own losses or make a profit. Evan bristled when he recalled their quick and slick promises to sue on the survivors’ behalf well before fire investigators had any clear idea of how the fire started or who might be responsible. Some of his neighbors had been grateful and open to hearing more, but Evan turned them all away—rudely when he could.

I have to find a way to get past all this, Evan thought as he worked, but the pain of loss was like a cold, hard stone in his gut. The guilt was even worse.

Sunny found frequent opportunities to stop. Sometimes she snapped pictures from her car window; occasionally she got out to walk up to the remains of someone’s home. She stopped short of actually walking inside, brought to a halt by her reluctance to intrude as well as the odd mix of rubble, ash, and what looked like gooey paste—the fire’s version of mud.

Sunny had been taking pictures for half an hour when she turned a corner and saw someone dressed entirely in camo sifting through the debris of a small home. Though it was May and the weather warming, the worker was outfitted for HAZMAT conditions in a white hazard mask, heavy boots, and thick gloves. Man? Large, short-haired woman? At this distance, she couldn’t guess.

The building’s footprint stood a little apart from others around it, telling Sunny it had once occupied a large lot covered with tall trees. Only stumps remained. The lot looked as if it had been clear-cut. Other nearby lots looked the same. I’ll bet this person has a story to tell. She got out of her car.

“Hello!” she called. “Mind if I shoot some pictures?”

“Why?” A deep bass voice responded.

Definitely a man. “I’m documenting the Camp Fire for a master’s thesis in history.”

“You’re sure? You’re not from one of the insurance companies or the people who want to sue the utility company?”

“No. I do work for an insurance company, but this project is a personal one, and I don’t intend to share it with my bosses.”

“Likely story.” He turned his back. “Yes, I mind if you take pictures.”

Sunny bit her lip in frustration. That’s what total honesty gets me. “Okay, then, no pictures,” she said, still shouting across the wide space. She put the camera back into her car. “Can I just come over and talk with you? I’d like to get your fire story—you know, what happened here.”

“Why?” he asked again.

“I told you.… Never mind. May I just watch for a while?”

He shrugged. “Suit yourself.”

She drew nearer, looked the man full in the face, and caught her breath.

“Something wrong?”

“No, no. You’re just not what I expected.” No way was I expecting you. She’d imagined a much older man. This one was close to her own age, solidly built, and very attractive, his eyes a startling blue. “May I ask your name?”

He actually curled his lip. “Maxwell Smart.”

“Very funny. I’ve seen the movie.” She stepped forward and held out her hand. “I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yours.”

He took her hand, but the look in his eye hadn’t changed. “Very well, Miss Not-from-the-insurance-company-but-yes-I-do-happen-to-work-there. My name is Evan Millett.”

She offered her most winning smile. “I’m Sunny Ray.”

He didn’t just drop her hand. He threw it back at her. “Sunny Ray? Like I’m supposed to buy that? I think you need to leave now, Miss Whatever-your-name-is.”

She took a deep breath followed by an exasperated sigh. “It’s actually Golden Sunny Ray, but I only use Sunny. If you’d ever known my neo-hippie mother, you’d understand.”

Steel glinted in his eyes and venom laced his voice. “I asked you to leave.”

“All right, all right. I’m going. But I have a business card. It has my name—my real name, Sunny Ray—along with my phone and email. If you decide you want to talk, give me a call. People tell me it can be very therapeutic to share their stories.”

“Off. My. Land.” He seemed angrier by the moment.

“I’m going!” As she turned, she spotted a large stump near the edge of Evan’s property. That tree must have shaded the front door of that home for decades. “I’ll leave my card right here, just in case.”

He opened his mouth to speak again, but she didn’t need any more warnings. “I’m gone!” she said. As quickly as she could manage across the rough ground, she made it back to her car and jumped inside. Then, before anything else could happen, she drove down the street, not even stopping to shoot pictures of other properties until she was well out of the man’s sight.

So much for making progress.

A few minutes later, she came across a couple, probably in their fifties, who were working on a smaller lot with a bigger home footprint. She spent the next hour recording their detailed and harrowing story. When she thanked them for sharing it, they thanked her for giving them the chance. It had been that way with everyone she talked to so far—everyone but Evan Millett. I wonder what’s up with him? During the rest of the day, she spoke to five more people who were happy to share their stories. She didn’t leave Paradise until the sun was down and a brilliant, fiery sunset tinted the western sky.