I had a premonition of sorts on Saturday, just a few hours before I learned that wildfires were sweeping through neighborhoods both east and west of Austin. I was sitting on the sidelines of my son’s soccer game when I saw a strong gust blow up a chalky yellow dust devil off of a nearby road construction site, maybe to a height of thirty feet.
The word “ignition” came to mind, and I felt abraded by all the heat. Worn thin.
Our home is on the campus of a boarding school, surrounded by what is usually a pleasant green meadow shaded by mature live oak trees. Walking through the meadow to the community pool to cool off, the grass is bleached pale, almost white, and crunches audibly underfoot. The soil isn’t just dry, it’s the color and consistency of cocoa powder. An inch deep, it puffs with the kids shuffling footsteps, dulling the bright color of their Crocs.
I love our live oaks. Their canopy keeps our yard tolerable even on the hottest days. And you’ve seen the stats, over 80 days of 100+ degree heat. Over the years they’ve sheltered countless cookouts, birthday parties, egg hunts. But this morning I pictured them, maybe for the first time, from above — adjacent, grey/green stepping stones creating a direct path from the tinder-dry stand of cedar trees and scrub on the west side of the campus to our home.
The fires have already scorched our school community. One maintenance worker, the painter, lost his home in Bastrop. Two teachers anxiously await permission to return to their homes. My cousin’s house was spared by inches, thanks to the local firemen.
I bet that every parent in Central Texas, maybe every person, has tried to imagine what a fire would mean. As I look at the images from the affected neighborhoods, the word that keeps coming back to me is “obliteration.” That’s how fragile we feel. A spark away from obliteration.
The irony, of course, is that the heat broke over the weekend, temperatures falling by over fifteen degrees. It’s finally humane to go outside. Kids can ride bikes without being punished by the heat. When I stepped out for a pre-dawn run, the air had a cool crispness, but carried also a heavy seasoning of woodsmoke.