Of Departing Kansas

Not literally, since I’ve never entered Kansas in the first place, but the way Dorothy Gale does early in The Wizard of OZ, when she emerges from her somewhat battered house to find herself in the middle of a strange city.

What brought this to mind is seeing the headlines about the bushfires in Australia – and remembering one of the nasty fire seasons I’ve lived through. I never faced anything like the worst of the fires, but I do know how bad they can get, and I did watch flames playing around bush near where we lived (and more to the point,  watching them and hoping like hell the flames didn’t get close enough to the big gas tank to cause… issues).

More than that, I remember the feeling of unreality that hovered around at the time, then and in several other crises and natural disasters I’ve had the good – or bad – fortune to experience. Oh, I’ve never been in the worst of things, but I’ve lived through the joys of watching the major rivers and wondering not when they’ll break their banks but by how much; and I’ve seen the aftermath of an earthquake (that was eerie). And of course the fire weather.

All of this – and I imagine that those of you who have been through far more… interesting events would tell me that it’s the same for those as well – had a sense of other about them, as if the departure from normal everyday was something that couldn’t happen without reality jumping a few universes over. None of the individual pieces that made up the feeling were in any way unknown, either. It’s just that combined they made a familiar place seem alien.

In a bad fire season, there’s the smell of smoke that never really goes away. Everything seems to be permeated with it, and there’s a haze in the air that’s not like any normal atmospheric phenomenon. At night, and on clearer days, the closer fires show, and the lines of flame seem to dance as they burn. The absence of firefighters – because they’re after the bigger, more dangerous fires – lends extra weirdness to the scene, and nobody tries to do anything about them because there are water restrictions, no way to get close to the fire with enough water to do any good, and most people are more concerned about trying to save their own homes if it comes to that.

Nothing is normal. Buses are rerouted because roads are closed. Train lines are closed. So are some of the roads. Some places are completely cut off. Others, there are long detours because there’s so much more traffic pushed onto the safe routes. Ash, everything from coarse black sooty stuff to fine white dust, is everywhere and coats everything.

And yet everyone tries to get on with whatever they need to be doing. Those who can get to work still go to work. Schools continue, albeit with a lot more looking out windows to check whether the smoke plumes are advancing. There’s a sense of skating over an abyss, as if stopping to consider what’s going on will cause a disaster. People just… keep doing what they have to as if it’s the only thing they can do.

Flood weather… is similar. There’s the constant damp, of course, and watching any visible waterways obsessively. Checking daily for the flooding notices, and the detours. Seeing the rivers that are normally sluggish, brownish, tame bodies of water turn into churning messes that eat land. Wondering whether the flood will peak before it reaches you. It didn’t feel quite as alien as the fire season, possibly because the fire season just kept spawning new fires where with flooding, once it peaks it starts to go down, and rain is just… rain, although seeing what used to be riverside homes and businesses turned into rubble can be disturbing.

This is something I grew up with – not the sense of disaster, but the knowledge that bad fires happen and that floods happen. I’ve been in a car that was one of the last to get through before the highway was closed because of flooding, and watched the rising water lapping at the road we were driving on. It’s part of the cycle in Australia – droughts with bad fires are broken by floods then the next drought settles in. So much so that there are more than a few plants there that can’t germinate without a fire.

When I was growing up, it was common knowledge that there should be regular controlled burns in the off-season. Every time the environmentalist lobby forces a stop, there are catastrophic fires, and every time once the fires die down there’s a new resurgence of locally extinct plants coming back. I’ve seen the cycle a few times now – it’s way past time everyone realized that nature is not tame and nature is not a mother (except in a rather specialized sense that involves rather nasty language). It’s also time we remembered that we can, for the most part, live with nature. We just need to remember that there will be no mercy and every mistake can be fatal.



  1. We were on vacation in Vermont for Hurricane Irene. The bridges were down everywhere, and we couldn’t drive off the mountain. Someone at the bottom of the mountain had a gravity fed well, so we were able to pump drinking water, and if we drove to the top of the mountain we could call out on our cell phones. But that weird, eerie sense of otherness really came on when the Army helicopter showed up with the mountains in the background. It evoked movies about the Vietnam War, and really did feel like stepping sideways into another reality.

    1. I can imagine! I think in some ways the absence of the normal sounds has a lot to do with that weird sense of otherness: we’re used to a more or less constant background noise. When it goes away, everything feels wrong.

      I remember the day of September 11, 2001, even though Australia wasn’t directly impacted, all air traffic except military and law enforcement was stopped. That alone was enough to make the day seem weird. Every time a helicopter went over, everyone cringed.

      1. That was one weird day. I worked for the FAA, and took myself to another building. I saw the jets that scrambled for Pennsylvania pass overhead when I walked out.

        Living overseas as the daughter of a US government father, I was raised paranoid, and there was no way I was staying in the FAA headquarters building. (My dad used to send us to spend the night with friends when things seemed fraught. He was the U.S. consul, and we lived in the official compound.)

        And then the military trucks in the street the next day. Again, that was the alien part.

        1. I was at work in a tallish office building just across the highway from the SA International Airport. Around midday, my daughter called from Camp Pendleton and yelled at me because I wasn’t evacuating the building.
          Frankly, I felt better, being at work.
          My daughter says that Camp Pendleton that day seemed really … alien. Creepily, eerily quiet. She walked up behind one of her friends, bumped his shoulder, and he whirled around and nearly slugged her.
          There was a big fire in the San Gabriels when I was in college; the weird part was the funny, yellow-beige glow behind stuff that looked like fog, but wasn’t. That and ash, that fell and swirled like dry snow across the roadways.

          1. Sonic boom on 9/11. I barely noticed, because fighter planes patrolling, but a lot of younger people had never heard one. They thought it was a bomb going off.

          2. I called my sister very early and told her to get out. She was working within a block of the White House. Someone officious tried to stop her, and she told them her sister at the FAA said to get out. And she left.

            One of the strange things was hearing all the stuff that just wasn’t true–fires on the Mall, a bomb at State, weird stuff.

            1. I particularly remember that the “plane goes down in a Pennsylvania field” was part of all the mad stories and not distinguishable from them until Jerry Pournelle posted a message on a SFWA newsgroup from the father of one man on the plane. (It hit the news soon after.)

        2. I had to take my son to the hospital in downtown DC on 9/12. We were alone driving down George Washington Parkway and when we crossed Key Bridge there were a military guy with large firepower in his hand watching us. Absolutely bizarre and unforgettable.

  2. A very hard winter will do that too. Months of white, cold, semi-isolated because there are limits on how much and how many of the roads are kept clear. Everyone expands by three sizes and you learn to identify people by their snowsuits and insulated overalls, because you don’t see faces except on the warmest of days.

    I took up snowshoeing 1) to get around and 2) to keep from going nuts from being stuck indoors.

    1. Living where I do, I imagine that will happen to me sooner or later. It seems to be something that happens in PA every generation or thereabouts. I’m already familiar with the way dirty chunks of ice piled up by snowplows seem to last for months. And how a moderately bad winter can cause parking spaces to become rather… scarce because the plows just can’t get that close in.

      1. Fire season – we’ve had them get into town (like, two days ago). The city lights hide the red glow, but you can smell them, and breathing gets interesting if you are out running/walking. You know trouble’s there, you just can’t see it.

        When you see white plumes on the horizon, upwind . . . Time to think about packing.

  3. “Mother Nature is a Witch.” (Printed in newspaper, circa late 1970’s, with a note that they couldn’t use the word they really meant, being a family newspaper and all.)

  4. We’ve had some bad fire seasons where every day was hazy and the smell of smoke was always in the air. Interestingly, I don’t remember those as being that bad. I mean, the haze was annoying and the smokey air sometimes caused us to cough quite a bit, but it didn’t feel unnatural. It just felt like something that happened occasionally when you live in a dry climate.

    A few years ago, we had a major flood, and that did feel unnatural. The tunnel I used to walk beside the little creek on Tuesday afternoon was filled with about eight feet of water by Wednesday morning. The ditch that elementary school kids liked to jump over was now about ten feet wide and twenty feet deep. There were fish swimming through the local airport. The Mighty St. Vrain River, whose name had always been sarcastic before, was so far over it’s banks it was hard to measure; it was taking its revenge on all of us who had made fun of it.

    It was somewhat interesting how much difference a little bit of elevation made. The people across the street from us had major flood damage. We, however, were on a teeny-tiny bump, about three feet at most, and we didn’t even get any leaks in the basement.

  5. I lived in CA for 18 years, ’99-’17… and yeah, we had lots of fire seasons, and times where ash was falling down and you couldn’t use enough water to keep it off your car because water restrictions, because L.A. is built in a desert.

  6. We’re in blizzard season right now, which I much prefer to fire season because shelter-in-place works 100% with blizzards. (Yeah, you have to be set up for it. But then you can just stay.)

    Neither feels unreal to me, though. They’re both part of the cycle. The really heavy smoke days, the light looks surreal, but so does the snow-light. I don’t know where it cones from, but when it’s overcast and snowing the night is not black, like during summer rain, but gray. Then there are the nights when the sky is crystal clear and the moon and/or stars shine on the snow and the world is blue. Both of those are weird lights. (We’re out of town–but the first might be light from a couple of neighbors a quarter mile away who have lights on all night outside.)

    Anything might happen when the light is like that. Today, however, is a normal, overcast, storm-incoming sort of day. More shoveling tomorrow.

    1. Same here. Fire season is business-as-usual every summer here in Wyoming. There have been some years where it caused more stress than others–we had a massive fire just over the border in Colorado that was visible from my tiny, foot-of-the-mountains town, and there was talk of evacuation–although it was unlikely that we’d actually be hit by the fire itself (there just isn’t that much fuel around town, so barring some truly bizarre and unlikely happenings we’re not likely to actually BURN), there was a chance the smoke would get so bad we’d have to pack up and go. We’ve got emergency plans in place for that sort of thing, anyway.

      Snow/wind bad enough to close the interstate are common, though this winter has been worse than previous in terms of how much snow we’ve had, how early it showed up, and how regular it’s been. Again, though, I plan to simply NOT be at work when it’s really bad (I live an hour’s drive away from my place of work, see). The bonus to a “bad” winter is that it will make for a very small and maybe even nonexistent fire season come summer (which usually doesn’t arrive until June, most years, although there was a year it didn’t turn up until AUGUST, and then the snow began again in early October).

      I had a sad-but-also-amusing conversation with a young man from Tempe recently who had been sold land via one of those very, very shady “real estate” deals online. I had to keep explaining to him that no, he couldn’t get out to the parcel he’d bought in January. He’d be lucky if he could do it by May, and would be better off planning for June or July–and that no, he wasn’t going to be able to build a house out there because THERE WAS NOTHING OUT THERE. No roads, other than the occasional two-track, no power lines, no water lines, nothing. (He thought “easement” meant they existed out there, and I had to tell him that no, it just meant that there were agreements in place should anyone ever, someday, decided to attempt it–which no one has in the century plus since there were such things, which should tell him something. At least, not other than oil and gas development, which is altogether different.) He thought ‘desert’ in Wyoming meant the same as desert in Arizona. It doesn’t, not by a long shot. (Our desert is more on par with the steppes of Mongolia…maybe a BIT less harsh, but in this modern age it’s hard to say.)

      The closest I’ve come to that unreal feeling was when the local sawmill caught fire last year. One of their sawdust piles caught fire (I briefly worked for that sawmill, in the office. “Shady safety practices” does not BEGIN to cover it.) The flames were massive and unbelievably close to the town (not my town, just the closest “larger” town to mine, so we pass through it every day on our way to work in the actual “big” town of Rawlins). Including drawing near a propane tank farm (ie, a spot where there are a LOT of tanks clustered together–not sure why they call it a ‘farm’). The efforts of local firefighters were heroic in that no structures were lost. But really, if the wind had shifted even a bit there would have been nothing they could have done to save the town, so there was a bit of divine intervention going on there that day as well I think.

      Likewise for a mountain town about halfway between my town and Laramie: the mountains caught fire a couple of summers back, and they did evacuate the town of Mountain Home (population…80 or so?). And although a couple of structures (sheds, I think) were lost, the town was saved. THAT was a deeply heroic effort by the firefighters–I drove through there while the fire was still on, and ALL the forest around that town was on fire. But not the town itself–it was quite amazing. (The local bar/cafe there took advantage of the evacuation to shut down for long overdue renovations, heh, which says something I think about the attitude of the mountain dwellers…) Driving through the empty town, peaceful and largely untouched, with flames raging mere feet away was truly unreal.

  7. We define reality by our perceptions.
    Thus, things that alter our perceptions, alter our reality.
    And that’s magic.
    It’s so easy to step into Faerie. You’re walking along, complacent in your routine, when you notice a black cloud moving swiftly in the face of the prevailing wind. It’s unnatural. You watch it boil as it gets closer, and then the wrath of Zeus erupts.
    Or you wake to red light, the smell of smoke and unnatural silence. Later, you find yourself staring, unblinking, at the mid-day sun.
    Or the striped sky, oppressive stillness, humidity, and heat that arrive in advance of a typhoon.
    It’s no suprise that disasters are often considered supernatural.
    And as easy as it is to slip into Faerie, escaping it is notoriously difficult.

    1. The Deep Survival of Larry Gonzales, as applied to magical thinking. When you are not oriented, you are bewildered. ‘Eating the food means you can no longer leave’ is a perfect metaphor. If you put together a wrong thought while trying to deal with something you no longer understand, it takes tremendous effort to dig back and correct things after you regain orientation, if you even can.

      Of course, this begs for a story where after Fairyland is declared by society to be metaphorical, someone discovers at great personal cost that the Good Folk are real.

  8. Fires and earthquakes in southern California defined most of my life. Now, living in PA, specifically Philadelphia, random snow storms, people frantically shopping for bread, milk, and TP (I *really* don’t want to ride out the blizzard in their house!), and the city never plowing, thus making the aftermath that much worse, all combine to make winter the most interesting season.

    1. My son moved to Philly this fall and he says the drivers there are really problematic. Red lights are a signal for six more cars to pass an intersection and people drive wherever they want on the roads. In a snowstorm? I shudder to think.

  9. Florida is another area that likes to burn- much of the flora is extra flammable. I remember one firefighter describing the flammability of the typical scrub saw palmetto as oil soaked paper dipped in wax. Best to let it burn on a regular basis. And before the coming of the Orlando Rat, they did.
    But, since those who pretend to like the environment wholeheartedly believes “fire BAD!”, they work to stop the controlled burns. Idiots- especially considering the indigenous people they claim to like so much are pyromaniacs.

    1. Born and raised in the Pacific Northwest. You can log it or you can burn it or you can wait for it to burn. “Just let it grow forever” is not one of the options on the menu.

  10. Just to give you a heads-up Kate, you got the attention of Camelflop. My condolences.

    1. Oy. How did I manage that? Waxing lyrical about natural disasters and the weirdness that living through/near one generates?

        1. Considering he relies on “uncommon knowledge” I suppose that’s not too surprising. I grew up in circles that were much less exalted than the rarified air he favors (I prefer to avoid oxygen deprivation thank you)

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