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MELTING POINT


[Published in 2014, the incident took place on 20 October 1991, in Oakland, California.]

At 212 degrees Fahrenheit, the water in wood begins to boil, and then evaporates just before combustion begins. You can watch it safely in a hearth—simple physics, or the Gift of Prometheus, depending on your point of view. But you will never really understand fire until it speaks to you.

It spoke to me on a hot October Sunday morning—visibility was razor sharp, Diablo winds had been ramming the dry San Joaquin Valley air into the San Francisco Bay for the last 36 hours. It made everyone edgy, especially Kate, who’d been inspecting the 1912 cedar-shingled house in North Berkeley on which we’d just closed escrow. Six months pregnant, my wife had been whirling through the empty wainscoted rooms in a nesting frenzy. Our nine-year-old son, Nicholas, had been mounting a full-court press for a TV cable in his bedroom, and I had been lamenting the prospect of becoming a permanent fixture at Home Depot as I pried open a corroded copper latch on one of a couple dozen narrow casement window in the old house. That was when I noticed a thick black canopy billowing over the green hills of Oakland to the south.

I motioned quietly to Kate. She moved to the window, looked up at the dark sky, and her face went slack. “I’ve got a very bad feeling about this,” she said, holding her belly protectively.

Twenty minutes later, our red Isuzu Trooper jerked to a stop on Domingo Street beside the tennis courts of the Claremont Hotel. It was just before noon and the traffic light ahead of us was dead, but there was a kinetic man in tennis shorts pacing in the middle of the intersection, diverting cars away from the uphill stretch of Tunnel Road.

I jumped out of the SUV to question him. Brush fire, I asked?

His hair was salty and drenched; his Izod Lacoste shirttail hung limp behind his white shorts. “Jesus, man! Haven’t you heard?” Tennis Guy was yelling at me, even though I was only two feet from his face. “The hills are burning! Police are evacuating everyone!”

I returned to the Trooper, leaned into Kate’s window and tried to look calm.

Think I’ll just run up and check things out, I told her. Take Nick over to your mom’s and I’ll meet you there in an hour or so.

Kate flashed me her how-stupid-do-you-think-I-am? look. “Are you out of your mind?”

There’s that footpath up to Alvarado, I reminded her. I’d get the VW and take the back way down Amito.

Nicholas began to cry. I assured him things weren’t as bad as they looked. Firemen are always over-reacting—the wailing sirens, the reckless driving, cutting holes in people’s roofs and stuff.

Nicholas wasn’t buying it. I remember his shrill plea and Kate’s protest, but not what I said to them as I turned to leave, or what I was thinking—if I was thinking. I just needed to see it all with my own eyes—like my doubting namesake.

I sprinted past the tennis courts and flanked the red pumper trucks screaming up Tunnel Road. The narrow Eucalyptus Path on the east side of the Claremont parking lot had not yet been cordoned off by the police. On the far side of Alvarado, a steep flight of concrete steps burrowed through the trees and emerged a block from our street. I was soaked in sweat, sucking every molecule of oxygen I could absorb from the carbon-saturated air. And I hadn’t a clue what I was going to do next.

There had been a brushfire in the late afternoon the day before, a relatively small one on a slope below Grizzly Peak, less than a mile from our place on Gravatt Drive. The Oakland Fire Department had sent in a fleet of trucks with an impressive array of equipment and manpower. Even lacking universal couplers on the neighborhood hydrants, fire fighters had contained the blaze quickly, professionally. But delaying clean-up operations until the following morning—to avoid over-time pay, it was rumored—would turn out to be the most costly decision the Fire Chief had ever made.

A few weeks later, I’d learn the dirty details from a neighbor who lived next door to the home construction site on Buckingham Boulevard, where the fire started. He wouldn’t be able to tell me if it resulted from hazardous building materials spontaneously combusting or from a roofer’s carelessly discarded cigarette. But this neighbor—an FBI agent—would describe the stellar efficiency of our Fire Department’s initial operation on Saturday afternoon, and their botched clean-up attempt the following day. He’d recount how an “antique park service fire truck with a skeleton crew” appeared Sunday morning to sift through and hose down the burned canyon. He’d reveal that the old pumper was apparently unable to produce sufficient water pressure for the task, recall how the crew struggled to connect their couplers to the water mains at his house, how they dragged their flaccid hoses along the blackened hillside, stirred up the still-hot ashes in the dirt. And he’d register amazement at how those seasoned pros watched like kids caught with their pants down as the wind lifted glittering embers into the clear morning sky like a flight of black and orange butterflies, and sent them to nest in bone-dry boughs across the slope. He would marvel at how quickly the eucalyptus trees beneath his home exploded into flames.

“Those guys didn’t even have time to decouple from my water pipes,” my shell-shocked neighbor would tell me over coffee at Peet’s. Then he’d regale me with his frustrating attempts to report the facts to our Mayor’s investigating committee. “Nobody downtown wants to believe this,” he’d say, hunching forward, gray eyes narrowing so I’d feel his righteous indignation. “That pumper crew actually cut their hoses loose from my water main with axes and told me I was on my own. Just like that! ‘You want to save a house? You’re on your own, buddy.” They took off in their truck and left me on the roof with a fucking garden hose to fend off the fire they had just re-started.”

His story would never make the evening news—or any official account of what took place that day.[1]

As the surface temperature of wood rises to 450 degrees Fahrenheit, gases abundant in creosote are produced—carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, acetic and formic acids—and will ignite when all moisture has evaporated. Paper is first to go—Fahrenheit 451. Then, as the temperature rises above 540 degrees, wood releases combustible secondary gases—methane and methanol—which contain up to 60 percent of the potential heat.

I reached our house about half-past noon. It was built in a grove of eucalyptus, with a view sweeping from the headlands of Marin south to Alameda. And like most of the neighboring structures nestled in the dense, non-native, underbrush of the East Bay hills, it was made almost entirely of kiln-cured, drought-desiccated wood.

I could see the fire burning across the canyon, along Grandview on the ridge beyond. Trees were exploding like movie pyrotechnics, orange flames foraging through thick stands of eucalyptus and climbing the exfoliating bark like gibbons. It looked surreal and so far away, and I thought those very distant flames couldn’t possibly jump the canyon.

The conditions needed to burn secondary gases are sufficient oxygen and temperatures of at least 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit. Too little air will not support combustion and too much will cool the temperature to a point where combustion can’t occur. I’m not sure why I remembered this, but I made a mental note to close all the windows.

Inside the house, a wall of glass welcomed the smoke-diffused sunlight. In the center of the open living room, a freestanding fireplace with glazed doors and a galvanized aluminum chimney punched through the beamed ceiling. I took a quick inventory of our Italian sofa, tribal rugs, framed palimpsest of Gregorian chant, and the unframed oil painting we’d just brought back from New York, which I’d propped against the closed end of the fireplace so I could admire it. The canvas depicted a fiery object arcing across the heavens and descending into an elegant pool of water where it became a rainbow. I never asked my petulant artist friend what it meant because I knew he would have just rolled his eyes at my ignorance.

I was drenched in sweat, out of breath, and that leather lounge chair beckoned to me like an old friend. So I sunk into it for a moment and lost myself in the fiery spectral colors of the cosmic reflection pool—staring at the painting as if it were a map of my current mental real estate.

Rewind to April 5th, 11 pm: Kate and I had celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary with friends—California Cuisine and Pinot Noir at Jeremy Tower’s latest pricey inspiration—and we’d gotten home about eleven. Kate had written a check for the babysitter and drifted downstairs to peek in on our sleeping son. I’d fired up a Duraflame log, switched on the sound system, poured a nightcap of The Macallan 18-year old, slipped into my Eames chair, and propped my feet up on its cushy ottoman. It felt like one of those moments of well-earned self-congratulation: Not yet forty, I was one of three partners in an advertising agency twice featured in The San Francisco Chronicle. On the verge of success, I was married to a beautiful woman, and we had a beautiful son. Life was good.

Rewind to single-malt hubris. 11:10 pm: I had been peripherally aware of a string ensemble issuing from the speakers—“Nether Lands:” Dan Fogelberg riffing on a Brandenburg Concerto. Katie and I had played it incessantly during our courtship, the soundtrack to long evenings of lovemaking. We hadn’t played it in…well, probably since Nick had been born, but I was hearing it then like it was the first time. A previously innocuous stanza had suddenly pricked my moment of contentment like a cactus spine:

Oh, I’ve seen the bottom and I’ve been on top, but mostly I’ve lived in between.

And where do you go when you get to the end of your dream? [2]

Damn good question, I’d thought. Where do you go?

11:15 pm: Rewind to weightless free-fall—exactly how it felt to jump out of a Cessna twin engine 2,800 feet over Mount Diablo. But instead of exhilaration, or faith in my parachute, just stark, free-floating terror.

As the bottom dropped out from beneath my contrived world of hearth, home, family, and career with the speed of a neuron crossing a synapse, my grand illusion of success had vanished like the smoke being sucked up our chimney. What remained smelled like a cold fireplace after the last ember dies.

I’d been holding up a mask in the mirror to avoid seeing the foolish face of a man who’d bought the Golden Gate Bridge. If this was the life I always thought I’d wanted—the life everyone wanted—why was I waking up every morning in a cold sweat? Dreading another day of creating mediocre advertising dreck, another day of selling sizzle to people who shouldn’t even eat the steak, another day of pandering to a roster of egomaniacal clients and attending chardonnay receptions at petulant artist’s studios? Another day of shameless flirting with spandex-clad aerobic instructors at the gym, of avoiding dinner with my perfect nuclear family to drink with advertising colleagues at some Barbary Coast watering hole?

What was wrong with that picture?

The rainbow pool went dark. I shook my head like a just-woken drunk, lurched from the chair and cruised through the house, closing all the sliding aluminum windows, grabbing warm jackets out of the closet—just in case. Mechanically, I counted off the 28 risers to the carport where our black Scirocco was parked.

Down the hill, the view across Grandview Canyon had been obliterated, along with all the homes built along the ridge. Where they once stood, an incandescent wall undulated toward me, absorbing the landscape into itself, morphing substance into vapor, releasing the energy inherent in every solid object it touched. Out of the curtain of flame, luminous raptors pounced from shingle to shake, becoming the form of each roof before devouring it, consuming all the color in the world and leaving behind only a dense drapery of charcoal-smudged October sky.

And that’s when it spoke to me: 15 minutes.

How do you decide which bits and pieces of your life are worth keeping in only 15 minutes? Memories were everywhere: the Scottish Picoware tea service Kate had coveted in Fort William, the hammered copper candle sticks her father had brought from Cuernavaca, the antique dilbu—a Tantric ritual bell—I’d haggled over in Lhasa. A thousand books, hundreds of vinyl record albums and tape cassettes. I needed boxes.

And the 30-by-40-inch framed prints lining the largest wall, a gallery of our lives together: Bernini’s dome at Saint Peter’s in Rome, the whitewashed cottages of Oia above the brown cliffs of Santorini, a stone bridge crossing the moat to Eileen Donan castle in Scotland. Kodak Moments—too much to carry.

On the oak mantle above the fireplace stood a scale model of the bronze Poseidon found in the Aegean off Cape Artemisium. I’d bought the statuette a decade ago during our honeymoon on the island of Spetsae—just because I was in love with Katie, and with Greece. In Poseidon’s hollow eye sockets I could still see my young wife strolling on the windy quay, blue and white fishing boats tethered to their moorings bobbing behind her in the oblique April light. I could smell the aroma of roasted goat rubbed with garlic and oregano, taste the silky texture of olive oil drizzled over feta cheese and the tannic bite of Demestica wine as we toasted our future together. How could I possibly leave Poseidon?

As I reached for the sea god, a framed picture beside it stopped me cold. Kate’s wet blonde hair and sunlit back, waist deep in a swimming pool, her outstretched arms poised to catch the little boy leaping from the pool’s tiled lip. And Nicholas, age three, euphoric, captured in airborne bliss, a split-second of unequivocal trust in his mother’s waiting arms. As if he were showing me how joyous life could be, if only I would just wake up and…

Smell that smoke!

I left Poseidon on the mantle. I left the books, the photographs, the art objects and mementos of our travels, the house and the life it represented. I vaulted up the wooden stairs two as a time, jumped into the now gray Scirocco, and hauled ass down the hill into Claremont Canyon before that evanescent image of my son’s face was forever extinguished.

Zinc melts at 785 degrees Fahrenheit, aluminum at 1,220, brass at 1,600—about the same temperature a human body begins to disintegrate.

I thought about that all afternoon from the still-safe distance of my in-laws’ roof, a garden hose in my hand, wetting down their composite shingles, and foolishly diminishing the city’s water pressure. Above my head, California Department of Forestry choppers converged on the disaster area, dumped enormous canvas buckets of Temescal Reservoir water onto the flames, while explosions of gasoline tanks, propane cylinders, and personal firearms stashed to protect the upscale hill folk from flatland riff-raff echoed from the burning hills. One of those exploding things—a Walther PPK-Special semi-automatic pistol with fifty rounds of brass-jacketed nine-millimeter ammo—was mine.

At what temperature does paranoia dissolve, I wondered?

The wind hit 65-miles-per-hour and the firestorm burned through the night, scorched 1,600 acres, reduced 3,000 homes to cinder, and took 25 lives—one friend’s mother, another’s sister. The flatlanders rallied to help the 10,000 homeless hill folk, and for at least one night I felt only gratitude because Kate, Nicholas, and our unborn daughter all slept safely beside me.

36 hours later, I managed to skirt the police barricades, avoid the caravans of news crews, and sneak through unburned garden patios along Alvarado Road. The blaze had come within 2,000 feet of the Claremont Hotel, where fire fighters had drawn their break line. They’d saved the Berkeley landmark, and all the homes below it down to the Bay. Above the hotel, there were vast swaths of devastation. I’d never been in a war zone, but imagined this was what I would see: tree stumps reduced to charcoal, automobile shells bleeding lead from melted radiators into puddles on the asphalt, brick chimneys standing like cenotaphs over blackened foundations.

As I wandered through the charred nightmare on Gravatt Drive, an Oakland patrol car cruised up beside me—no lights, no bullhorn. Rolling down his window, the cop informed me, “You’re off limits, sir. I could arrest you as a looter.”

I asked him to give me a half hour to see if there was anything left of my place. Then I’d turn myself in. I dug out my driver’s license, and he could see I was serious.

The cop read the address, bit his lip, and handed the plastic card back to me. “I never saw you,” he said. “Watch out for the power lines.”

There were dozens of them downed in the street, dead wire snakes coiled around electrical transformers bleeding polychlorinated biphenyls. I wondered how long the ground would remain toxic.

Gold, silver, and copper melt around 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, bronze at 2,100. Cast iron starts to break down at 2,200, steel at 2,300. Commercial glass will liquefy at just over 2,500 degrees.

Where my home once stood, only a concrete footprint and the twisted, tempered steel casings of the stove and fireplace remained. A few shards of ceramic stoneware rested on a blanket of ash two stories below the shelves where they were once displayed, their glaze powdered in the blast furnace. Everything else had been vaporized. I waded knee-deep through cinders filling the foundation perimeter, searching for any remnant. But only ashes rose up, lighter than air—gray Lepidoptera dancing on the autumn breeze.

And then kicking through the airy cinder, I spotted the stone poking up like a bookmark in the scorched volume of my life—as captivating as the chilly morning I’d pilfered it from a prayer cairn on a barren hilltop overlooking Lhasa, Tibet. It had fit so perfectly in my hand, six Sanskrit syllables crudely chiseled on its flinty surface—om ma ni pad me hum—a formula for preventing rebirth by dissolving illusion, I had read somewhere. Hundreds of these stones had been piled waist-high. Nobody could have possibly cared when I’d slipped just one of them into my pocket. Feeling that stone in my hand again, I became suddenly transparent—no longer in possession of anything but the oxygen in my lungs and the blood pumping through my heart, no longer defined by carefully chosen possessions or a culturally creative profession.

Somewhere between 2,500 and 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, nickel, cobalt, and the life you always thought you wanted disintegrates into molecular confusion, quantum probability, or maybe just the illusion it always was. And unexpectedly, I felt light as a feather, buoyant as those ashes rising into a slate gray sky like the mythical phoenix—as if there were nothing more of “me” left to lose.

That’s when I finally understood what fire is. And why Prometheus had to be punished for revealing its secret.

Notes:

[1] See: FEMA, US Fire Administration/Technical Report: The East Bay Hills Fire, Oakland-Berkeley, California [USFA-TR-060/October 1991], investigated by J. Gordon Routley.

[2] Fogelberg, Dan, “Nether Lands” (1977)

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