Megan McDonald: Smoke and Mirrors

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For rural residents of San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties like Megan McDonald, the unprecedented fire season has changed a cherished way of life that won’t soon return.

It’s early morning in La Honda, California, one of the small black dots that pock maps of unincorporated San Mateo County. But even in the pre-dawn darkness, I sense the scars the CZU Lightning Complex Fire has left on this town. Smoke blots out the full moon.
The smell of burning wood makes it difficult to know if the threat is behind containment lines Cal Fire etched into the land 10 miles away. This drives nervous folk to dial the volunteer fire brigade at all hours of day and night. Consulting weather forecasts for portents of danger, as the “traditional” fire season begins.

My partner and I share a house with two cats we keep indoors, away from mountain lions, bobcats, foxes and coyotes who also inhabit the neighborhood. Deer nibble crabapple trees. Steller’s jays and woodpeckers flit among oaks; hummingbirds sip from fuchsia.

We used to be urban dwellers, but I grew weary of sharking for street parking, rampant vandalism, city regulations. When we found ourselves driving through La Honda one day, we stopped for a beer at biker haunt Applejack’s. An honest-to-goodness bar fight broke out. I knew we’d found our home.

Most of us live here because we crave the solitude of being surrounded by sequoia sempervirens instead of noisy neighbors. But we are not insensible to the shift in the climate. Before, fierce storms flung buckets of rain on the winding roads, alternating with sun-drenched, blue-skied days. Now the water has dried up. What drops fall during winter serve only to grow fuel.


So when we read the writing on the wind — the smoke, the ash, the sirens — we began the difficult process of deciding what to load into our cars. We ended up displaced for 11 days. We count ourselves lucky. We’ve been allowed to return home. The decision is an easy one: We will stay.

With a Perspective, I’m Megan McDonald.

Megan McDonald is a video game producer and fiction writer.