The first rain for months comes too late,
too late for five lost in traffic in Paradise.
In Paradise where the Red Sea roiled,
roiled across the parched terrain and hushed
and hushed the nightmare noise.
Door to door the felon went and testified
and testified. And whosoever believed in time
in time was spared. And as his comrades wailed close behind, a red,
red angel appeared and bade him hide,
hide three feet inside a stream and wait
and wait, the sinnerman said.
No exit out of Paradise where power lines fell,
fell on traffic, which inched as it swelled,
swelled like propane tanks that blew up their gasses,
blew up their gasses into the slow stampede, the escape derailed,
escape derailed. No exit out of Paradise where car carcasses,
carcasses were singed white and black, charred colorless.
Charred. Colorless. No way out on Skyway or Pearson. No way. No. Nearly nothing passes.
“To raze heaven is easy. To cement a haven,
a haven—that is hard,” said a man soon forgotten,
forgotten as quiet prophets are. Until one’s words are made relevant,
relevant as the fire that skulks on while some sycophant invokes an 11th commandment,
commandment to shield the higher power,
higher powered—the private utility—from earthly ire.
This though the numbers still trickle in,
trickle in the way hope peaks and fades: the first five,
five then the leap to 42, 63, 82, 87, 87,
87, 88. Blame, like these losses, a leak in the sunroom that drips,
drips, drips a broken waltz.
And, finally, a break of blue (some irony): an uncle, hale,
hale and accounted for in Helltown. O, mother.
Mother-in-law spotted where feathers fall,
fall like rain prayed for and an angel reborn.
This poem is written in a chain format that becomes increasingly rigid in its rhyme scheme to attempt to capture what I imagine must have been a feeling of entrapment.
Although the official death toll from the Paradise Camp Fire is 85, at times it was reported that there were as many as 88 deaths. This poem was written in large part while trying to keep track of the many deaths, but specific anecdotes were culled from the stories of survivors, including that of Greg Woodcox.
I chose not to change the death toll in the poem after learning that there are actually many deaths related to the fire that are not part of the official death toll—deaths which were not directly attributed to the fire but which it is highly unlikely would have occurred had the fire not happened. People who died as a result of complications related to smoke inhalation or who were in fragile but stable health and suffered internal injuries as a result of difficult evacuations (for example, being disconnected from medical devices) are not included in the death toll, especially if they died after the fire. According to The Mercury News’ article “Camp Fire Official Tally is 85 Deaths, but We Found 50 More” by Camille Von Kaenel, the families of these more than 50 victims are struggling to receive support, compensation from Pacific Gas & Electric (the electricity and gas provider that investigators determined was responsible for the fire), and public recognition of what happened to their loved ones. This poem is for those who were counted and those who were not.