The air outside smells rich and hot, like cinnamon.
There’s a wildfire somewhere. It’s not close, but it’s not far away, either. I squint up at the hot blue sky above the spiky evergreen treetops and turn, slowly, 360 degrees. For what it’s worth, I can see no smoke.
There’s no wind right now, at 10:40 in the morning on August 24, 2010, but chances are there will be by late afternoon, when the “Delta breezes,” the winds that have their origin in the vast Sacramento River delta, start blowing, as they do every late summer and fall. They provide a certain relief to people living in the big valley—the winds at least move the oppressively heated air around a little—but they’re the bane of firefighters trying to knock down a wildfire. The winds fan small smolders and encourage little flames to grow into big ones. The winds hurry the hungry flames along, faster and faster as they consume the brittle, wheat-colored grasses, growing in strength and ferocity until the fire does, indeed, go wild. It jumps roads and bulldozed firebreaks. It climbs up shrubbery and feasts on pitchy pines, leaving a smoky, black and gray wasteland behind it.
Sometimes, all the firefighters can do is wait for sunset and the dying of the winds.
I go inside and, because I’m a journalist at heart and nosey this way (and because I live surrounded by summer-dry, pitchy evergreens and a tinderbox understory), check the CalFire website for information about the latest “incidents.” I expect to discover that there’s a big forest fire up near Tahoe, 53 miles due east, over the mountain summit, or perhaps a ravenous wildfire eating up acres of chaparral-covered foothills 25 miles down the mountain from me. But what I find is that the only fires that are presently burning in the state are in Southern California. They’re both huge fires that have been burning for several days now. It’s just possible that the winds are blowing just right to waft the scent of smoke this far north and east, up out of the bowl of the valley to my little house perched halfway up the Sierra range, but only just. That makes me a little nervous. If there’s no reported fire burning nearby, what is causing that over-baked cinnamon bread smell outside?
After days of warm, extraordinarily gentle temperatures that are not characteristic of late summer in northern California, today’s forecast is for serious heat. It will be, the weatherheads say, nearly 100 degrees here at 3,200 feet in the mountains, and in the high 100s down at sea-level in the baking Sacramento Valley. Tomorrow will be even hotter. (Hotter? This is, for me, hard to imagine.) But Thursday, they say, will dawn cooler: the low 90s here, high 90s down the mountain.
“Cooler” is relative.
Today’s heat rides on the broad back of a fast-moving high-pressure area. It should move over us and then leave again, soon. But even without looking at the weather news online, even without the rising temperature outside, I’d know things were in flux. My fingers—all ten of them—are sore and achy. I’m weary even though it’s just an hour before noon and I enjoyed eight full hours of remarkably restful sleep last night. My hip pulls and tweaks as I walk. My rheuma-dragon is always aware of the rise or fall of the barometer. Not only that: he’s profoundly dedicated to letting me know, just in case I don’t see the weather forecast or smell that strange, burnt-cinnamon fragrance, that change is in the air.
Update: It’s after 5 p.m., now, and it seems there are no wildfires burning anywhere in our area. Hard to say what it was that I smelled this morning; when I went out a little while later, that hot cinnamony scent was gone. I’m glad. This is always a nervous time of year in the Sierras.