Autumn Flames

Kage Baker was a fire-chaser. A rather timid one – she’d jump up and crane out the window when fire engines sounded in the streets, complaining if she couldn’t see where they were going. If they came to a stop anywhere near – with that flat run-down WHA-wha of the siren that means they’ve stopped – she’d dash out to see if she could catch a glimpse without actually getting in the way.

She was very good about that – not getting in the way. But if she could get near enough to see the smoke and flames, she was tremendously pleased. As long as no one was getting hurt, nor losing their house, or car, or … what she liked were neatly contained brushfires, I guess, with viewing areas.

You don’t get a lot of those in California. Though we found a few over the years: there was a small fire up near Jade Cove on Highway 1 once, where we sat and watched the action, having already been stopped in the rest area for a picnic when the hillside began to smoke. Kage shared her Coke with the Fire Captain.

And we drove through a few passes actively burning on various highways – Gaviota Pass on Highway 1, the ever-surprising Grapevine on the 5, the long curve from the 5 to the 580 in Altamont, where you enter the Forest of Wind Turbines. Now, that’s an amazing sight, with flames licking knee-high through the yellow grasses all around the tall, humming turbines: really strange smoke patterns.

Gaviota and the Grapevine were especially thrilling, as the way is narrow and the fire was getting pretty familiar with the road – but traffic was getting through, so we rolled up the windows and drove like mad under the arching banners of living flame …

The hardest part was keeping Kage from rolling down the window and hanging out the window like an ecstatic hound. She wanted to stop and stare. Especially when we passed views like a hillside of wild ivy, every leaf a separate perfect shape of fire, a curtain waving in the wind of its own combustion. Or an oak tree, thick with green leaves and acorns on one side, engulfed in golden flames on the other.

“It’s the freaking hand of God!” Kage would wail, pressed up against the window. “Come on, just slow down!”

“You said you didn’t want to learn to drive because I have better judgment,” I would remind her, edging our speed over 80.

“Oh, screw you, you Philistine!”

Lest you think Kage Baker was a barely compensated pyromaniac (though I can just see our sisters and friends nodding in agreement …), she never started fires. She just was tremendously moved to see them. Even a glimpse of an agricultural fire beside the highway – the column of white smoke twisting against the orderly ploughed fields, the glassy transparent flames all unreal at the base, the solemn silhoetted figures around it – would make her point and smile. For Kage, seeing a fire was a glimpse of a familiar wild animal. Just like sighting an eagle, or a deer, or – once and surreal – an iguana crawling unhappily along the verge in Griffith Park (he was an escapee, soon returned to his anxious master): it delighted her to catch sight of it.

It was, I think, an echo of the furnace always blazing in her own skull. When an erudite and patient friend, Stacy Weinberger, gave me a copy of Tom Cowan’s work A Fire In the Head: Shamanism and the Celtic Spirit, I recognized the condition. It was what lit up Kage’s eyes like the candle in a jack o’lantern; it was the voice of the flames that called her always.

Tomorrow: Samhain is a’coming and the barley’s getting fat

About Kate

I am Kage Baker's sister. Kage was/is a well-known science fiction writer, who died on January 31, 2010. She told me to keep her work going - I'm doing that. This blog will document the process.
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10 Responses to Autumn Flames

  1. Tom says:

    A few years ago I worked on an upper floor, facing north, in our office in Irvine. One day, about now in the year, the air was clear enough that we could see the foothills burning. Long lines of flames stretched east to west, strangely tide-like as they climbed and brightened.
    Then, in came the fire-bombers. They laid down neat lines of suppressant, pushing down the free-formed flames.
    It was all over, soon; a dozen sorties, an hour, some smoke, less light.
    Much relief in the northern communities, no doubt.
    And a few days later one of the Goodyear blimps practiced approaches and landings at the old blimp hangars in Tustin.
    I wish I had told Kage about it all, but I’m glad to tell you, Kathleen. It’s another pair of these stories about California and its uniqueness, so hard to explain to outsiders, like those she managed to catch and weave into her works large and small.


  2. catharine says:

    Sounds like we drove through some of the same fires at the same time, wonder how that might have happened! I’ve been through Gaviota more than once when it was on fire. Eerie and cool and frightening and awesome all at once.


    • Kate says:

      Whatever could have had both of us driving around California on back roads in the autumnal fire season? Remember the lion-coloured hills beside I-5? After fires, they would become acres of panthers instead …


  3. Anne Baker says:

    I think we drove around that Gaviota fire one day coming home from Pismo – I was diverted at Zaca Mesa and had a 2 hour,winding detour through the Los Padres with two icthy & irritated daughters in the car, finally coming out at Santa Barbara. Adventures on the road!


    • Kate says:

      I remember that! When Gaviota would catch fire, they’d just divert people inland for miles and miles: no where else to go, as the pass is so narrow and all the land around is pretty much vertical rock. That was one of the things that made it so interesting when the Pass did burn – two narrow lanes on either side, and the flames right down to the verge …


  4. Valerie says:

    Lovely description of the flames! I find myself checking for these updates every day now…


    • Kate says:

      Thanks, Valerie. It was an interesting world we lived in, and I want that to stay visible. Kage’s vision made all the difference in a dull life and a magical one.


  5. Jason Sinclair says:

    When I worked the Alban’s fire pit at Santa Barbara Faire, I would often turn around after stacking some logs on the fire to find Kage standing right behind me. She would always clinically look the fire over, and after some thought she’d nod an approval and then move off to sell beer or whatever. I always liked that.


  6. Kate says:

    Jason: did you ever notice her whistling? She would whistle, and the flames would rise. I have no explanation whatsoever – only that I saw her do it a thousand times, usually when starting a cook fire. A few bars of whistling and lo! Living flames.


    • Jason Sinclair says:

      I didn’t see any whistling, but I certainly saw her reverence of the fire pit. I remember when some visitor to the Innyard sneered at Shannon and I, calling us “cooking drudgeons” and Kage chopped this fellow off at the knees. She snapped out several references about how important the fire was and that if he intended to insult the cooks he could go right back out the way he came. He goggled at her for a minute, stammered out an apology, then staggered off to buy his beer. Shannon and I made sure she got a VERY nice plate for lunch that day.

      There were little things, too. She and I used to discuss which log should go on next and howso (should it point this way or that? Did we want coals or hot flames?). As a pyrophile myself I was delighted to run the pit, and it was fun to be around a kindred spirit who didn’t think you odd (or dangerous) when you discussed the best way to create the air vacuum from the bottom like a jet engine or if you should layer the wood like a house for the delayed effect, etc. She was a bit like a foreman on a contruction site, looking over the work of one of her crew. And since it was my first season with Albans, her actions made me feel not only very welcomed, but a useful guildmember as well.


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