In early September a teenage boy in Oregon tossed a firework into dry brush. It sparked the Eagle Creek wildfire, which to date has burned almost 50,000 acres and still is not contained. When the fire began, my great-aunt and uncle evacuated from Cascade Locks, the Columbia Gorge town where my family has roots. Firefighters surrounded Multnomah Falls Lodge, trying to protect the historic wooden structure. My parents had their first date at the Falls; my dad proposed to my mom there. A few days of burning later, another aunt and uncle evacuated. Miles away, my parents washed ash off their cars with the garden hose.
In New York, I stared at the news photographs: firs and hemlocks in black silhouette, oranges glittering with sickening beauty. The images were multisensory; to look at the fire was to hear crackling, smell the smoke that made the hills look haunted.
September was a month of natural disasters and their aftermaths: Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Irma, Hurricane Maria. Earthquakes in Mexico City. Then, fresh fires raging in Northern California. But it took this particular conflagration for me to feel the weight of the wreckage. This burning threatened my identity’s landmarks—Cascade Locks, where grandpa grew up; Multnomah Falls, where mom and dad committed. It uprooted the people I loved. This was not the way things were supposed to be. To see fire and water and earth in revolt was disturbing. It felt supernatural.
On the web, apocalyptic language abounded; end-times hysteria spread. The apostle Matthew predicted floods; Peter, a roaring fire. Luke wrote of great earthquakes, famines, and pestilences, terrors and signs from heaven. “Christians claim Irma is the start of the END OF THE WORLD,” blared a tabloid, citing several self-styled modern-day prophets. My younger brother sent me a tweet he had seen. “Eclipse was on the 21st, Harvey began on the 25th, floods started on the 26th. If you Google ‘21 25 26’ this comes up.” Then, there was a graphic of Luke 21:25-26: “There will be signs in the sun, moon, and stars. On the earth, the nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea.” Usually my brother ignored such forced connections. Now he wrote to me: “Is this a real verse? What do you think about this?”