• Marilyn Woods

The Duplicity of Fire

Updated: Aug 21, 2019

I lit the first fire of the season in my fireplace last night, cozied up with a furry throw and began to write. Outside, temperatures in the low fifties—Southern California wintertime.

As the flames flickered from my gas logs, I thought about the deadly fires that occurred in our state recently—horrific deaths; thousands unaccounted for; untold numbers evacuated and without homes. Still burning, still destroying, still killing.

How can fire be so destructive and at the same time be so nurturing?


Christmas of 2017, I canceled my holiday trip to Ventura because of the fires that raged there. My friends’ homes were spared, but neighborhoods near them were destroyed. I spent that evening by myself at home in my chair by the fire, missing my girlfriends and remembering our annual camping trips filled with emotional story times around the campfire. The warmth of those gatherings remains strong in my mind.


I will never forget the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona, ignited by lightning six days before the Fourth of July holiday just five years ago. It overran and killed nineteen firefighters, members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots. It was the sixth-deadliest American firefighter disaster overall and the deadliest wildfire ever in Arizona.


We spent that Independence Day holiday in Prescott Valley with my son, Bo and his wife, Jen, and little Cash and Chesapeake, my grandchildren. They rode their red, white and blue decorated bicycles in the parade which was led by one firefighter’s courageous young widow, Julianne, and her young children.


Later that evening, as we sat mesmerized by a spectacular celebratory display of fireworks— dazzling spirals in the sky—I pictured the young widow putting her youngsters to bed. Will she ever be comfortable near fire? Light a candle without crying? Watch fireworks without shuddering?


In my mind, I see the glow of my husband’s cigar, which he savored at the end of a long day working in the vineyard. The lighting of that flame by his calloused hands signaled a move from the labor of farming into a world of rest and relaxation. Time to kick back.


Backyard hamburger barbeques; filet mignon and lobster grills at Benihana’s hibachi tables; the spattering of red, orange and purple colored Feng Shui fire elements in my home; controlled burns on the property. Good fire purposes.




Good fire remembrances juxtaposed with bad.


I remember the unbridled excitement of Homecoming bonfires in college which kick started Spirit Week. A two-story blaze in the middle of Texas Tech’s campus ignited all us Red Raiders with football fever. In my home state, the college bonfire tradition was shaken to its core thirty five years later in 1999. Twelve Texas A&M students lost their lives when the bottom layer of a fifty-nine foot bonfire structure gave way. Can the inferno of a bonfire in Texas ignite school spirit ever again?


Tonight I sit in my chair across from the urn that holds my husband’s ashes. I can’t even go there. Not to cremation. Instead I force myself to see birthday candles. Celebrations over and over and over through so many years—all the smiling faces in the candle light’s glimmer—children, grandchildren, friends, him.


Part of my morning ritual is lighting a candle. That dancing flame ignites my creative process. In the evening, when I’m at home alone, the fire in my fireplace rustles softly, enveloping me with warmth and a kind of support and companionship I miss so desperately.


How can fire be so destructive and yet so nurturing?


Fire destroys. Fire illuminates. Fire burns. Fire heartens.


I love Mary Oliver's short poem...

We shake with joy, We shake with grief What a time they have, those two Housed as they are in the same body.

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