Last Friday, our house and family came as close to a raging fire as I hope we’ll ever be. I was clueless at first, in my office, working away on a revision. I heard nearby sirens, fire engines, but as we live on a ridge that overlooks the town and the two-lane highway that stretches north deeper into the Santa Cruz Mountains and south toward Santa Cruz, hearing sirens is not an uncommon occurrence. Nor was the smoky haze in the air a real warning. The devastating Camp Fire in Butte Country, north of Sacramento, has filled the Bay Area and beyond with smoke for over a week now.
Finally I stepped out onto our back deck. Glancing over my shoulder to the east, I saw a vast plume of dark smoke rising from a dangerously close distance. Stifling a shriek, I tore around to the front yard, where I was stunned to find two enormous firetrucks disgorging a dozen firefighters. It was like something out of a dream. My legs felt numb as I half-walked, half-ran to them. “Anything I need to know?” I asked in a high, shaky voice, which was surely the stupidest question possible, confirming I’m not half as eloquent as I’d like to be under stress. That the firefighters, hastily donning their protective gear, sounded a little rattled in their response to me, made me understand this was serious for them, too. “A structure fire, in that canyon,” one of them told me, gesturing toward the end of our driveway. “Please don’t get too close. But don’t go anywhere. We might need to evacuate you.”
It was bad. And was getting worse. Never again do I want to see, up close, a pine tree being engulfed in flames, creating this freakish, otherworldly, glowing orange pyramid.
Luck was on our side. Multiple fire crews were able to respond quickly, in great number, augmented by support from the air, massive dumps of water and flame retardant. Within the hour, our home was more or less outside the danger zone, although my son and I had no intention of leaving during such a scary, vulnerable time. All it would take was a shift in the wind, an increased velocity, to put us right back into grave danger. So we stayed, and we watched. It’s a crazy thing, fire. If it weren’t so scary, it would be so beautiful. The flame retardant drops immersed the billowing clouds of smoke into a psychedelic pink. For a split second, the world became soft and pink. It was surreal.
Within six hours, the fire was mostly contained. The area was closely watched for another thirty-six hours, with fire crews dousing any embers that tried to flare back to life, as well as raking over the scorched earth to redistribute the dirt and ashes.
We didn’t lose our house. The help we desperately needed arrived promptly. Talk about a week for Thanksgiving.
There are massive fires to the south of us—the Woolsey Fire—and to the north—the aforementioned Camp Fire. The latter is the deadliest fire in California history. My sense of compassion and sorrow for its victims have now been heightened by fierce empathy. I now have firsthand knowledge of how it feels to watch flames engulf entire trees as a wall of fire steadily approaches. To feel the terror of looking around a house and thinking, “Fast. What do I pack?” But my situation was dire for an hour. Theirs is beyond dire, for ten days now. In Butte County they’ve had impossibly bad luck, with high winds fueling the flames, acres being gobbled up in mere minutes, now far too large of an area to combat and win. At this time, 76 deaths are confirmed. Over 1000 people are unaccounted for. It’s only 60 percent contained.
All of this drama playing out, a week before Thanksgiving.
This year, I know what I will give thanks for. That my family and I are safe. That we were able to sleep in our home that night, wake up in our home the next morning. We are deeply indebted to the local firefighters, the Cal Fire crews, those who were brought in to help make quick work of this fire. I don’t know your names. But I will raise a toast to all of you on Thanksgiving.
*Photos taken by The Classical Girl on her trusty iPhone, except for the last three, which are courtesy of Mr. Classical Girl.