We awoke on Thursday morning to what sounded like the roar of a rushing train and a flickering orange glow that lit up our bedroom. Outside we could see what we knew was a wildfire over the ridge behind our house. Was it coming our way? It was too early to tell.
Out on the street we saw a steady stream of firefighters and their equipment going up the canyon road.
“This is not looking good,” I said to my wife Jill.
Without rain, the transpiration of the trees had long ago stopped. This left the normally damp forest floor a dry tinder. We’d been noticing that for the past few years the footfalls of our daily walks in the surrounding forest sounded more like we were stepping on potato chips.
Hoping our evacuation preparations would be sufficient, Jill and I began loading the car with our bug-out-bags containing some clothes, toiletries and medications, bottled water, a Rubbermaid container of photos along with our legal and financial documents and finally my laptop computer.
Our world changed in an instant when around noon time I felt the wind shift causing the wildfire to loom over our neighborhood like a shield with the trees along the ridge above us exploding into flame. It looked like the gates of hell. Along with the shift in wind direction the rising heat of the fire created a terrifying vortex and I felt like it would suck me up along with the cooler air along the ground and from further down the canyon as if in a giant vacuum cleaner.
Ignoring Jill’s protestations, I climbed up onto the roof with the garden hose trying to douse the burning embers that were now falling all around us. I wore a wet bandana around my nose and mouth so I could breathe through the suffocating smoke and soaked down my clothes to prevent them from catching fire but it was of little use since I could feel the pinpricks of hot ash on my skin as the rain of falling embers burned through my clothes. There was little that I could do, however, to prevent the smoke from stinging my eyes.
When the authorities came by announcing a mandatory evacuation I had been on the roof for almost three hours while Jill worked around the outside of the house with another hose putting out hot spots all in an attempt to protect our property. In a way, I felt relieved. I was tired and ready to give up.
We had no sooner driven out of our driveway than a pine on the border of our back yard burst into flame throwing a shower of red hot embers on the roof of our house. In the rear-view mirror, I saw our beautiful home consumed by the fire. We knew then that we could never return.
We inched our way down the canyon road, still wearing our water soaked bandanas. The smoke, in places, was as thick as a winter whiteout as we slowly navigated around stranded vehicles, people walking along the side of the road, and various sorts of emergency services vehicles. Finally, we made it out to the major highway.
“Where are we going to go?” Jill asked.
I didn’t have a good, truthful answer, so I said, “I don’t know. I guess we’ll just have to play it by ear.” We felt fortunate to have escaped alive.
Paradise was to be our retirement home tucked away in nature. Now it was just a pile of ash straight from hell.