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Saturday, October 14, 2017

From the Ashes

A howling wind beat against the windows of our bedroom, keeping us awake as the branches of our apricot tree snapped on the glass. A loud noise startled us, and Mark got up to check to make sure nothing important had blown over. Just the neighbor's umbrella, go back to sleep.

The first siren went by around 1:00 am or so. Not unusual, we live just a few blocks from one of the largest intersections in town. They rarely register anymore, and our dogs don't even bother to howl at them; even they know they'd go hoarse in a matter of a few hours on the busiest weekends. But soon it was followed by another, then another, until it was a chorus of sirens wailing from all over the city.

Mark's iPhone made that choo-choo sound he set as his text alert, which always puts him in a foul mood. It always means a call from work and it's always some sort of problem.

"Huh. My co-worker says he tried to get to work and they wouldn't let him up the street." Mark scratched his head, then rubbed his beard. He does that a lot when he's frustrated and grumpy.

The train noise sounded again. This time someone who was at work. "He says they're being told to leave, there's a fire coming. He's asking if it's ok to leave." Then his phone rang. Funny how no one actually calls anymore, texting seems to be the preferred method of communication. Except in an emergency.

After he hung up, Mark was wide awake. A deputy had come by the building and told everyone to evacuate, that a fire was coming down the hillside and crews couldn't get there fast enough to stop it. We both put on shorts and ran outside into the warm wind. It was 1:30am.

Looking north from the middle of our street, you could see an ominous orange glow. Smoke was blocking out the stars, and loud booming noises would occasionally sound out making the hair on the back of my neck stand up. This wasn't good.

The sirens continued to scream by on the main street behind our house. They seemed to be going in all directions. Our neighbors started coming outside and standing in the street with us. Everyone was disheveled, wide awake but not ready to believe what was happening.

"It's getting closer."

"How close do you think it is?"

"Should we get ready to leave?"

We went back inside and looked for news. At 2 in the morning, even the most die-hard newscaster is asleep. Nothing was being broadcast, no text alerts, no phone calls. It happened too quickly, and too early in the morning.

Around 5am Mark couldn't stand it anymore, and took a drive down the street. He was stopped about a mile away at the edge of our neighborhood by a road block. He didn't have to ask why; there were flames shooting up from the trees on the not-so-distant hill.

He came home and reported this to the neighbors who were still milling around with the collars of their shirts pulled up over their mouths. The smoke was getting thicker and ash was starting to fall around us. No one had come by to evacuate us, but the decision was made to be ready anyway, things were happening way too fast. Besides, standing around listening to the more frequent and louder booms was spooking us. (These sounds turned out to be propane tanks, transformers and trees, bursting into flames.)

For all my talk of paring down and shedding material things in my life, I wasn't quite prepared to make these decisions at dawn on a Monday morning. In fact, no one should be asked to make any important decision at dawn on a Monday morning, other than whether to hit the snooze button one more time or give up and haul out of bed.

In the end, we packed a few days worth of clothing and I swept the top of the desk into a backpack along with our laptop and backup hard drive and our wedding album. Our passports got stuck in a front pocket and a few bits of jewelry as well. I hoped that at least one of each of our account numbers were included in the stacks of bill stubs I so stubbornly hold onto. For once in my life my messiness might pay off.

We grabbed the dog's food and their bowls and water dish, our sleeping bags and pillows, camera equipment (that was thankfully all in one place having just come back from a trip) and our sundries bag we always take with us when we camp. Our camper always has food, water, blankets, stove, and cooking utensils inside so we'd be fine wherever we ended up. I also filled a bag with canned food, sport drinks and that boxed milk that doesn't spoil.

We didn't have to go. They stopped the fire just about one and a half miles from our house.

For the last four days, we've been on high alert. The fire we saw was the most widespread of the multiple fires that were whipped up by the 60-80 mile per hour gusts that night. They're still going on, and every shift of the wind, every siren that goes by, every text message from the Nixle alert system I signed up for, makes my heart skip a beat.

The toll is still climbing, and the fires continue to burn. An estimated 2000 homes have burned so far, 21 people are confirmed dead, and there are many hundreds missing. We personally know at least 15 families who have lost their homes. One of my co-workers is on the missing list.

I think we have survivors guilt. We didn't lose our home or get evacuated, unlike 50,000 others in our area. We never lost power either, and our natural gas wasn't cut off like many of the neighborhoods nearby. We still have our own bed to sleep in, our own shower to wash the smoke smell out of our hair. Our dogs have a backyard to run around in and we still have drivable cars. Mark's work made it through the fire, although the damage was enough to put them out of commission for at least a few weeks. My work was farther away, escaping the damage but without power for the first few days of the week. I spent my nervous energy baking cookies and making enough meatballs to feed us for four months, stacking containers filled to the brim in the freezer.

The sadness runs deep. I feel horrible for those that lost their homes, the pets that died in the fire because they were scared and didn't come when called. The fires burned so hot, it was unsafe until now to go in and look for the missing. I'm afraid of what they will find.

During the peak of the fires, I was too scared to think much about what was happening, beyond what I needed to do to get away if it got too close. The next morning though, after the most significant danger seemed to pass, I walked outside to check on the house and yard. The smoke was hanging in the air, and a light rain of ash was falling, mimicking the silent, slow falling of snowflakes. Bits of ash were piled up on our front steps, and among them were skeletal leaves, perfectly formed until you touched them and they dissolved into grey dust. Bits of burnt paper and fabric and wood fell on the walkway, all formerly someones books and clothes and home. I tried not to cry.

It's written that the mythical Phoenix rose from the ashes, symbolizing the renewal of life. I'm not a religious person, nor am I much of a believer in mystical or spiritual interpretations of events. I think though, that if any place has a fighting chance to rise again, it's here, my hometown.

We certainly have enough ashes to make a good start.

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