The wildfire story

From my house, I can see the flames in Oak Glen.

The fire started Sunday.

My husband called me from out. “I see smoke bad. It might be Forest Falls.”

I went out and looked toward the mountains. It was a familiar sight, a beautiful sky with a big brown plume of seemingly still, billowy smoke pushing up from one spot.

Yesterday when I drove the kids to school the smell was strong. It was sickening. There’s a smothering feeling to heavy fire air. It makes me a little panicky. It makes my son nauseated.

In the evening my husband and I drove home separately on the freeway. We spoke in unison as we got out of the cars in the drive: Did you freak out when you turned the corner toward town?

The orange was striking. It made me gasp.

This seems to happen every fall, but the first time was the worst: The Old Fire. On my way to work from the elementary school’s Fall Festival, there were flames on both sides of the freeway, almost the whole way. Two fires on my right were beginning to merge.

The newsroom TV was tuned to live coverage of people being evacuated, homes being destroyed. The numbers of people and homes rolled higher while we watched.

My friends and colleagues were outfitted in yellow suits and sent into harm’s way, taking the places of those coming back with full notebooks. They smelled so strong they had to go onto the roof to change out of their gear.

Then I got a terrible call. My Uncle Sonny’s house was gone. Not his neighbors’, just his. The fire followed an odd and narrow path that led to his back porch.

Oh man, he doesn’t even live in the mountains.

He was on his computer when he looked back and saw his awning was aflame. He grabbed his paper files and ran out.

He said there was a somber parade of people with armfuls of belongings walking down the street. Ultimately the fire hopscotched around the neighborhood, leaving piles of ash between unharmed houses, as it did with Sonny’s.

He lost the mementos of his life as a father — the art projects his three girls had made, photos, letters, abandoned instruments, his daughters’ ballet costumes.

My kids were 8 and 10.

After work we all drove over to Auntie Martha’s to give him a ‘there there’ and a ‘that sucks.’ 

En route home from Martha’s we could see the fire working its way over the mountains of Highland. It was coming down fast, and in the dark of night we could see the path growing longer, toward us.

My children were frightened. I drove them to the wash, a rocky swath of riverbed between us and Old, to reassure them.

You would have thought it was the 4th of July. Cars were parked all along the edge, and people had set up lawn chairs and brought sodas.

We looked down our nose at this, but went home and set up lawn chairs in the picture window on our second-floor landing. We had a great view.

Even as I explained to the children how safe we were, I put my wedding album, my  home videos and Grampa’s paintings in the back of the van.

My husband shook his head with an I’m-not-saying-anything look, but the evacuation line edged closer to town by the hour.

I made a videotape of each room, cabinets open, in case I had to list our possessions to an insurance company.

On the third day, it was like dusk all day long. The schools were closed, and it was difficult to breathe outdoors.

When I went to my car to go to work, I stood for a moment and thought it was snowing. Ashes were falling in graceful flakes, laying an even coat on my arms and hair.

Now it seems like we go through this every fall — the smell, the orange glow, the what-to-grab-first list — but I’m still shocked at first sight, whiff and breath.


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9 Responses to “The wildfire story”

  1. gunky Says:

    i HATE the fire season. it’s the one good reason i can come up with why living in the cement jungle is better than not. xo

  2. Jeremy A. Says:

    I HATE the fire season too. (Then again, who does the likes fire?)
    But does anyone remember the last big fire in San Bernardino (It was like 2 yrs. ago; I forgot)?

    Anyway it had similar conditions and it sucked (Duh).
    Well on Mondays at Moore Middle School we usually ran (Most walked just enough to pass the 13-minute cut-off) a mile.
    Being a day with poor air quality you’d assume you wouldn’t have to do the mile, right?

    Our P.E. teachers “supposedly called the Redlands Air Quality Center and the center reported that it was okay to run”.
    When I heard about it I didn’t moan like every other Monday of running the mile, I was pissed off.
    So anyway I ran the mile (Somehow I made it alive) and was glad that it was over.

    But then I later heard a rumor that the other periods didn’t have to run it.
    I then became aggravated.
    But that was then.
    I can only learn from the past and use that knowledge to apply to the future.

  3. roberto Says:

    Two things about this I’ve thought ever since I heard about them.

    First, that there was a major fire going on in the Highland hills for some time, but that Sonny wasn’t aware of it until he turned around and found his house on fire.

    Second, being the exact opposite of the first, that you were prepared to evacuate even though 12 miles of residential, commercial, agricultural land, not to mention the Santa Ana wash (a pretty good and natural fire break in itself) lay between the fire and your house.

  4. T. Says:

    actually i am prepared at any given moment for most possible goings wrong.
    it helps me sleep.

  5. Fred Bauman Says:

    But can you see Russia?

  6. Gunky Says:

    I know lotsa people who actually like weather conditions (hot, dry, windy) that are part of fire season. there are even some who like the eerie haze of the fires. and these aren’t even the people who are arsonists…

  7. Your mama Says:

    What I remember about that time was that one evening there was a tape running across the bottom of the screen that was reporting on the fires. It named the towns that should evacuate and among them was Mentone. Mama was living with us and still is, but at that time, she still had her home in Mentone and all her things were there. As soon as I saw the announcment, I called Toni. Steve jumped in his truck, I jumped in my car, Toni jumped in hers and we all headed for the house in Mentone. The first thing we did was to load Daddy’s paintings in the truck. While we were doing this, Mama grabbed some boxes of memorabilia, one of which had Rob’s silver tap shoes (from when he was four years old). Then we packed up important papers and took off. We filled all three vehicles.

    You don’t know until the time comes just what you will decide is important enough to try to save.

  8. Sharon Says:

    Almost every year, almost like clockwork, we evacuate. EVERY year, we are prepared to evacuate. We see it as the price of paradise 🙂

  9. The Ranchero « Stories O' Mine Says:

    […] Does the name Uncle Sonny ring a bell? His other mention was the story about how his house burned down. […]

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