Playing with Fire

From May to July the hills of California change from yellow-green to shadowy gold. Leaves toughen sealing in moisture. Chaparral turns to dusty green. The beauty of these sere hillsides is an acquired taste for those from lands more lush. But beautiful they are–and treacherous. Dry as kindling, they can ignite in an instant.

I have lived in these hills for several decades. It is hard to imagine living anywhere else. But in living thus one learns to live with fire, or at least its possibility. On four occasions over the years fires have started in spots close enough to home to make me wonder. What would I take? What would I leave if I had to flee?

Three times the fires were extinguished before they grew too large. They were ridge fires. From them I learned that fires burn uphill.

The fourth time a fire started halfway down the mountain. It had plenty of fuel above it. That fire, on an incline so steep and rocky that footholds were scarce, came within a few feet of a house on the ledge above. It was still more than a mile away from me, but that time I started to pack my car.

Last Sunday was one of those days that make you wish summer would last forever, the kind of day that defines “leisure”. I spent the day catching up on odds and ends of unfinished projects–planting beans, watching tadpoles, reading magazines, touching up some of the paint on a newly built studio.

It was about four o’clock when I embarked on this last project. The studio, located in the garden, is next to the fence and on the property line. Beyond it, outside the fence, is chaparral that climbs a small hill on which sit county communication towers relaying important messages far and wide.¬† This is where information about cops and robbers, accidents and ambulances, floods and, yes, fire streams endlessly.

I was in the studio with the windows open thinking about heaven-only-knows-what or maybe nothing at all. A sound started slowly washing in on me. Was it a crackling sound? It was too early to be barbecuing. I was confused. I heard shouting. I went outside and looked up at the house. I saw nothing. I turned around. There it was. Fire! No more than a hundred yards away on top of the hill. Flames more than three stories high danced in the air. So, this was to be it.

Years of living with the thought had prepared me well. I called 911 and found help was on the way. I went to the house and announced the fire and we started loading up. A few clothes, the file drawer with insurance records, my laptop, the cat carrier ready to scoop up the cat at the last minute. I looked around. That was it. The rest was replaceable.

With that done I went out to watch the fire. A helicopter circled overhead. The first of four fire trucks had arrived. The flames went straight up. There was not a breath of wind.

Gradually the flames subsided. I walked up to see the smoking embers as fire crews wet down the last embers of the blaze.

Time to go home and unpack the car.