Sun glints off metal and a bright spark jumps from the blade edge of a mower. A tiny flame flares in the dead grass. It puffs white smoke, then grows and races ahead to a pile of brush. The brush explodes and the Bear Mountain Fire is born. Within ten minutes the fire becomes an inferno, fueled by dry vegetation, temperatures over one hundred degrees, single digit humidity and a gentle, but steady breeze. Residents of this quiet neighborhood have only minutes to get out and save their lives. For those who are at work, there is no chance to save beloved possessions or family pets. In the surrounding communities, word travels as fast as the fire and fear - like the gray fog of smoke - lies over everything.
Kip and I obsessively watch the news and listen to the radio. We wake each morning to the acrid smell of smoke in the air even though we live more than thirty miles from the blaze. No one is talking about anything else. Day three of the fire dawns to reveal frightening statistics: sixty-eight homes destroyed, 8500 acres burned, only 50% containment achieved. We are not surprised when a call comes from Search and Rescue requesting our assistance. During fires, Search and Rescue volunteers help with evacuations along with a myriad of other duties.
We report to the Command Center at 0700 hours on Friday, August thirteenth. I try not to let superstition creep into my thoughts.
The Command Center operates from Bella Vista, a small community just south of the fire. It bustles with activity: Animal Regulation vehicles, dozens of CDF fire trucks, police and California Highway patrolman, Sheriff's deputies, search and rescue volunteers. The constant static of radio communication plays in the background. On the horizon, a plume of thick white smoke fills the air.
We are given Nomex garments, a fire retardant material that is designed to protect us from falling embers. They are all one size: large. I tighten up the straps on the pants to fit my waist and laugh at the effect. I am like a clown with ballooning green pants and a bright yellow shirt two sizes too big.
We sit for almost three hours at the Command Center and wait for an assignment into the field. There are currently no evacuations. The fire is moving northeast into unpopulated areas. We are hearing optimistic reports that suggest the fire crews are getting the fire surrounded, contained.
A lieutenant with the Sheriff's department finally gives us an assignment. "We want you guys to drive out Dry Creek Road and around the communities affected by the fire. There are road blocks preventing people from coming back to their neighborhoods, but people have been walking in. We want a presence. Keep an eye out for looters. Try to answer questions. The plan is to open up the roadblocks around four o'clock this afternoon."
Our assignment puts us in the neighborhoods most devastated; where the fire started.
All Californians know about fire. Every summer, dozens of fires threaten homes and wilderness areas. We are told to clear our lots and create a "defensible space" in the event of a fire. Fire safety meetings occur in communities all over California. And yet, the warnings, the photos on the front pages of the newspaper, the reports on the evening news, cannot prepare me for the emotion of being up close and personal with the effects of a fire.
Where once a neighborhood stood there is now white ash and skeletal remains of trees. The twisted metal of someone's bed, or refrigerator, or car reminds us of the lives that have been lived here; people going about their daily business of getting up, going to work, taking care of children. Oddly, there are homes that have survived the searing temperatures and unforgiving fingers of flame. A house sits on its lot, its manicured green lawn and perfect shrubs a protective shield. On either side, within 150 feet, the neighboring homes appear to have melted into the dry dirt.
"How can that be?" I say.
Block after block we witness the same bizarre thing. Some homes are unscathed, while others are completely gone. Kip drives slowly, and eventually we come out onto a main road that takes us to a road block. CHP officers are stopping cars from driving past the road block and into the neighborhood. Dozens of people mill around. Many are holding cat carriers. They all have the same stricken look of disbelief and shock.
"Do you know when they're going to start letting these people back in?" One CHP officer asks Kip.
Kip tells him that the plan is to allow reentry around four o'clock.
"Well, these people are really agitated," the CHP officer says. "They want to go in and get pets."
We offer to take people's names and addresses and check on pets for them. One man asks us to check on his dog who was left in the backyard when the fire started. Another woman tells us she is certain her home is gone, but could we see if her four cats are there. As we drive away from the road block I look at Kip.
"I hope I don't have to come back here and tell these people their pets are gone," I say.
We check on the dog first. The home is one of the few still standing and the dog, a furry mix of German Shepherd and Golden Retriever, appears unharmed in his backyard. The dog looks frightened and barks at us. I had hoped I could get a leash on him and bring him out to his owner, but decide that is not the wisest course of action when he bares his teeth at me. We make sure he has food and water before we leave.
Our next stop is to check on the four cats. The address is located in a dense canyon. The fire has burned on either side of the canyon, but strangely did not take advantage of the immense fuel in the canyon itself. The woman's home, a small yellow and white trailer, is untouched. One of her cats darts beneath the shade of the trailer. We leave food and water for on the porch for the cats.
On our way back to the road block, we see a woman and an older man walking on the road. Neither look like they have exercised much in their lives, and their skin glistens with sweat. Kip stops the jeep so we can make sure they are okay. They tell us they hiked out to their home and found out that their horses have survived the blaze. We leave them with a liter of water and advise them to take it slow.
We arrive back at the road block and are surrounded by anxious people.
"Your house and your dog are fine," I say to the owner of the shepherd/golden mix.
The man grips my hand. He grimaces with emotion and tears. His shoulders slump with relief.
We tell the woman with the cats that her home survived and we have seen one of her cats, a black and white creature that looked more feral than domesticated. She hugs me. "God Bless you," she says.
I assure her that if they do not allow her in to take care of her cats, that we will notify Animal Regulation who will continue to provide food and water for them.
It is now after 1:30 in the afternoon. The sun climbs higher in the sky. The day heats up to over one hundred degrees. We worry about what is happening on the fire line.
Our next destination is a road called Blue Sky. It sounds so beautiful, so idyllic. Homeowners were evacuated from here the night before as the fire raced along a ridge line just north of them. The road is unpaved and the going is rough. We see half million dollar homes sitting on lots where the fire has burned within fifty feet. Firefighters are still in the area doing mop up and watching for flare ups. We drive all the way out to where the fire has recently been. White ash, indicating very high temperatures, covers everything. Trees, blackened and leaning, dot the land. Flames still jump and burn in spots. The smoke here is like fog - only instead of being cold, it is oppressively hot. The sun shines weakly through the smoke, an eerie light that bathes the ground in a yellowish glow. Where once deer grazed and hawks circled, there is now only this creepy silence and the charcoal smell of a devastated forest. We are perhaps two miles from the fire and the wind blows hot and dry against our skin.
"Let's get out of here," I say. And Kip agrees.
We return to the Command Center to grab some lunch and get an update on the fire. We learn that the fire has jumped a seventy-five foot fire line and continues northeast. It gobbles up forest and wilderness, but for now does not threaten any more homes.
We are told that reentry into the neighborhoods will begin soon. Reentry. The word conjures up an image of the space shuttle hurtling back into Earth's atmosphere. Reentry in this context is the most dangerous time for the astronauts. It is either an exhilarating success or a devastating disaster. Luckily for the astronauts, the success rate far exceeds the failure rate. I wonder now about the use of such a technical and scientific word to describe what is about to happen here. Ordinary people will be allowed to return to their homes, or what is left of them. Reentry for them will be filled with either joy that their home survived, or horror that there is nothing left. No family photos. No carefully stored wedding dress. No family antiques. In some cases, no family pet.
The most difficult part of our day is about to begin.
We return to the neighborhood where we had spent the morning, and watch as cars filter in, their occupants staring out at an unfamiliar landscape with jaws slack in disbelief. We approach one couple, standing before the remains of their home with their arms around each other. I tell them about where the Red Cross station has been set up and ask if they have a place to stay. The woman, her shoulder length blond hair hanging past thin cheeks, shakes her head.
"This will sound crazy," she says, "but, I put my dog to sleep two weeks ago. When we left here, I forgot to bring his ashes with me." She tears up and swallows hard before continuing. "All I've thought about is that I left him behind in the fire. But look..." She points to a small box laying on the ground. "I found him in the ashes. Now I have him back." Her husband slides an arm around her shoulders.
"And we're still alive," he says.
The woman turns to Kip and me and thanks us for being there. Then she reaches out and hugs me and I hug her back. I am reminded of what is important, and it is not possessions.
We move on, stopping to give people information and offering an ear to those who want to talk. We turn down one street that has been particularly devastated by the flames. Steep canyons drop off from the ridge where homes had once stood, side by side. An elderly man sits alongside his driveway, his arms hanging down between his legs. His face is slack with shock. He turns red rimmed eyes toward us as we approach.
"How are you doing?" I ask, squatting beside him.
The man waves an arm towards the remains of his home. "I lost it all. It's all gone."
"I know. I'm sorry."
His mouth works wordlessly and tears flow over his cheeks. "But, my cat..." He gulps, sobs. "My cat, she's alive."
For the first time I notice the tiny calico cat. A miracle in the midst of tragedy.
"She's alive?" I say stupidly.
"She was here all this time. I dreamt about her. I thought for sure she was dead. But then, then..." He chokes on his words, wipes a dirty hand across his eyes. "She came walking out from the burned out Jacuzzi. Somehow she didn't get burned up."
The cat rubs her body against the man's legs. Her purr can be heard even above the car motors and idling of the fire trucks. Kip brings her food and water from the jeep and she scarfs it up. She doesn't appear injured or traumatized in the least.
"What's her name?" I ask.
Maggie, the miracle cat. This tiny animal, her bones delicate beneath her thick fur, suddenly symbolizes the hope that I know must still be here, somewhere in the dust and debris of this disaster. My eyes well with tears and exhaustion lays its heavy hand on my shoulders. An information officer with CDF arrives to talk with the man and we say good-bye. I reach out to shake the man's hand and he pulls me into his embrace.
"Thank you," he says, even though I have done nothing.
The stories, like Maggie the miracle cat, filter around - told and retold by firefighters and volunteers alike. Later that night, when Kip and I finally are able to leave and go home, I remember these stories. I hold onto them tightly, like a child with a favorite blanket. They help soften the pain of how much has been lost and remind me that beneath the tragedy there is hope. There is always that.
The upper Sacramento Valley, once filled with a haze of smoke, now lays under a clear, blue sky. Nights are cooler; the heat of summer is winding down and I am looking forward to the chill days of Autumn.
The Bear Mountain Fire was contained five days after it was sparked, but not without a cost. Thirteen hundred firefighters converged on the area to beat back the flames to the tune of almost $10 million; in the end, nearly 11,000 acres were scorched and 86 homes lay in ashes on the ground with an estimated combined property and rangeland damage of close to $15 million. The cost in human misery is harder to calculate. How do you place a value on the loss of a beloved pet, or a scrapbook of photos, or your grandmother's handstitched quilt? But the human spirit is hard to destroy. People are clearing their lots, salvaging what they can and making plans to rebuild. They are not alone. A community wraps itself around them and bolsters their spirits. There is the knowledge that this tragedy is not isolated, indeed could happen to any one of us, and so we empathize with those who have seemingly lost everything. We try to help: we raise money, we donate clothing and food, we provide temporary shelter. In the end, we go back to our own lives. We go to work, care for our children, and take care of our homes. We push the tragedy to the backs of our brains; we try not to think about the next time.
And what about the man who allegedly started the Bear Mountain Fire? He has been arrested and charged with arson. If he is found guilty he could face six years in prison. The decision by the DA to seek charges is laced with controversy. "It was just an accident. You can't charge someone with stupidity." say some. "He deserves what he gets," say others. He has not returned to his neigborhood. His mobile home still stands, untouched by the flames that decimated most of the homes on his street.
There is no good explanation for tragedy. No words that can make sense of human suffering. There is only the aftermath and how we choose to deal with it. Like Maggie, the people who took the brunt of the Bear Mountain Fire's wrath, have chosen to survive.