The fire started without warning, roaring like a ravenous lion through tinderbox brush in the canyon below our house.
It was late afternoon, a beautiful day. Doors were open to catch the breeze blowing in from the coast. I was sitting at my computer, trying to think of something decent to fix for dinner, when my phone rang.
It was Henry, my 8-year-old grandson, who lives nearby.
“Hey, my darlin’!” I said.
“Nana!” he shouted, the way he always does when he’s got something big to tell me, “are you and Papa Mark OK? Mom and I can see a huge cloud of smoke! And it looks like it’s burning by your house!”
I took a breath and noticed a faint smell of ... smoke?
“Thanks for thinking of us,” I said, “but don’t worry, it’s probably not as close as it looks. I’ll check and call you back.”
“Hurry, Nana!” he said.
When I stepped out on the patio, my heart begin to pound. At the bottom of the canyon, clouds of smoke billowed high into the sky. Then, I saw flames licking up through the trees.
My husband was in the garage.
“Fire!” I shouted, as I ran past him to the driveway to get a better look. He ran after me and for a moment we stood there together, staring at what could be the end of a home we loved and a lifetime of treasures.
“I’ll back the car out,” he said. “Go get what you want to take and let’s pack up.”
I looked down the hill and saw a neighbor, whose house was even closer to the flames than ours, loading up his truck. I waved. He waved back. Then he came up the hill to make sure we knew about the fire.
The next minutes passed in a blur. Never in my life have I been so glad to hear sirens and see tanker planes and a helicopter circling overhead.
I’ve always had great respect for those who risk their lives running toward danger so the rest of us can run to safety. But I had never felt that respect quite as deeply or as personally as I felt it at that moment.
I said a quick prayer for safety for everyone, then ran inside to pack. What do you take when there’s no time to be picky and not much room in your car?
We moved to this valley just over a year ago, knowing it was, like most of California, a high risk for wildfire. Last summer we packed “emergency bags” with clothes and necessities to keep on hand if, God forbid, we ever had to run for our lives.
Where did I put mine? Not in the closet. In the garage? No, under the bed! I dragged it out and unzipped it to add anything else that might fit. A few family photos. A book I published 20 years ago. My laptop computer and a copy of my will. Odds and ends, pieces of my life.
As I packed up all that I could take, I felt painfully aware of all that I had to leave behind: The dining room table where my kids once did their homework. Paintings and photos and keepsakes that could never be replaced. My husband’s musical instruments. And more than 30 years of yellowed newspaper clippings of my work.
I grabbed my wedding ring off the bathroom counter, slipped it on my finger and told myself, “Take what you can, leave the rest, all that matters is life.”
So I picked up my bag and walked out of my house for what I knew might be the last time.
And then, I was given a gift, a finer ending to a story that could’ve been a tragedy. While my husband and I and our neighbors were packing up our lives, the firefighters, God bless them, had fought back the blaze.
The tankers were still circling. But the flames were gone. And the smoke was slowly clearing.
Only a few things remained for us to do: Breathe a sigh of relief. Be forever thankful. Unpack the car. And tell all our loved ones (and anyone else who might care) not to worry, the fire was out and we were fine, thanks.
I called Henry first.
Sharon Randall can be reached at P.O. Box 922, Carmel Valley CA 93924, or on her website: www.sharonrandall.com.