Tongues of flame lick the mountain ridge behind my house, igniting trees like match sticks. The dogs cower as the thump of helicopters passing overhead gets close enough to rumble through the house. I watch the approaching fire from my back door, wondering what to do; what to save; whether some sage move might make a difference.
My son wants to go to a friend's house. I tell him to call before he comes back and to put anything he can't replace in the car before he leaves. We're about two blocks below the voluntary evacuation area in La Canada Flintridge. The people who had been forced from their homes last night were allowed to go back this morning. The city is keeping a watchful eye, updating residents on its web site every hour. I'm hopeful that means the neighborhoods are safer and my precautions are unnecessary, but as I watch the flames edge ever closer, I'm not at all sure.
We've done this once before. It was a few years ago when a wind-whipped blaze kicked up only a block away and I threw the kids, dogs and scrap books in the car to leave. That blaze was closer, but small and quickly in control. As I was getting in the car, a fireman came walking up my driveway, telling me that they thought they'd put the flames in check, but he wanted to check my back yard to be sure.
What struck me then is what hits me now, when I've had 24 more hours to contemplate the possible loss of my home. It's the handful of things that you throw in the car that actually matter and it's a pittance. All the other stuff in your life--all the things you thought you wanted, thought you needed, only a few of them are important enough to save.
With all the time in the world, I would still grab the kids, the dogs, the scrap books--and now my camera and laptop, because I don't know how not to write. But I know, too, that if the house is lost, you lose so much more than possessions.
Some years ago, I interviewed a woman whose house had been consumed by fire. She said it was the little things, years later, that would make her sad. You'd open a drawer in the kitchen, looking for the missing garlic press and suddenly be hit with a sense of loss, she told me as she pushed back tears. It wasn't as if the garlic press was irreplaceable. What was missing was the kitchen where she'd raised her kids, chatting with them while she cooked dinner and they did their homework. What she missed was the home and the memories that permeated every room.
I've been told that some 750 firefighters are battling this blaze. I watch as two helicopters, trailing long hoses, crisscross the house, momentarily disappearing into a wall of ash and soot. They don't need to tell you that a fire is uncontained as you watch it creep relentlessly closer down a brush-filled mountain. I stand witness as the hot spots shift and rear up like wild horses refusing to be tamed.
I am so grateful for the valor of the firefighters and pray for their safety. I think they realize that they're not protecting houses, they're trying to save homes.