Photography by Scot Facer Proctor and Andy Proctor.
Was it only last Tuesday when I had to stop for a moment on our morning walk to say to Scot, in a rush of joy, “I think we live in the most beautiful spot on earth.” Alpine, our little village, is in the embrace of green mountains on three sides, and on this day with the sky so blue, the peaks soaring, and the pine trees marching up the steep cliffs, it fed the soul of this desert girl. Only those from a desert, where trees have to be carefully watered, to survive their young life, can know the value of a mountain graced with pines.
Only a few hours later my children came rushing with the word I suppose we should have been expecting. Fire! The American West has been a tinderbox this year, with daily accounts of new fires and grasses exploding in flames. We hear of acreages burned and homes lost with a kind of dazed numbness. Too much to understand, to really comprehend, until you are the one who stands utterly helpless, directly in the path of fire.
Of course, we’d known that a drought clutched us. The dryness seemed to undulate off the ground in waves and the air itself was sucked dry of life. Yet, only some of us understood how dry those grasses and vegetation were that ambled near our homes, ready for a spark to ignite.
Out in the road, facing north, I had a clear view of the fire that had been started inadvertently by a backhoe. Was it a spark or a hot engine against dry weeds? I don’t know, but in an instant a fire leaped to life, billowing skyward, and growing with a roar as if it had been a genie in a lamp contained for too many years.
Then in minutes the fire had boomed out of control, growing like a hungry fiend, waves of heat and smoke, that traveled up the slopes of Box Elder peak starving for fuel. Our neighbors and I stood in the road in a bewildered horror watching the inferno grow and feed on our mountain. It traveled with the skilled ease of an Olympic runner to the next mountain north, not malevolent, just simply indifferent to the pleas of our green mountains.
It was out of control in minutes as a hot wind fanned its voraciousness and we watched. We saw it char the trails we hiked every morning, turn stands of pine into black scars, slashes of ugliness across the face of our mountain. We worried. Talk erupted of the highest home we could see on the hill, “The Patterson’s house must be gone.” “How close is this to the church?”
We shook our heads in disbelief, suddenly feeling closer to each other. We watched as if mesmerized, hypnotized by shock. We could not turn our eyes away. I was grieving the scene that I had exulted in that morning that was now only ashes. But more than shock or horror or disbelief was the utter helplessness of standing in the path of a fire. You cannot will it away or explain that this is not convenient or pit your strength against it. You are vulnerable, up against a force you can’t control.
At first, since it rolled up the mountain foothills barely north of us, we wondered if we would be spared. The wind seemed to be going up the mountain and a little north, but that idea was a fool’s paradise, for soon we could see it boiling to the top of the saddle just above us and less than a couple of thousand feet away. That was the end or our street and an even more dire threat to the only two streets above, between us and the mountain.
I told myself if the fire came over that saddle, it was time to evacuate. Unfettered, the fire churned closer. Our little band of neighbors began to move. It was time to pack. Hating to turn our back on the fire (as if facing it were any help), I ran into the house and called our grown children down from the roof where they had been watching.
Pack as if you’ll never see any of this again, we called out to each other. We had to be fast and we learned quickly what mattered—photos, family history, our hard drives with precious journals on them. I grabbed a file of my mother’s writing, the only copy of these private scribblings we owned. We didn’t consider taking any things—even our treasures. Things suddenly didn’t seem to matter.
Of course, we had been praying constantly—for ourselves, for our neighbors, for our beautiful mountain. Now, in a family circle on our knees we pled with the Lord to quench this fire, so indifferent to the houses it was roiling toward. It was in the middle of that prayer we heard the insistent knock on the door and the message, “Mandatory evacuation.”
Our neighborhood happens to be a dense pack of Mormons, and of course, those less threatened rushed to help others, all of whom felt like family to each other. On every side many hands were loading many cars.
We had a car in which a teenager daughter had left the lights on and run down the battery parked in the garage, and we had to stop, get the jumper cables, and jump it before we left. We knew it was dangerous to leave a car, full of fuel, in a garage with a fire coming.
We drove down to the middle of Alpine and looked back at our mountain. Now one of the peaks was so encircled by angry, orange clouds, it could have been a volcano.
As we talked we marveled as that two of our children had had dreams just that week about fires raging out of control.
This was July 3rd, and evacuated, we first went and got pizza from the Red Cross, looking for more information, and then stayed away, calling in constantly to get updates on the fire.
The next night for our July 4th celebrations, we were allowed back into our homes. Across the street to the east, our neighbors couldn’t return and a police car with lights on barred the way up the road heading east toward the mountain.
In this dark night, the fire was still raging on the mountain, now directly above us. It had burned on the north to a few football fields away, and my daughter, looking through her window, at the necklace of golden fires that ran up the mountain posted on her facebook that is was not the kind of view that gave you sweet dreams.
Our fire had now been classified as a Type 2 fire, which meant it was being fought with the additional resources of the federal government, but they could do nothing in the night.