When I was sixteen my father and I nearly died in a wildfire.
When I was four, he bought twenty-seven acres outside of town. At night, in a field among the forests, it felt like space could devour you. Very few lights dotted the landscape back then. Now when I go back there are so many lights I can hardly see the stars.
We started in a used single wide trailer. Two years later the concrete was poured and the first timbers went up. My dad worked long hours at a meat packing plant with a 45-mintue commute. I lived in the city with my mom during the week. On the weekends, I was a wild child out at my dad’s house. He bartered and traded for goods and services to get the house built. Family and friends came out to help with whatever skills they could bring to the effort. It created a festive atmosphere having so many people around. My grandpa, my great grandpa, my grandmother, my great aunt and uncle, some family friends and occasionally my childhood friend and her parents too. I loved growing up “under construction.” When the scaffolding went up three stories high, I turned into a monkey. When my grandma would give me food I would stuff it in my pockets or have a sandwich hanging out of my mouth as I scurried up to the highest scaffolding board to eat. I also liked throwing carrot chunks at my older brother, because he was too afraid to climb so high.
One of my favorite family friends was a survivor of Auschwitz. He lost his whole family including a wife. He remarried a fellow survivor after they were freed. That’s all I know of his story. He was a kind, soft-spoken man, and an excellent master bricklayer, just like my great grandfather. Every time I see the bricks in “soldier pattern” (standing vertical) over the main doorway, I think of him. The rest of the house was built of wood.
The house grew and now it’s very large. You might consider it a mansion, one that took nearly forty years to build. Wildfires have come and gone over the years, but they never come close enough for us to really worry, until 1991. What would become locally known as, “Firestorm 1991.” It’s a lot like what the Bootleg fire in Oregon appears to be becoming now, multiple fires driven by high winds.
We got blocked on three sides, one of them curving like a half moon that eventually cutoff our escape route. My Stepmom, Stepsister, and Stepbrother got out in time. My stepsiblings were just little kids at the time. My stepsister cried, begging us to come too. I wanted to go, but I wouldn’t without my dad. I thought if I stayed with him, he would see reason. I thought I could get him to go, for me. By the time I felt I had convinced him it; it was too late to leave. The firefighters had come. They told us to evacuate. They themselves were pulling out and right after they left trees fell as if closing a door behind them.
I filled the bathtub with water, so I felt like I had a choice between burning or drowning. I was angry and sad that we hadn’t left with the rest of the family, but I understood too. I knew how much the house means to my dad. How much it means to me. Many beloved hands shaped the walls, drove the nails, and mudded the cracks in the sheetrock. When I visit, I run my hands along the walls. Hierth, you can never go home.
The night was long. The glow of the fire was so bright when you closed your eyes, you still saw the fire through your eyelids. There was nowhere to hide. We paced around like angry cats. We patrolled the windows as they started turning black with soot. The hose and buckets positioned by the doors. Our water was drawn by a well and the closest fire was nearly upon the pump house. Then the fire turned and battled the other for fuel. They consumed each other before us. There was not enough tinder between the both of them and they burned each other out. I would have cried if I’d had enough moisture left for tears. I thought I might cry table salt instead; my eyes were so crusty.
We survived. The house still stands today. The wood exterior has been covered with stone. The roof has been replaced with tiles. I still can’t help but think of it as a giant brick oven though. I can’t live out there no more. Every year I worry about my dad. Every year I track the fires. I live roughly five hours away, but if I move like a low flying aircraft and I don’t stop to pee, I can make it in three.
I don’t just follow “our fires,” I track everyone’s fires. My own version of Nihilism perhaps, but I also think Fire Science is interesting. Sometimes, I cry tears for others I couldn’t cry for myself. I know their pain. Most recently it was for the people of Lytton, BC.
The problem isn’t just one thing, it’s a multitude of things. Yes, it’s more people moving out to rural areas. Yes, it’s years of suppressing natural fires. It’s over regulated in some ways and under regulated in other ways. It’s bad planning. It’s greed. It’s global warming.
We could be more strategic in how we manage fires and how we plan our communities. The Camp Fire in California in 2018 showed just how dangerous one of our most popular housing development layouts can be. It’s typically a selling feature to live on a dead end street, until you can’t escape in an emergency due to you and your neighbors trying to flee at once creating a chokehold. We have to rebalance and recalibrate, the natural environment with the built environment. We can save ourselves, save the trees, and animal lives with lower intensity fires. Fire isn’t always bad. Regenerative fires help create lower intensity fires and healthier forests and fields for future generations.
Firestorm 1991 – Aug. 21, 2015 | The Spokesman-Review
‘Most homes’ in Lytton, B.C., destroyed by catastrophic fire, minister says | CBC News (This link includes a video of a guy who describes just how hard it is to make the decision whether to leave or stay during a wildfire. This fire occurred earlier this month at the beginning of July 2021.)
Have you ever been affected by wildfire?