I am pouring myself a drink, now that I am done doing the dishes and looking out my window as the planes and helicopters keep shuttling back and forth from the nearest waterbody, their bellies and buckets full, to the fire that has been burning all afternoon in the sagebrush about one-quarter mile behind my house.
There was a moment, sitting in my pickup truck on Rendezvous Road, where I remember watching in horror as flames ate away at the hillside ahead of me and, through my passenger window, I could see my little house off on the hillside, squarely in the path of those flames. In that moment I did not know, could not decide, if I was a reporter or a citizen who needed to evacuate.
Do I move towards the fire and try to talk to responders, take photos, find out how many acres, how many people, how much air power and land vehicles are being thrown at this thing? Or do I go home to my husband and look at the sagebrush around our house and scratch our heads, in the driveway together, and try to decide what it is that matters to us. What comes with us, right now, in this moment? I snapped some photos of the flames eating away at the hillside, rolling towards my house, and then I went home.
I will tell you it didn’t take long to decide what to take with us. The portrait of my nonnee, painted in 1943 titled “waiting.” She’s wearing a blue dress. She was waiting for my grandfather to come home from flying planes in the war. The old photograph of my grandfather and his bombardment group, standing in front of their plane, the nose emblazoned with swastikas, each one marking a Nazi plane they shot down. The pearls my grandmother left me that I never wear but cherish. My cowgirl hat. Underwear. Whiskey. Dog kibble. My French press, because at some point, I figure you have to wake up and think about what’s next — in the days after the fire — and coffee will be critical at that juncture.
And between rushing in and out to the truck with my belongings, I paused and stood in the kitchen and looked around.
This little house of dreams and sky. This little house that my husband and I have cherished and worked over, redecorated, painted, sided, sanded, tiled, stuccoed, roofed. This little house that symbolizes so much — leaving the city, starting fresh in a new community, getting small, living rural, simplifying, figuring out life outside the cubicle, being so alone together, in this big, hot, dry, open … and now burning place.
And if it all burns? Now what? What do I need in life? Turns out, very little. I kissed my husband on the hillside, as he was setting up a feeble sprinkler — completely ill-equipped for the job — and told him there is no one I would rather be doing this with.
Two things they don’t tell you about wildfires:
First, the waiting.
There is only so much you can do when a fire is burning near your house. We weeded. We moved firewood. We set up sprinklers. We moved our motorcycles. Hitched up the camper. Packed our things. Then, I pulled up a camp chair in the driveway and cracked a PBR. I watched the smoke plume billow over the hillside. I wasn’t ready to abandon this ship. I wasn’t ready to go be a reporter and share information about what was going on. I was paralyzed in that moment, in my driveway — unsure what to do but wait. So, drinking seemed like a good option.
The other thing that’s new for a city person in a wildfire: country people.
First came the texts, and then the phone calls. The carpenters who worked on our house: “Did you hear? Do you see it? Just making sure you knew.” The neighbors: “Are you ready to evacuate? I can see it from here, the flames. The horse trailer is hooked up. I think we’re OK. Let us know if we can help.” Don, my boss at the Methow Valley News, “Can you go take some photos? Be safe, of course, but what’s going on up there?” The Realtor who sold us our house: “Just checking in on you guys.” Horseback riding friends: “Pour yourself a drink … or two or three.” My friend Sarah Berns, who called but I didn’t pick up, and then drove up our driveway just to see if we were OK and offer help marking where the water spigot is, laying out hoses, sharing a laugh at the craziness of it all. Calm. Beautiful. Present when I didn’t know how to ask for that kind of quiet support.
And always, in the background, the planes. Circling. Buzzing. Droning. Up one side past our house to the fire, down the other — back and forth to the lake to refill. The sirens and trucks rolling up and down the dirt road we can see from our house, bringing with them the sense that a massive emergency response machine had shifted into high gear to fight this thing, to keep us safe. For that, and for this community, I am so grateful.
The fire is under control, last I checked. The plume has dissipated. Life seems normal — whatever that means anymore — and I’m exhausted, emotionally, and filled with love. Rather, I’m rocked with love for the people from all aspects of the little life we’ve built in the short time we’ve been here, who got in touch, in so many different ways, to let us know we aren’t in this alone.