The Burn

The bedroom door swings open, light from the hallway streaming in. The cats, who have been lumped on top of me, scatter, eyes wide and tails at half mast.

“Sorry to wake you,” says hubs from the doorway. He was not tired when I succumbed to sleep an hour before, and is still fully dressed and alert. “They said we might need to evacuate, so I thought I should warn you. Just in case you wanted to be ready.”

I am still fumbling my way out of sleep, and this intrusion seems less like reality than like an extension of the dreams that have already begun to evaporate. Nodding, I push back the covers, the motion peeling away some of my exhaustion. My brain begins to buzz and wake. A chilly breeze crawls along my bare arms, further rousing me.

“Why?” I mumble. My voice is dry from disuse, and I pause to clear it. “What’s going on?”

“Fire. Come on. I’ll show you.”

Barefoot, I pad after him through the house and out the front door. We stand side-by-side on the smooth flagstone path and watch. The sky to the west is a billowing pink plume, the cliffs around us awash with shifting shades of rust and salmon. The fire is giant, and spreading. Above is an infinite black sky strewn with a million stars. All around, neighbors have wandered onto their porches or into the street to watch the drama unfold. It is surreal to be pulled from the peace that comes with sleep, only to witness destruction in the dark with near-strangers.

The fire is close, a few miles at most, but all we can smell are the dew-dampened grass and the rotting leaves of autumn. This is good news; the wind is not blowing the inferno in our direction. We retreat inside to plan, in case it shifts. Plans are good. They make us feel in control.

The cats are our first priority. This does not require agreement; it simply is. After that, the computer with my writing. Our photos, wallets, journals. A few other things we’ve accumulated over the years. That’s it. All else can burn if necessary — not easily, but without such heart-wrenching loss. I am stunned at how few essentials we possess, and absurdly proud.

Later, once all is gathered, I try to sleep. It is barely possible. My limbs hum with adrenaline, my mind races with thoughts. When sleep comes, I flit along just under its surface, waking often. The cats, oblivious to the drama, doze on through the night. Hubs leaves to investigate and does not return for hours.

This morning the flames are contained, and those who live near are wrecked from stress and adrenaline and lack of sleep. Things could change, but for now all seems safe.

There is a curious kind of joy, a buoyancy, that comes with escaping disaster. It weaves through the building where I work, joining and then overtaking the smell of stale smoke curling in through the vents and window cracks. Although I think longingly of the sleep that escaped me last night, some of the mania flows through my veins, too. And somehow the mixture feels just right.

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  1. Shannon said,

    Wednesday, October 22, 2008 at 8:25 pm

    Glad you, your family, and your house are OK!

  2. Wednesday, October 22, 2008 at 9:32 pm

    Thanks, Shannon! We feel very lucky.

  3. Mizzz_K said,

    Wednesday, October 22, 2008 at 10:02 pm

    What a scary day. Hope it all remains contained.

  4. emily said,

    Wednesday, October 22, 2008 at 10:08 pm

    my goodness! i’m glad you guys are ok – and hope that the fire stays OUT!

  5. Katie said,

    Wednesday, October 22, 2008 at 10:08 pm

    Funny that you live so close to me, yet I didn’t even know there WAS a fire until 1:00pm today, when I went to work. eeek. I am glad your house is okay. You’ll sleep tonight. :)

  6. Barrie Summy said,

    Wednesday, October 22, 2008 at 11:55 pm

    Phew. I’m glad you’re okay. Do you have falling ash today? I was amazed, a few years ago when the fires were really close to us, at how the ash covered everything, like a like snow.

  7. Thursday, October 23, 2008 at 6:12 am

    Wow! I’m so glad your family and everything is okay.

  8. Thursday, October 23, 2008 at 7:03 am

    Me, too, Emily! So far it’s looking pretty good, but when I get into work I’ll hear what all happened overnight.

    Katie, that’s because you didn’t have someone wake you up in the middle of the night to show you the smoke all lit up by flames! Of course, you also weren’t in the path of destruction, so that helps.

    Good question, Barrie. I didn’t notice any yesterday, but I’ll have to look tomorrow. Wow. Hope it doesn’t rain before it all blows away, or it’ll be like paste. That’s what I’ve heard, at least.

    Thanks, Keri! Me, too.

  9. Kath Calarco said,

    Thursday, October 23, 2008 at 7:47 am

    As painful the anxiety I’m sure you felt, I really enjoyed how you wrote it. You made me feel like I was right there on that step with you, watching the sky color like morning at night.

    So glad you are okay! (Keep the hose handy)

  10. Robin said,

    Thursday, October 23, 2008 at 8:56 am

    Oh, Caryn! I’m so glad everything is okay. (Hugs) And I’m with Kath, you’ve brought us right into your home. Thanks for sharing a very scary situation. Take care, and I hope things stay calm now.

  11. Thursday, October 23, 2008 at 9:35 am

    So glad for the happy ending. Ever since my brother rather quickly left New Orleans after Katrina, we’ve had our own evacuation kit prepared. Sucks to have it, but that’s part of life, I guess.

    Best wishes for a calm, boring weekend!

  12. Melissa Blue said,

    Thursday, October 23, 2008 at 10:01 am

    Glad you are okay.

  13. Thursday, October 23, 2008 at 10:17 am

    How scary! That is one of my worst nightmares, to have to choose what to save. I’m so glad you and your home ended up out of harm’s way! (And as usual, very well written.)

  14. Thursday, October 23, 2008 at 10:20 am

    As always, you described your experience beautifully, Caryn, but what frightening news to wake up to. I’m so glad all is well where you are… Is there a history of such fires in your region or is this one unusual?

  15. Katie Reus said,

    Thursday, October 23, 2008 at 10:25 am

    Yikes! How scary :( Glad your family is okay!!

  16. Thursday, October 23, 2008 at 10:25 am

    Aarck! I hope all is contained and everyone – cats included – are safe.

  17. Thursday, October 23, 2008 at 10:48 am

    I’m so glad that everything turned out well, and simultaneously gnashing my teeth in envy that you wrote such a beautiful piece. I think I’ll be looking at things a little differently today.

  18. writtenwyrdd said,

    Thursday, October 23, 2008 at 1:48 pm

    Good tidings that your home was spared.

  19. Kyle said,

    Thursday, October 23, 2008 at 5:41 pm

    Holy crap! Fires are not fun. We had a house fire THE DAY AFTER CHRISTMAS in ’96, which absolutely, well, SUCKED. Beautiful writing, though!

  20. Thursday, October 23, 2008 at 5:54 pm

    Thanks, Kath. That’s probably because I wrote the first half right after I tried to go to bed, while it was still fresh. I was still too keyed-up to do much else!

    Robin, they do seem much calmer. I didn’t see any smoke at all today, although I’m sure things are still smoldering.

    What a good idea, Pam! It did prompt us to sit down and have a serious discussion about which possessions are absolute essentials to be saved in a fire or other disaster.

    Thanks, Melissa!

    Liberal Banana, I’ve had nightmares like that, too! I’m glad that it didn’t come down to that, but I actually feel calmer knowing that we can do it if we need to. That’s probably the best result of the whole incident.

    Marilyn, I just found out that there was one in that same area in July, while we were away visiting family (and at the RWA convention)! It was much smaller, though. One of my biggest fears is returning home after being away and finding out that our home has burned down — especially with the cats inside.

    Thanks, Katie! Me too. :-D

    Joanne, it seems to be much, much better today. As for the cats? Completely oblivious to their narrow escape.

    Carrie, I think it was the exhaustion that made me wax poetic. ;-) When I showed it to hubs he said, “Well, it isn’t very funny…”

    Thanks, Writtenwyrdd! We were quite relieved.

  21. jenny said,

    Thursday, October 23, 2008 at 9:10 pm

    Wow! You captured that beautifully, I feel like I was there with you. I am glad that cats were first on your list. :) I like that you call your husband “hubs.” That is cute!
    I have told my DH (darling husband) that if the house ever goes up in flames, after the childrenm grab the scrapbooks and the CD’s of pictures. Impending disaster (or just hypothetically planning for it) really puts your prioties into perspective. I”m glad all was well at your house and you are safe and sound.

  22. David Rice said,

    Friday, October 24, 2008 at 4:42 am

    Of greatest importance: you and hub are safe. Yes, the writing must be saved, as well as medical and financial documents. Oh, and the kitties, too! BTW, does hub have anything as precious to him as the writing is to you?

  23. Marcia said,

    Saturday, October 25, 2008 at 1:44 pm

    Ugh! I know that feeling. My first year of living in Atlanta, we got a tornado warning that scared the daylights out of me. It turned out it had touched down not that far away and missed out block completely.

    Glad you guys are safe and sound. And the cats, too. ;)

  24. Saturday, October 25, 2008 at 2:43 pm

    I lived in Southern California for a while and know that very feeling–fire coming in the night and having to make a list to think of what you’ll take, and then not being able to sleep. You describe everything so beautifully, Caryn. Such a lovely way of writing you have! And so glad you’re safe.

  25. Saturday, October 25, 2008 at 9:15 pm

    Not to diminish the scariness and importance of the fire, but that was absolutely lovely! So eloquently matter-of-fact. That said, I’m so glad you’re okay!

  26. Sunday, October 26, 2008 at 7:45 am

    So true, Jenny. It was interesting to have to prioritize like that. nd it sounds like your priorities are similar to ours.

    True, David. And for that we are thankful. As for hubs, he’s into mountain biking, but his bikes are insured. Actually, he’d probably be glad if they burned up because then he’d get new ones!

    Marcia, that would be terrifying! I grew up in tornado country, and I never could enjoy a good thunderstorm without the niggling fear that we’d all be swept away by a tornado.

    Oh, Sandi! I feel for you. I really like California, but it seems like there’s a lot of potential for natural disasters there.

    Thanks, Alyssa! I wrote half of it that very night, since I couldn’t sleep, so the images were still very much with me.

  27. Courtney said,

    Sunday, October 26, 2008 at 5:25 pm

    Yikes, that’s really scary! I don’t even know how I’d begin to try and gather just enough to keep me from being heart-broken at the loss. Baby, cats, computer… pictures. Quilt my mom made for me. yuck, there’s too much!

  28. Melina said,

    Sunday, October 26, 2008 at 7:52 pm

    Wow, I’m so sorry I didn’t read this sooner. I’m so glad you’re o.k. What a nightmare.

  29. Cam said,

    Sunday, October 26, 2008 at 8:54 pm

    Glad that you, hubs, cats, house are okay. It must be freeing to realize that you don’t have that many material things that you couldn’t part with. An elequent piece of writing, Caryn.

  30. Cam said,

    Sunday, October 26, 2008 at 8:55 pm

    And I obviously can’t type very well…. eloquent not elequent! duh!

  31. Tuesday, October 28, 2008 at 9:26 am

    Terrifying, Caryn, as I know too well. You may have seen in the national news about Boise’s big fire–one life (awful) and 9 homes gone. It was high winds that drove the fire so fast. We sometimes forget how powerful nature is–and how deadly.

  32. virginia said,

    Tuesday, October 28, 2008 at 11:45 am

    oh man! that’s crazy. hope everything’s okay! take care.

  33. Mary said,

    Tuesday, October 28, 2008 at 12:38 pm

    Gosh. So glad the wind was not blowing in your direction!

  34. Eileen said,

    Tuesday, October 28, 2008 at 6:17 pm

    So very very glad that you are well- and also happy that you know what matters in your life.

  35. Keetha said,

    Thursday, October 30, 2008 at 1:06 pm

    Goodness. I hope you and yours are safe.

  36. Ryshia said,

    Sunday, November 2, 2008 at 9:05 pm

    Wow, the eloquence of the writing over-shadowed the almost tragedy. It took a minute to realize it wasn’t fiction. Well done – and glad you’re okay!

    In our house the rule is the dog, followed by Egbert (the stuffed duck he can’t live without) and a pocketful of valuables. It’s really not much is it when you boil it all down.

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