Life on the front line


6:30—the first phone call, from tight-voiced friend passing on the freeway, saying there is smoke coming from smack on top of us. Take cup of tea outside, look around, assure her that it is fog, not smoke, where we are.

7:15—the spouse’s caregiver phones, to say there is smoke. Sigh, repeat the outside trip, still no smoke in the fog.

8:00—there is smoke in the fog. Fog clears: hmmm. A a lot of smoke. And ashes on the deck. Still, at least there isn’t any wind to speak of.

9:00—there is wind. And it is blowing right our way. Look at list of twenty-four items I had intended to do this day in preparation for 1) weekend with houseful of family and 2) departure for the United Kingdom in seven days, and know that I will get none of them done today. Clean out closet, set mouse traps, answer reader’s letters, some of them very old—the letters, not the readers.

9:15—the much-touted web site of the local television channel puts up a map showing the fire area. According to the map, we are currently in flames. We are (I check outside to be sure) not in flames. And the planes and helicopters are at least a couple of miles away.

9:30—there is more wind. A lot of wind, in fact. Which makes the smoke look like fog so we can no longer tell where the fire is or how far away it might be.

9:40—discuss moving spouse to clear air. Spouse not interested. Air not that bad. And we have oxygen machine, for us if not for him. Although perhaps a paper bag might be of more use, for panic attacks.

9:45—wind gusts blow over umbrella, blow over other things as well, one of which takes out the power line. Okay, we have an oxygen tank, don’t need machine, don’t need electric kettle, don’t need—hmm, microwave isn’t heating lunch. Nice cool lunch, good for the digestion. Find twenty year-old rotary dial phone and wrestle the electric phone off the wall, replace it. Dial tone: triumph of woman over twenty-first century.

10:00-12:00—a dozen other phone calls, from friends, distant friends, neighbors, the insurance agent, the Hospice people (twice), even more distant friends, and a recording saying that we could evacuate if we wanted to, and to acknowledge receipt of this message by pressing one. Look at dial of phone and feel like the skinny model in the Kevin Kline movie. Hang up without acknowledging receipt, feel guilty. Phone rings again—loud ring, startling—and I reassure another of spouse’s ex-students that we’re neither burning nor in need of a bed.

1:00—Planes, helicopters, nebulous clouds of smoke. Discuss with brother-in-law the logistics of driving two cars and a motor home with two drivers. Discuss when we should discuss loading up cars, just in case. Decide to make mental list, go back to fan letters.

More phone calls.

3:00—power comes back, Internet connection does not, dialup cannot cope with the demands of the television station’s web site, which would be useless anyway and tell us that we were trapped, abandoned, burned up, and screaming in the dark. Curse the Internet, curse the drama queens who run so-called news agencies. Go back to fan letters, which answers are getting decidedly odd.

4:00—send fax to hotel in Scotland giving credit card details, promised that morning, and find myself writing note at bottom apologizing that it was late but we were having a forest fire and the power had been out. Wonder what poor reservations clerk in the hotel in the Orkneys will make of that.

Answer phone calls. Phone dies two minutes into every call, since mobiles drain their batteries calling for home base whenever the power goes out. Several callers no doubt left picturing their calls cut short because of huge wall of flames engulfing the house.

Go back to fan letters.

4:45—give up on getting actual information from the news and send brother-in-law down to the village to ask if anyone knows where the fire actually is. Tiny town (one stop sign, two churches, a market-cum-sausage-smokehouse) bursting with refugees and news vans, five of which join in urgent chorus at precisely five o’clock. Saner local residents scurry past outstretched microphones with polite smiles. News reporters make do with local loonies, who have donned Vietnam-era cammies and their grubbiest overalls for the purpose. Everyone happy.

6:00—brother-in-law returns from the Front with singular lack of hard news. We decide that if no one knows where this damned fire is, clearly it isn’t on top of us. Eat dinner (oh, the comfort to be found in scrambled eggs with cheese!) and discuss again assembling Treasures in the car before nightfall, instead drink beer and watch spectacular sunset. Helicopters and planes no closer than they have been.

8:00—wind finally dying down, good for firefighters, good also because can see where the smoke is coming from. Not this side of the closest ridge, which is good enough for us. Watch mindless television, write blog, re-route Internet link so one computer anyway is in communication with the outside world.

10:00— Send blog. Go to bed.

Wake numerous times during night to peer out window, watching for glow on the horizon…

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  1. annie on May 23, 2008 at 2:22 am

    I am hoping that all continues well.
    I know that Scotland does not get forest fires, being normally way too wet, but I’ve just returned (walked the Great Glen Way last week) and the weather was so glorious, not one drop of rain the whole way, that they may be getting an inkling of what it’s like to be dry underfoot!

  2. LaideeMarjorie on May 23, 2008 at 3:16 am

    “Look at dial of phone and feel like the skinny model in the Kevin Kline movie.”

    That made me laugh out loud. If a person who is imminent danger can maintain such an amazing sense of humor, she has either lost her mind OR is the sanest and most composed of people I have ever come across. I’ll go with the sanest and composed choice. I am very grateful that you and yours have all made it through this ordeal intact and safe and I hope that the worst of the threat is over for you and for all of your neighbors. If all of your internet family could help somehow, we would. Thanks for sharing this experience with us.

  3. Chris on May 23, 2008 at 7:36 am

    I am glad to hear that everyone and everything is safe and well.

  4. riobonito on May 23, 2008 at 8:46 am

    Yup…from one fire danger zone to another..I am very thankful you and yours are okay. I would have NOT have kept my cool…most likely showed up at the store looking wild eyed and drooling…thank God all is well. I hate fire season…from the Sierra’s…(where garden is littered with a million leaves from wind storm)
    p.s. when I first wrote this I said ‘I would not have kept my cook’..that’s crazy..common sense says keep the cook at all cost!

  5. Strawberry Curls on May 23, 2008 at 9:24 am

    What a day you had! Soooooo, glad all is well up in your area of No. California. Thank you for sharing the experience with us in your very own witty and informative way. I only hope I can keep my cool half as well as you did should the fires come that close to my neighborhood down here in So. California. Good luck to you and all your neighbors, let’s hope the worst is over.

  6. Pat in Marin on May 23, 2008 at 9:36 am

    I glad you are all ok. Having survived a grass fire in the open space behind my home I can sympathize. Just packed up the spouse, the kids, pets and memory stick and hoped for the best. You’ve got to admire the firefighters for the work they do.

    Hope they get the fire under control today and that you and yours remain safe.


  7. tangential1 on May 23, 2008 at 10:32 am

    I know that a fire close enough to leave ash on one’s deck is no laughing matter, but I couldn’t help giggling at your report;)

    And beautiful sunsets are the one nice thing about fire season. All the stuff in the air creates the most amazing colors.

    Good to hear the news reports were overstating things and that you all are all right!

  8. vicki on May 23, 2008 at 12:02 pm

    Crikey! I’m out of the loop for a day or two and the whole west coast goes up in blazes. Y’all be careful!

  9. Meredith T on May 23, 2008 at 3:02 pm

    I had kept thinking “that’s Laurie’s part of the world, wonder…” Glad to hear it did not get worse than that, that was plenty bad enough. We can make you the Empress of Reframe (“cold lunch, good for digestion” eh?). It’s raining in SoCal today and I hope it spreads to the northern reaches. I will not only send good wishes and vibrations your way but damp ones. best to you and the family and assistants.–Meredith

  10. Kerry on May 24, 2008 at 5:19 pm

    I want to be on your team when any of the scenarios touted in the oh-it’s-the-end-of-the-world books strikes. Talk about sangfroid! More like sang-frozen, sounds like. Glad all continues well, and I’m thinking I need to go out and find a rotary phone . . .

    Best wishes

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