By Jim Denney
A little less than a month ago, I was returning from a medical appointment, with a brief stop at Target. From the Target parking lot, I saw a thin plume of smoke in the distance. After I finished my shopping, I returned to the parking lot. The thin plume had become billows of smoke.
This is Southern California, and the mountains and hills were tinder-dry. It was windy — prime conditions for a wildfire.
I got in the car and pulled back onto the freeway. Traffic had slowed considerably while I was in the store. Firefighting helicopters were in the air over the freeway, as well as a DC-10 air tanker. This was serious.
On a normal day with normal traffic, I would have been home in about ten minutes, but the freeway was almost at a standstill. The brushfire was burning through a canyon on the back side of the mountain that faces our home. As I came even with the canyon fires, traffic stopped.
I saw flames advancing through the brush and trees along the right-hand side of the freeway. Cars weren’t moving, but the fire was.
After about twenty minutes of sitting in place on the freeway, praying and watching the fire spread, I was relieved when we started moving again.
I arrived home — the drive had taken eighty minutes instead of the usual ten — but everything was fine now. The fire was on the far side of the mountain from our home, so there was nothing to worry about.
I put my Target purchases away, then got in the car to do some more errands — a trip to the library and a stop at the gas station. At each stop, I looked toward the mountain, which had taken on the appearance of a volcano. I thanked God for the firefighters who were on the job, and prayed for their safety.
When I again arrived home, my wife and I got dinner ready — then she looked out the window. “Jim, look at this.”
I went to the window and looked at the mountain. The fire that had been burning on the far side of the mountain had jumped to our side of the mountain. There was a small bonfire halfway up the mountainside across the main road from us.
That changed everything.
“Let’s eat dinner,” I said. “Then I’m going to pack the car. If it spreads this way, we need to leave.”
I knew what to pack: a few changes of clothes, my laptop computer — and our photos and home movies. I had planned for years to get all our pictures and videos digitized, so they could be safely stored online, but there was never any time. Now I had boxes of mementos to load.
The neighborhood across the street was under mandatory evacuation. Our side was under voluntary evacuation. We chose to go.
As my wife and I prepared to leave our home, we wondered if it would still be there when we returned. I was fairly confident the firefighters wouldn’t let the blaze cross to our side of the road — but you never knew.
We drove away and got on the freeway. We passed a tractor-trailer rig on the side of the road, and the trailer was blazing. We learned later that an ember from the wildfire had ignited the trailer, and the driver had pulled off and escaped to safety.
Driving down the freeway, I was amazed that the authorities hadn’t closed the road. The fire had burned all the way to the freeway shoulder, and glowing embers were swirling across the road, driven by the winds. The fiery mountain and canyon looked especially scary at night, but it was soon behind us.
In the end, I lost a few days of writing time, but we didn’t lose our home. In fact, firefighters saved all the homes in the neighborhood across the street from us, though several homes were damaged. No lives were lost.
I gained a lot of empathy for people facing disasters, especially fire. My heart goes out to those in the Northern California fires — in Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, and Santa Rosa, where thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed, and forty-two people were killed.
The threat of fire makes choices stark and simple. You make decisions based on preserving what matters most. In those moments when we decided what to take and what to leave, all that mattered was life and memories. Everything else could burn.
I’ve never experienced anything like that before. I hope I never do again.
But I’m glad I had the chance to see what it looks like to have my life paired down to its essentials. In those highly compressed moments, I didn’t think about my projects and goals and deadlines. I thought about God and I thought about family.
When the fire is coming your way, you think about your life, the lives of those you love, and the life-after-life in eternity. Aside from that, what else matters?