Unexpectedly busy day, cleaning house deeply because of FLEAS ON THE DOGS – something that would never happen if I still lived in Montana. Errands to run before picking the dogs up from the flea dippers. I take myself to a local farm to market restaurant for a bowl of creamy broccoli soup and notice a young woman in a vivid green dress typing on her mini laptop. As I’m slurping soup, she strides to my table with clear intent. She looks me in the eye and asks, “What interesting things are there to do here?” I ask what kinds of interesting things interest her and quickly, miraculously, we discover we’re “family.” She even lives in my old hometown, Missoula. What serendipity.
This morning, as I wrote, I was reliving the Missoula area forest fire which nearly gobbled my home…
A wispy ribbon of smoke rises from the heavily treed hillside where smoke shouldn’t be. I see it as I barrel down the hwy from my country home on the way to work in town. A sultry August day. We haven’t had lightning storms, wet or dry, in several weeks, for which I’m grateful in this summer of drought. But there shouldn’t be a plume of smoke in that densely forested area – no camps, no logging, no homes, just wild trees. Apprehension niggles.
I forget it in the hubbub of my workplace. Three hours later a colleague flings open a door to a meeting room, interrupts the group and says, breathlessly, “Deborah, Deborah I just heard on the radio they’ve closed Hwy 93 because of a fire on Evaro hill. Isn’t that where you live?”
People quickly offer support and suggest I spend the night in town, but I have two dogs and a cat at home. I must get back. I must.
I could take the long way home, about five times longer, so I decide to risk trying the usual route. The traffic inches forward, many cars make “U-eeees” and head back. I smell smoke, feel edginess all around me. I stick it out and finally arrive next to a man in charge. “Sir, I live up that hill. I have to get home.” He checks my driver’s license.
“Are you sure you want to go up there?”
“Yes, absolutely,” and he motions me to wait by the side of the road for the guide car to return.
As I reach the top of the hill, serenity and quiet prevail, partly because there is no traffic. Dogs greet me with wagging tails. Because the forest world seems normal, I decide to sleep out on the porch with the dogs so that I have a better chance of being aware if something changes. I think of it as a vigil. Vigil or not, I give up half way through the night because the dogs won’t settle down. They may know something I do not, but I still see/feel no cause for alarm.
Day dawns. The fire is still two miles to the south but it’s rapacious. It’s reached the highway itself, but traffic controllers have figured out how to keep cars moving – and fight the fire at the same time. This is the only road north and south in our region, so it’s imperative that it remain passable. The road up my hill becomes the line the fire must not cross, so for the next week I learn to live in the presence of fire and smoke and dangerous possibilities. Evacuation eventually becomes a probable possibility.
Fire officials visit, handing me a list of how to prepare. Close windows, pull shades, fill tubs and basins, gather garbage cans and fill with water, connect hoses, clean up debris, cut the grass, restack the firewood uphill from the house.
I am on pre-alert evacuation notice. This means it could happen in a day or a week or not at all.
While friends labor with me, a fire marshall drives down the drive. Now I’m on first alert evacuation notice. This means evacuation could happen anytime soon.
The forest hunkers down. The sky darkly descends.
Sally has labored all day so I invite her out to dinner at the only local restaurant. As we sit at our table, neighbors rush in. “Thank god we found you. You have to get out.” We race back to my house. Suzie helps me carry out the boxes of irreplaceable heirloom photos and tax documents, the computer and my suitcase, packed ahead of time like an expectant Mom preparing for birth.
Sally flees back to the safety of town.
I feel the enormity of being alone, perhaps for the last time in the presence of my home/land as it currently lives. My dogs are in the car. But Mishka, the cat. Where is he? I walk up the driveway, calling his name even though he rarely responds to such a tactic. I also send out a non-verbal bellow. MISHKA, THIS IS SERIOUS. I WANT YOU WITH ME. I turn and head back down to the car but I’m stopped in my tracks…GRIEF hits me with a wail and a punch…Oh my, god, I may never live in this house again. This all may disappear in a flash of cinder and smoke. Oh my precious…and then…WISDOM…Who am I to assume I know what is going to happen? Grief is premature. Be here now this moment. What am I feeling? Love, gratitude, wonder, blessings, awe.
As I reach the car, there is Mishka, strolling out of the forest and ambling up to me.
To be continued. . .