|Picture courtesy of U.S Fire and Aviation Management|
I was the one seated facing the sky, and I realized later I had probably been looking at that damn smoke for close to half an hour before Shana uttered the should-have-been-obvious-to-me statement: "That's close!" Obviously what we were looking at was a fire up in the Jemez Mountains, just above us. As we got up and walked a couple of blocks downtown, smoke suddenly began to take up half the sky. It was a very odd thing to look at the familiar sky-scape of my town and see that half of the usually turquoise sky consumed with what essentially (and ironically) looked like a nuclear mushroom cloud.
|Photo Credit: Flickr by John Fowler|
I arrived home, turned on my computer and discovered quickly that a wildfire had started near the Las Conchas trail-head. This particular trail-head, is in my family, almost synonymous with "Eden". In fact, it was less than a week prior that we had last driven out there in search of the lush green landscape that surrounds a clear and perfect stream teaming with tiny fish and macro-invertebrates. Las Conchas is where I go to save my soul, when the pain of missing Northern California is too great, and I am filled with resentment at the poverty of flowing water and the intractable stubby brown saginess of New Mexico. My heart sickened with the potential loss of this place.
It took me the greater part of an hour to register that the fire presented an actual danger to us.
However, as smoke continued to fill the sky, at a certain point, I began to get nervous for something other than the loss of my favorite hiking trail. Filled with the kind of nervous energy that demands one do something, I called my thirteen year-old son, who he was at the pool snack bar to warn him to be careful of inhaling too much smoke and to make sure he had his inhaler with him. I called my husband, who was at the hardware store in Espanola. I called my ex-husband, with whom my older two kids were living that week, to make sure he knew what was happening, and to offer a second nebulizer for the kids to use if needed. I started streaming the local radio station on my PC. With a certain well-controlled intensity, the DJ described the intensity of the fire, which had already been dubbed the Las Conchas fire. Repeatedly, she stated that this was not currently a threat to the town of Los Alamos...not yet, but that it was sparking, crowning and running at unbelievable speed. In fact, at the speed of an acre a minute.
And then, anti-climatically it was time to go meet the other members of my church's religious education committee to clean out a large storage closet that needed to be converted to a classroom. So off I went. If we were going to need to evacuate, we didn't now. There was nothing to actually excuse me from pawing through boxes and boxes of old crafts. At this point, the sky looked totally surreal. I called my Dad on the way to the meeting to let him know what was happening and tell him to send on any national news on the subject he might be able to get.
My father-in-law John Faucett posted this picture to Facebook on June 26, the day the fire began.
On leaving church, I became re-focused on the fire. KRSN started to suggest that we think about what belongings we might want to take with us in the event of an evacuation: Six P's. Pets. Papers. Personal Computers. Prosciutto. Prostitutes. Peonies. I can't remember now. I started assembling various papers, in a nervously scattered fashion. Intermittently, eclectic mixes of music were played.
The evening was spent listening to increasingly alarming radio reports while making lists of items with which to evacuate. We locked my mildly schizophrenic ginger tabby in the house, in case we had to get him suddenly and go, and he subsequently kept my husband up all night. I gave a great deal of thought to what the appropriate course of action regarding my five ducks might be. I had horrific visions of evacuating to a hotel with them. Additionally, our neighbor residing in the other half of our shared duplex is a firefighter, so we told him we would take care of his two dogs in the case of an evacuation. (I guess I should be grateful that I was no longer fostering the two additional cats, with whom my cat had a less than totally affable relationship.)
|Photo Credit: Kristen Honig U.S. Forest Service|
We wondered aloud about whether we should leave, in order to avoid health problems due to the fact that we all have asthma. The decision was complicated by the fact that my husband works for the local county government, and by the five ducks and all the furry mammals, and the fear that we hadn't gotten everything done yet that we needed to do. At some point, it came to light that this was the biggest fire in New Mexico history–bigger, in fact, than the Cerro Grande fire which eleven years ago had burned away some four hundred houses in Los Alamos. I worried about my kids, who were with their dad, just because I didn't have them near me, and that felt uncomfortable. I kept telling myself that their dad was once a volunteer fire fighter, and that he would keep them safe.
We closed all the doors and windows and hooked up one of our forty year-old, yellowed swamp coolers to operate without sucking in outside air. Perversely, my husband was at work finishing up installing a red brick patio in our back yard and setting up sprinkler systems, in case our house didn't burn and we still wanted it to look nicer. I continued to bustle about, gathering important belongings and making lists of what we needed to pack. And we just waited to hear what we needed to do.
I was afraid to go to sleep, in case the fire came into town in the middle of the night, but I did anyway. At some point the following morning, when I turned the radio back on, they started to emphasize the need for people with health conditions to voluntarily evacuate the area. Ashes began falling from the sky. And we decided to leave. Mike started calling hotels, I looked up the Santa Fe animal shelter to see if they would take our cats (mine and my mother's) and our dog and our neighbors two dogs.
Nobody really wanted the ducks.
|Photo Credit: Kristen Honig U.S. Forest Service|
Over a period of an hour, Mike loaded every expensive tool in the shed into his Mazda, and, then considered that he would need to be parking this vehicle with thousands of dollars worth of tools in a hotel parking lot in Albuquerque. He moved them all back into the shed, over the course of another hour.
We decided to load all our music, documents and photos onto an external hard drive and take that with us. It kept failing to load, and then Mike had to unplug the computer and load it into the car instead. I resisted taking down all the photos hanging in our hallway, wondering how much time it was going to end up taking to put them back. My six year-old emptied out his clothes drawers and attempted to pack all of his Legos in an overnight bag. At this point, I had deserted him completely to my mother's loving care, and I huffed around checking my list, putting items in a pile and disturbing my husband's train of thought constantly with "What-if" questions.
Mike re-installed a large pond in our duck's yard that we had previously removed, deeming it to hard to clean. He placed heaps of feed in various locations. I started to urge speed, so that we could get out ahead of the other 18,000 people in town, before a mandatory evacuation was ordered. And then the radio announced that the evacuation was now mandatory. We had to leave.
While Mike continued moving objects around and there was nothing more I could do, I decided I would make sure all the neighbors on my cul-de-sac knew of the mandatory evacuation. I ran around, knocking on doors. Some people seemed annoyed, which I won't even go into here, but most were grateful I had thought of them and said they knew about the order. Then I came to the house where the drunk people live.
There, I found a lone woman, brittle, suspicious and red-eyed, surrounded by copious pets, in a house reeking of urine and staleness. She was unaware of the order, but not of the fire. "I am staying here," she told me. "I don't know where my husband is. I have no car, and no place to go." My breath caught. "I'm sure we can find somewhere for you to go," I said. I said several more comforting things, repeatedly expressed my concern for her safety and ran back home to retrieve a piece of information about the shelter provided for evacuees. When I returned to her, her suspicion had evaporated, and I turned my attention to the problem of all her pets, trying to help her determine what to do with them. I found myself offering to take a cardboard box full of kittens with their eyes still closed, and their mother, to the shelter along with my own animals, to which she agreed. I moved each kitten into a carrier and this went fine. However, when moving the mother cat, she and I had a slight disagreement which resulted in a deep, bloody raking of my arm and chest and in her running off.
At this point, several things happened. A nicely dressed woman arrived, explained that she was here to help the woman, who was her sister-in-law, that she had already booked a hotel for them, and the absent husband, a man I recognized as the drunk who had attempted to grope every woman on the dance floor at my friend's retirement party, came home. It was determined that the kittens should be left on the front porch in case the mother returned for them. The drunk woman hugged me, with tears in her eyes, and I left.
Shortly after, we got into three cars with four animals and drove out of town. I had the radio tuned to the local news, and it unrelentingly played the instruction to evacuate immediately lest we face imminent danger to our lives. Tears welling in my eyes, I drove, clutching the steering wheel. A terrible, acrid smell wafted up to my nose. I reeked of the drunk woman and her stale house and her tiny kittens and despair and compassion. I reeked of fear. I cried some more. I left my damn ducks there to burn with my hard-won house. I left with two pairs of underwear and all of my important papers. I left with all of my photo albums and without all my toiletries. I sobbed and wanted to divorce my husband for failing to listen to me while he was packing. I sobbed and hated my ex-husband for having two of my children, so that I couldn't hold their hands. I drove, listened and sobbed.
I drove to Albuquerque and stayed there until they said I could come home, a week later, to a place where, instead of watching fireworks and parades, we gathered for Independence Day in a parking lot to watch our mountain continue to burn, and helicopters, like strange dragons, paced the sky, spitting fire retardant. I came home to find ducks no worse for wear, a neighbor grateful but missing all her kittens, and coyotes roaming the neighborhoods in broad daylight.
I came home.
|Photo Credit Flickr: Jayson Coil|