I’ve always loved fire. I am fascinated by it, as it flickers and crackles. I kick logs so they’ll spark, sending glowing stars into the air to watch them disappear into the sky. So when the hillside surrounding my home was all in flame, I wasn’t scared. It was a beautiful, familiar danger. Every year the farmers surrounding our homestead burned off their fields. The tourists, drunk after time at the nearby public river access threw matches or cigarettes out their windows– some even stopping to be sure the grass caught, just for fun. Every year the countryside glowed. It was a common family moment to spot smoke on our way home from town and work together to calculate its distance. Every spring and fall we executed a proactive controlled backfire, then settled in, hoses at the ready.
It was a “red flag day,” February, 1995: a day declared by state agencies too dry and windy to even light a grill. I was 10 years old and as we drove along the familiar winding rural road we calculated the smoke was coming from our neighbor’s backyard. The whole world stopped. My father didn’t even change out of his dress shirt to go drag our neighbors out of their Saturday afternoon naps. Dad didn’t eat lunch that day—he spent the entire afternoon fighting with every bit of energy he had to save our neighbor’s house, to steer the flames away from his sheds, barns, hutches and garages full of farm machinery, to keep the fire from crossing the road, to guide the flames to the creek and starve them to submission. When the fire came onto our land I joined the ranks, rake in hand, my own controlled burn to watch, my own space to clear and protect. Emerald, almost 8, ran from neighbor to neighbor with cups of water and small snacks. I wasn’t scared: fire never wins.
Late in the day we gained the upper hand. Exhausted and ash smeared, some neighbors wandered home to eat, others spread out to rake away lingering flames. The small rural volunteer fire department’s tanks were empty, and the men sent them away to refill and recoup. Everything was under control.
Fire is beautiful. It’s warm and captivating. So when Mom rushed out of the bedroom clutching baby Pewter, scooped up toddler Rose and hustled us all into the car, I wasn’t scared. I didn’t even grab the bundle of my favorite things I’d packed earlier, wrapped hobo style in my comfort blanket. When she sped away, car horn blaring and echoing off the hills to call my Dad from the bottoms and alert him to the danger, when I caught a glimpse of bright flames licking out of our shed and reaching toward our house, I wasn’t scared. I should have been, I suppose, but it didn’t occur to me. I just watch the flames on the shed, the glowing ground and charred earth– A familiar danger.
Coaxed out of hiding by the evening breeze, a glowing ember had drifted onto the dry wood siding of our garden shed. Emerald and I played with our neighbor’s antique dolls while Saturn, just shy of 15, fought the fire alongside our parents, scarring her lungs with smoke and ash. They did everything they could. The fire spread through our sheds and animal pens faster than they could handle. I think the moment that broke my dad was when he had to shout, “Forget the house, save the shop!”
As my dad stood on the road and watched the flames engulf the home he’d spent his entire adult life building, one reclaimed window at a time, refusing aid or debt–the home he’d designed room by room and built nail by nail, the dream he’d wrapped around his family to provide for us and keep us safe– his soul turned to ash with it. Our neighbor, whose house had been saved, who had been by my dad’s side all day as he had been every year, took off his jacket and wrapped it around my dad’s shoulders. It was all he could do at that moment. But there was a coldness the jacket couldn’t touch. Nor the gesture of friendship.
When Mom walked back through the neighbor’s door I remember how quiet she was, and how her shoulders sagged. She sat down gently next to me and I knew. “We lost the house. I’m so sorry.” I threw my self into her arms and sobbed. Emerald cried and hugged the doll. I couldn’t stop picturing my favorite doll, all tied up in my blanket, laying in the living room on fire. I’m sorry, Karla, I could have saved you.
The Red Cross got us a hotel room that night– all 7 of us in one little room. I explored the care package that some school students had put together as a community service project. I swapped super balls with my sister because hers was blue and mine was pink and I don’t like pink. 3 feet away my Dad sat in a chair in this cold and unfamiliar room and sobbed. He was still wearing our neighbor’s jacket and smelled of smoke. After 20 years of building we were months from a completed dream home. Months from my own bedroom, from a sewing room for Mom. Months from his being able to give us everything he’d always wanted us to have. An uninsured dream, irreplaceable. I watched my dad sob and my mom cry with him, her hand on his back. It was the most intimate I’d seen them in years.
Our house burned to the ground that day. Not like those pictures of charred frames and bathtubs akimbo. The fire burned so hot that we found hardened puddles of metal we were sometimes able to identify as one appliance or another, sometimes not. When I revisited the site months later I walked in the crunchy black shadow of my parents’ bedroom, where 4 of the 5 of us had been born, I kicked up the dirt under my school room and wondered if I’d find any melted remains of my favorite toys or books– then laughed at myself for thinking paper would melt. There was nothing left.