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In the Face of Flame
The fire. That is all that anyone has talked about for the past two days. The fire. How it started. When it will end. How fast it has spread; how many acres it has consumed. What they are trying to do to stop it. The hot weather and wind that make it difficult to contain. The smoke that has crept through every crevice and filled everyone’s lungs, that makes the air hazy and thick.
Which areas had to evacuate and how many houses are gone- “are you guys okay? Well, you are, right, because you got out in time. You got out before-” and then, each one of them stops and falls silent, not wanting to say it out loud. That would make it real, that our house has burned.
My dad nods. “We don’t need to worry about materialistic things. We got everything out that we need- my wife, my kids, and the dog.”
My mom smiles tightly, but both of their smiles have cracks.
Our clothes smell like a campfire, but no one is going to whip out the marshmallows and graham crackers. I feel like our hair is sooty and white from the ash. The fire is taking us in, too.
The entire city is cloudy with smoke. You can’t see ten feet in front of you. It’s the worst in the early morning and late at night. During the day the wind at least brings the cloud higher and the city can see the sun, taste hope. But at night despair creeps back in with the haze that settles, ever so slowly, over everything in sight.
We are all at the evacuation center, a school that’s on the edge of town. Near the mountains, but no longer near home, because home is nothing but blackened nothing.
In the day, my parents talk to the other adults. My brother sits, brooding, and says nothing. I watch the smoke cloud that rises higher and higher in the sky. It’s the sky of a war zone, and it is a war. A fight between man and nature.
It is the worst fire in the state’s history, and the fire that everyone has always been afraid of. The worst fire, because it is so large, and because it can go anywhere. Because it has already burned thirty houses and will burn more. Because maybe, just maybe, it could hit the cities that lie at the base of the foothills. The worst fire because no one can control it.
On the third day, the fire is still at 0% contamination. We pick up our suitcases, laptops, and photo albums and move into Aunt Carla’s house. She lives in the middle of town. The smoke is better here, but still no one goes outside. They are locked inside their houses with the windows closed during the day because if you can’t see the fire, you can almost forget about it. But at sunset, the windows and doors are flung open. Everyone takes out their phones and cameras and the cars pull over on the side of the road.
They take pictures and laugh and smile. “That smoke is so cool.”
And, lit up with the sun, the smoke is red and yellow and orange and blue and purple. It stretches across the horizon, as far as you can see. This fire has a terrible beauty. The beauty of a devil that consumes everything in its path. Nothing with this terrible beauty can come without a terrible price.
A week later, the fire is out. The national guard and the black hawk helicopters fly off to wherever they came from. A ban on fireworks is set, but everyone has forgotten about that, and it will not be an inconvenience until the 4th of July.
Life returns easily to its normal pace. The burn zone is cleared. Most of our neighbors do not want to return there yet, and maybe not ever. My mother included.
But not my father. He and I drive up. We hike up the road to home. What was once a beautiful landscape, filled with trees and grass, with the brilliant purple mountains and bright blue sky in the background, is gone. The mountains and sky are still there, but they do not seem as perfect when they are set against a foreground of black ash, burned sticks or remnants of trees, and singed grass.
We get to where our house was, before. Nothing but a pile of boards and a few bricks.
My father stares out at the nothing that surrounds us. He says nothing for a long time.
Finally, he speaks. “This is a reminder. A reminder of what nature can do. We think we are infinite, but we are not. Fire brought us everything, but it can just as easily take it all back. Because, in the face of flame, all man can do is run.”