Last night, the sirens and horns of the fire engines reached into our neighborhood as I lay down trying to fall asleep. But instead of just fading away as they hurried to some accident on the highway or to help with a blaze somewhere else in the city, they just kept coming. Our dog howled along with them, part warning part wanting to help, we imagine.
Fire is one of the seasons now in the western United States. It rages burning acres by the 10,000’s every summer sending plumes of smoke into the air and it reaches into the beginning of the school year. We now have smoke days that will close schools, just as a snow day will and here in Reno, among the mountains we get both.
I’ve lived in the New England and seen a fair amount of nature’s power. Tornados, yes, we got those in Connecticut on more than one occasion. Hurricanes that took out houses on the shore and dropped trees on them and on power lines. We lived through blizzards and freak Nor’Easters that dump snow at alarming rates. Roofs have caved in on flat-topped buildings. Trees have snapped from the freezing temperatures and the weight of the wet heavy snow. We’ve lost power in the winter and you fear freezing, even though you know you can find help if need be. Yes, you still feel the primal fear that stalked our ancestors when nature shows its power.
But fire, no I should say, “Fire” is different, especially here, when things are so dry that even when nothing is burning, the air outside smells like kindling awaiting a match. As a reporter I’ve seen houses destroyed and families uprooted. People have died and been injured. And in the last few years, we’ve seen whole towns burned away in true conflagrations. It’s become a real fear.
So it was that instead of ignoring the sirens that I got up and peered out our window. But it faces south and there was nothing out of the ordinary. I sat down the bed thinking about how quickly a fire can move and what we would have to do to get out. How much time would we have if this thing was out of control? Which car would we take?
So I went down the hall, past the room where my son slept and down the stairs. I pretended to be confident and calm about the situation as I greeted my wife and explained I just wanted to see if I could figure out where the fire trucks were. So, still wearing some shorts and a ratty old t-shirt which passes for pajamas, I opened the front door and stepped outside. Immediately my heart rate ticked up a bit as I smelled the smoke and it was close.
It wasn’t like the smell of smoke that blows over the mountains from miles away in California. This was fresh. I don’t know if you’ll understand this if you don’t have Fire Season. But there is a difference. I walked down to the edge of our driveway and under the street lights, you could see the white and gray smoke drifting through them. I walked up the street and around the corner. Other people in the neighborhood also came out to find the source of the smoke. A young couple a few doors from us were also walking, one was on a cell phone to her mom and describing what she was seeing, making possible arrangements to get out.
About two blocks away, the smoke got thicker and billowed across the street and you could see the red fire engine lights reflected off the clouds of gray. It was the next street up.
I didn’t swear, it was too serious a thing. But I did come back into the house and tell my wife. We both started searching for information. But got nothing. We had the normal discussion, do we get out? Do we start to prepare to leave? Where do we go?
I finally took a drive up and around the the corner. By the time I got over there, the smoke was far less thick. The fire department had knocked it down and were continuing to attack the embers in the neighborhood just a street away from mine. I was relieved it was under control but I know someone over there was likely facing a night without a home and a lot of uncertainty about the coming months as they deal with the damage from this. I hoped no one was injured or worse.
It turns out one structure was lost, but two families were left homeless by it. Given how tightly packed the houses are in that neighborhood that it didn’t go beyond that structure is a testament to how good our firefighters are here.
I admit I felt silly and guilty about being so worried. But I also felt thankful. Thankful for firefighters who risk their lives and run toward the flames. And I worry about them as I worry about my own family as the storms of Fire Season continue to threaten us out here.