Editor’s note: This is an occasional series by Mountain Ranch resident Jim Pesout in which he will write about the Butte Fire and its aftermath. Jim and his wife Ann lost their home to the fire.
The fire is an army, its front line marching relentlessly eastward, southward, outward, driven by wind, creating its own weather, fueled by years of drought-soaked vegetation, pampered by triple-digit temperatures. Chaotic and unforgiving, it marches on. Its strategy is simple: consume everything in its path that’s not protected. Hell unleashed.
Morning stretches into afternoon and I wander through my home approaching and avoiding the inevitable task at hand. My finger gently squeezes the trigger to evacuate, but not enough to fire. I’m in denial. This is not happening. I will just will it away. If I don’t think about it, how can it happen? The ash now thick on the deck suggests otherwise. The pale sky now an angry gray shouts down at me from above: We’re coming whether you believe it or not.
Still, I wait. My erratic heart pounds in my chest. My mind reels until I’m woozy. I sit down, stand up, walk outside, then back in. I stare at the closet door where a hamper full of canvas bags calls to me. A muffled cry comes from within. It’s time.
First, I call Ann.
“The important documents file, this year’s tax information, Sarah’s paintings.” She speaks as if she’s been making the list in her head all morning. “Pack what’s irreplaceable.”
Irreplaceable. Irreplaceable. The word reverberates so many times in my head I start saying it out loud. Irreplaceable, the evacuation mantra.
My mind and body now become one machine. If this army can’t be stopped, at least we’ll get as much as possible out of its path. The mantra returns: irreplaceable. Upstairs the files; hallway, the paintings; downstairs, the laptop. Grab the Rolodex. Upstairs, the hard drives, picture files, thumb drives. Remember the desktop. Family pictures. This one of my parents’ wedding. Our wedding, Trevor’ graduation ... oh, hell, take them all. The canvas bags start filling up. The phone rings. It’s Marcelle.
“How are you?”
“I’m packing. What’s up?”
“If you need a place to stay ...”
“Thanks. Maybe. Gotta go.”
Of all the things in the world I hate, rushing I hate the most.
I run to the garage. Make sure the car starts. Back it out. Point it down the driveway. The kids’ picture books, one, two … no time, take them all. Kids’ artwork. Cherished gifts. The mantra repeats: irreplaceable, irreplaceable.
The bags are full. Next are laundry baskets. Then paper bags. I scurry from room to room scanning every item. Take, leave, leave, take, take – no leave. I so want to do it right, but I’m on autopilot now, nanoseconds for every decision. It’s like being a teacher again.
Ann calls. “Take photographs.”
“No, photographs of the house. For insurance.”
“Gotcha. Gotta go. Call when you think of more.”
Just as the car fills up to the dome light, she calls back.
“Bring the camping stuff.”
I hesitate. “Why.” It’s more a statement than a question.
“We may need it.”
I want to disagree with her, but if there’s ever a time to not argue, this is it. Tent. Pads. Passenger seat full.
Taking pictures of the house seems so final, so pessimistic … a white flag waved before the army. This one’s vacant, it announces. Ready for harvesting. I want this packing up to just be a precaution, an exercise. Pictures feel like giving up. I unpack half the car and find a camera. The garage … click. The living room … click. The kitchen ... click. Click. I’m on autopilot again, archiving, recording the past, cataloging my life. I want to get one shot of the whole house so I walk down the hill and look back. Everything looks surreal without sunlight. Instead, a ceiling of smoke is lit from below, a smoldering wall of red hovers behind the house. My mouth hangs open, speechless.
Darcy reaches me on the phone that is hanging on the collar of my T-shirt.
“Get out now,” she says. “It’s right on you.”
I don’t look back as the now obese Subaru lumbers down the driveway. I don’t need to because I’ll be back. Mountain Ranch Road is a river of cars all flowing downstream, dim headlights to the left, red taillights to the right. An opening in the line of cars appears and welcomes me into the exodus, trucks overflowing, horse trailers, some with horses, some with whole households, car trunks tied closed against their bulging contents. We’re all crawling out of harm’s way. At the top of the switchbacks I crane my neck to look back over the hills and see flames in the near distance.
The invading army is taking no prisoners.
Jim Pesout is a retired high school teacher who lives in Mountain Ranch. You can reach him at email@example.com.