Disclaimer: I did not take any of the following photographs. The photographs were all taken by volunteer firefighters from this and surrounding counties.
Out in the country there are no “local channels”. We have a newspaper but that’s about it. If you shell out for cable television you will be watching the news and the weather belonging to the nearest big city. If you want to know the weather out here you listen to the frost forecast on the radio and look at your thermometer on the porch. If you want to know the news out here you talk to your neighbors. The system works most of the time. A wildfire is the exception. That’s when you wish you had some broad sweeping alert system to let people know where it is, where it’s headed, and whether its anywhere near contained.
I first learned there was a brush fire when facebook placed a certain post in my feed. It was a neighboring town’s volunteer fire department page and they had posted they were requested to assist a neighboring town’s firefighters with a brush fire that was building. Both towns were adjacent to mine. My interest was peaked so i started searching for all the surrounding towns facebook pages. They had all posted about being en route to support the volunteer fire department in the town that had put out the distress signal. We hadn’t had much rain so the grass was dry but the main problem was that a cold front was in the process of blowing in. 40 mph gusts forecasted all day long. In the city, when something’s on fire the fire fighters hook their hoses up to fire hydrants and have an unlimited supply of water to combat the flames. In the country, each house is likely supplied by a well in the ground that utilizes a pump to provide a small amount of water at the time the faucet or spigot is turned. If the pump can’t keep up with the demand, one might have to wait a few seconds for it to catch up before turning on the faucet again and asking for more water. Hill country firefighters are relying on trucks carrying tanks of water to combat the flames. I have a lot of respect for them. They still get the job done. They just have to be a little more precise and a little more creative. Though i have great faith in the volunteer firefighters of all our surrounding towns, i do know that if a fire gets a head start and has wind on its side…it may eat through a vast area of wilderness before containment is achieved. Seeing as the brush fire was one town over, i hoped the firefighters would be able to make some good headway. I looked out at all the fruit trees i was nursing along under constant attack from the grasshoppers. I had 11 oranges about to ripen on the tree. The mulberry, pear, and pomegranate trees had just sprouted a crop of brand new baby leaves after the hoppers had chewed em down to bare bones. The chickens were huddled at the fence in their pen, asking for food even though they had some already. The poison ivy i was constantly trying to kill was creeping back up the trunks of my two 150 year old oak trees. The sumac tree leaves had begun to shift to red for the autumn season. I hoped those men and women from all the surrounding counties would have some luck and i said a prayer for them as i watched the dogs play in the grass.
As i picked through the information provided by my weather radio and a phone app i realized the firefighters would have a window to gain some ground once the sun set. The wind was supposed to die down overnight. The weather radio predicted that the winds would shift around sunrise the following morning and pick back up in the opposite direction. Currently, the fire was one town over and moving away from me. However, if winds were to shift, whatever was still burning at sunrise could then be headed our way. My hopes were hinged on the firefighters putting out the flames overnight.
I went about my day, keeping an eye on the facebook pages of surrounding volunteer fire departments for updates. I cooked as much food as i could out of the weekly produce. It would be a shame to waste it if we had to leave. Around sundown i went out to get the dogs. They were both absolutely filthy. As they climbed the porch steps i chastised them for rolling in the dirt. I couldn’t believe how thoroughly coated they were. It was a fine layer of dirt from snout to tail on each dog. I thought, “Now that’s talent.” I reached down to brush the dust off of Cashew. It didn’t shed as easily as i had hoped and when i pulled my hand back up to grasp the doorknob, i recognized the smell of smoke. They hadn’t rolled. They were covered in a fine layer of ash. When i took my hair down before bed i found that i too smelled of smoke. It was then that i began considering how close the fire was.
We were near the fire but our neighboring town was on fire. I started thinking about the property owners, their animals, their trees…what a horrible day for high winds. I hoped that they were able to evacuate and take the animals with them if not set them free.
The last update posted at around 10 pm. Then, radio silence. I could not find any additional information on the fire. Most of the people i chatted with had no idea it existed, the radio station made no mention of it, and the texas wildfire website was un-updated and blinked the same stats on repeat. Though my ankle had healed miraculously quickly, it soon became apparent that i had broken a couple of toes. No biggie. Buddy-tape, ice, elevate, and try to heal them as much as possible before duty calls….then throw that plan out the window, take an aspirin, and suck it up. But, in an effort to heal the suckers as much as possible while i still had the opportunity, i was moving gingerly. This meant throwing an evacuation together last minute would be pretty slap-dash and bare bones. I started thinking about what i couldn’t live without. The dogs. Daisy, my favorite chicken. I cleared out the trunk of the car to be able to load the dogs quickly if need be. I knew there wasn’t any local news so an evacuation would likely consist of a sheriff knocking on the door and telling people to go. I went to the shed and got an old cat caddy and placed it by the door. In the event of an evacuation i would open the coop, grab Daisy, stuff her in the cat caddy, put her in the backseat of the car, and leave the door wide open for the rest of the chickens to escape. I didn’t have 5 cat caddies and i couldn’t have 4 chickens flying around the steering wheel and shitting on everything while i tried to navigate us out of the path of a fire. I also knew it would take time to wrangle the rest of them. Only Daisy would come willingly. The others were wary of me and viewed me as “food dispenser” rather than “mom”. After i had spots made in the car for the important things; things with heartbeats, i started thinking about what else would be nice to have in the event that we had to leave quickly. I figured, if we had to start over, i’d need my tools. I grabbed my toolbox and put it in the trunk up against the seat back. I grabbed my meds and the dog meds and threw them in a trash bag. My bible with the years of highlighted passages and notes written in. My book of wise quotes i had collected and recorded for the past 8 years. My favorite machete was a must. My dream catcher i’d had for nearly two decades. For some reason i grabbed my collection of 84 dvds that i thought were the best movies of all time and left my prized collection of national geographic vhs tapes and magazines. I think what it came down to was that it was impractical to try to fit them all in the car, and the dvds were quick and easy to grab. I grabbed my grandmother’s music boxes, my sister’s bowls and chopsticks sent from japan, and my patchwork quilt box. I grabbed as much natural medicine as i could carry and dumped it in boxes which i loaded in the car. I put my jewelry box in the back seat. I put my night retainers in my mouth. It would get expensive to have those redone. There were so many things that i should have attempted to pack but i didn’t. I was trying to make as few trips as possible to allow my toes to heal and be ready to go if necessary. I figured, bottom line, if i got out with two dogs and a chicken i ought to be mighty thankful with just that. They were the important cargo that the car would carry away. I then realized that i had less than half a tank of gas in the car and began having flashbacks to hurricane Harvey. I had thought there was little to no chance of it coming far enough inland to affect us so i did nothing. Then i ended up walking to work because i couldn’t find gas to put in the car. I realized that it didn’t matter if the disaster was at your doorstep or way on the other side of the state…if there was talk of a disaster, all would panic and hurry to the gas pumps in droves with lawn mowers, gas cans, and even water jugs. I decided it best to go fill up the tank just in case. I left the dogs in the house and went to get gas shortly after midnight. Then i parked the car right outside the house with the windows cracked to keep the contents from overheating at dawn when the sun hit the car. I took the lock off the chicken pen for easy access. I went inside and tried to sleep. All i could think about was the brush fire. I wondered how the firefighters were doing…if the lighter winds were helping, and if they were calling for more backup or calling it a night. Nothing online was updated. The emergency weather radio made no mention of the fire. I prayed that they put the fire out, closed my eyes, and caught a few hours of sleep. In the morning the skies were clear. I couldn’t see any smoke from where i stood. There was no ash on the dogs. I figured all of this was a good sign. I waited for an update but no such update ever came. As the hours ticked by i began reaching out to people who i knew drove that way to get to work. I asked if they’d heard anything about the status of the fire. Was it contained? Nobody had heard anything. At nearly 4 pm i called the fire department myself and asked. The guy that answered informed me the fire was out. It took me a good hour to unload my life from the car but it was the happiest activity i had engaged in for a long time. It meant the threat was over. It meant false alarm. It meant the trees wouldn’t be charred and crispy. It meant the chickens wouldn’t be lost, and my mother wouldn’t be frowning as i tried to convince her to smuggle Daisy into the upstairs bathroom of her trendy city condo. It meant the hundreds of national geographic magazines would have their pages browsed again. It meant my sister’s home-made curtains would not see flames. I was so happy to unload that car, it hardly even seemed like work. As i walked back and forth from the car, the house, and the shed, i couldn’t help but wonder if there was a better system to keep track of hill country wildfires. The fire had been contained for hours while myself and friends and neighbors wondered about its status. So much confusion…so much anxiety…so much doubt about whether to prep or not to prep. I decided, the emergency weather radio really should stretch to cover wildfires as well. Who do i talk to in order to get that done?
Note: Though i am relieved the fire fighters were able to put the blaze out before it affected our land, in the end 90 acres burned and many landowners aren’t having as good a day as we are. My heart goes out to them and they are definitely in my prayers. When you put your blood and sweat into a piece of land and it starts to bear the fruit of your efforts…to lose it is a devastating blow.