On Friday, June 21st, I received a text from a friend, Pat, who said, “If you’re still in the cabin, get out now!”
To be honest, I rolled my eyes, sighed, and responded with, “Everything’s okay. Don’t worry!”
The night before, I had checked the official fire reports. At that time, they said the flames had just crossed the Great Divide and the fires were spreading to the north and south. Since they were west of us, I wasn’t too worried.
I live in South Fork, and we had been hearing exaggerated stories about the West Fork Complex forest fires for several days. It seemed that the smoke not only filled the skies, but it fueled the imaginations of many of our neighbors and friends. At one point, I had heard that Del Norte had been evacuated and that South Fork had been completely destroyed. I didn’t take it too seriously because I had just left South Fork and was sitting in Del Norte when I heard it.
And then I got a call from my niece, Shawna. “Uncle Phil, you need to get out of the cabin. This is serious!”
We had lost a close member of the family the day before, and I didn’t want her to be worrying about me, so I assured her that I was on my way to see Sandra and Tim, my sister and brother-in-law. Shawna didn’t seem satisfied by that, but she accepted it and hung up.
A little later I got the third phone call. It was from a friend who works at Adams State, and she told me that the university had opened the dorms to evacuees. “Shawna called and said you didn’t seem to be taking it too seriously. I’m talking to these people, Phil, and I don’t think they’re exaggerating! Get out of there!”
That was about 8:30 a.m. and I discovered that we were to evacuate South Fork by 10:00. I told myself that everything would be fine. It would just be like I was going for a short visit, so I threw some clothes in a suitcase and got ready to leave. Then I realized that I needed to work on my new book and a couple of classes, so I grabbed a thumbnail drive, transferred the necessary information from my computer, jumped in my car, and headed down the hill.
Just as I passed the roadblock stopping people from going up to South Fork, I realized I had left the thumbnail drive in the computer. That’s when I realized that the cabin might not be there when I returned, and I started thinking about all the things I could lose.
Sometimes people ask, “If you had to leave your home in an emergency, what’s the first thing you would grab?” Now that I knew my answer, I was a little embarrassed. I realized how much the precious little mementoes I left behind really mean to me. If I had to, I could eventually buy another computer and television, but I would never be able to replace the bust of Edgar Allan Poe that a good friend made for me, or any of the pictures I left behind, or . . .
But there was no going back.
I followed the news reports about the fire, holding my breath and praying that the community would be saved.
Last Friday, we were told we could return to South Fork. At first, I thought I’d stay with my parents through the weekend, but I couldn’t wait that long. I decided to come home Sunday.
Each day since I’ve been back, I sit by the river listening to the water flow by, and think about all the brave firefighters who risk their lives to protect us. Those who were lost in Arizona serve as a reminder of just how dangerous their jobs are.
I find myself being much more appreciative of all the little treasures I’ve accumulated over the years: my books, gifts from close friends, and dozens of silly little things that carry special meaning for me.
Like the small, ceramic elephant that sits on my computer. I like to tell my students that my muse looks like an elephant and sits in a big easy chair until I find a way to coax him out of it. One of my students was from Thailand, and the elephant is a symbol of good fortune and prosperity, so he gave me the statue to help coax my muse out of that easy chair.
Like the song says, it’s good to be back home again.