THE FOUR-MIRACLE FIRE
He called my name in a way I’d never heard it before: “BABE! BABE!!” The voice was my husband’s, and it penetrated right through the bedroom wall that separates us from the outside, rose above the whirring sounds of our bedroom air purifier, and drowned out the Santa Ana wind blowing outside—a real gale.
What I heard beyond the word itself was horror and urgency.
Oh my God! Oh my God! What is it?
Within seconds I was out of bed, tearing through the room and straight out the nearby door that leads to the backyard.
And there, beyond our bedroom wing, I saw him: Rob standing with a hose in his hand. And all around him . . . FIRE! Fire in the trees behind and above him, patches of fire among pine needles on the ground, sparks--in that terrible wind--flying above his head. To me, a virtual wall of fire with Rob standing in the middle.
“Rob! Stop it!” I screamed. “Run!”
Instead he stood there, hose moving, but his feet cemented in place. I screamed again, but he never acknowledged me--ignored me as if I wasn’t there, or he couldn’t hear my voice.
Getting nowhere, I raced back into the house and grabbed the nearest phone. It was dead. I ran to another, and strangely this one had a dial tone. Heart pounding hard enough to kill me, I did what only a half-crazed person might do: I dialed 411.
All I got, of course, was an automated voice asking for city and state.
Oh, God! Oh stupid. Stupid.
Ever more frantic, I re-dialed, this time 911. “Our house is on fire!” I cried to the responding woman, and with a restored brain managed to give her the correct street address. Next I called my daughter, once more saying without preamble, “The house is on fire!”
Just then our doorbell rang insistently. Once. Twice. Fists pounded on the front door. “Your house! It’s burning!” cried the woman who stood there. Dimly I noticed she was a stranger, that she was thin and dressed all in black. “Get out! Get out now!” She leaned in to drag me out.
“I know! I know! My husband’s in the backyard, and he won’t leave.”
“You get out, then!”
But I was in my nightie, and left her standing there while I rushed back to our dressing room for clothes. In seconds I was wearing the nearest shirt, the most grabbable pants. Shoes in hand, I ran back to the patio. With every fiber in my being I screamed at Rob to leave, but he ignored me. His hose turned one way, then another, while more trees flamed and embers flew. And still he refused to budge.
More neighbors came and literally pulled me outside. One of them went out back and tugged on Rob—a useless effort. Meanwhile, on the front walk I was bent over, trying to put on my shoes, trying to breathe. Where are the fire trucks?
“My husband!” I gasped. “He won’t come!”
Our driveway was now full of neighbors, then a policeman . . . then, finally, three huge fire trucks.
It was the firemen, about fifty of them the newspapers said, marching to the back in their thick yellow suits that finally made Rob surrender his hose.
For hours I was furious with my husband, couldn’t stop being angry that he’d risked his life.
As a devoted group of us, neighbors and family, sat on a small retaining wall across the yard watching firemen douse the trees . . . an adjacent woodpile . . . a wooden fence . . . our wooden patio cover . . . and yes, the house, I could hardly speak to Rob. “Look at your shirt!” I cried, pointing to the charred holes across his shoulders.
“I shook a few embers out of my hair, too,” he said.
He stood up and paced restlessly, then told us, his small audience on the wall, how it all began:
“It was just before eight, and I was up, letting in the cat. Suddenly the cat stopped in the patio doorway and froze. All four paws were splayed, and he was staring toward the back. One long look and he streaked away. I wondered, What’s he looking at? A squirrel? But his reaction was so extreme, I took a second look and saw what he’d seen: a pine tree in back, near the fenceline, was totally aflame. The flames were headed down, lower and lower. Luckily, I had a hose on the patio, already turned on, and I rushed back there and began spraying.”
Rob’s efforts had clearly kept the flames from doing their worst.
Even as we watched the firemen, a sudden explosion of sparks sent them all jumping back. An electrical wire had fallen to the ground, and over by the bedroom wing the live wire had to be cordoned off with yellow tape.
Suddenly Rob said, “Babe! Tell the firemen to stay off the roof! They’ll break the shingles.”
I ran around to the front. Too late. Five yellow suits were already up top, stomping around and throwing off concrete shingles.
The man from Edison who arrived later to retrieve the live wire told us what had happened: thanks to the fierce wind, a huge tree branch had fallen across the wires, knocked one against another, and produced enough sparks to ignite the pine tree. The wild wind did the rest.
Later that afternoon we recounted the miracles: Miracle One: That the fire did not start at two in the morning, with both of us asleep. We might not have known until the flames were right outside our bedroom. Or even inside.
Miracle Two: That Rob was up early—usually he isn’t—and that the cat had flashed a warning.
Miracle Three: That Rob had a hose all ready and kept the house doused until the firemen got there.
Miracle Four: That our huge bedroom picture window and adjacent wing windows were all double paned. Directly confronted by flames from below and from blazing woodpiles six feet away, the outer panes shattered but the inner ones held. “If both panes had broken,” a fireman said, “the wind would have blown the flames straight into the bedroom, and down through the house. I doubt we could have saved it.”
As it was, for two days we had no water, no electricity, no gas, no internet, no TV, no workable solar panels. Worst of all we had no phone, and my cellphone did not work anywhere near the house and never has. Which meant we couldn’t call or be called by any of the dozen groups we needed to start restoring us to normal.
What we did have was a house in which every room in the bedroom wing reeked of smoke, making it too toxic to live in.
Thank God for our nearby daughter, Tracy, and husband Brad Hagen, who invited us to live in the “Hagen Hotel.”
Happily, our insurance company, State Farm, reached from Tracy’s house, responded immediately and with all the right people. They brought a contractor to drag away charred debris and a burned-up shed and fence, an interior crew who wiped down and cleaned every object in the bedroom area, including the walls, another bunch who took away all our hanging clothes to be cleaned, and yet another contractor who sealed off the bedroom area and set up an ozone machine which ran all night for two nights with the express purpose of killing odors.
A week later it was obvious that the rugs in that area needed to be replaced. The smoky smell had partially returned, meaning something was still giving off unlivable vapors.
It was Rob, though, who emerged as the original mixed blessing. For risking his life as he wielded the hose near our bedroom he was clearly an idiot. But for standing his ground and saving our home he was definitely a hero.