Though they couldn't pump water from their well, they had 10,000 gallons of water in a reserve tank to use for fire abatement. From this, they filled buckets of water in which to wet towels to use to beat out flare-ups. Heglin also mowed down his five-acre wheat field, one hundred or so yards from the house. Other areas of the house were already cleared and mowed. "The fire department comes and says, 'You need to keep the brush down and a certain distance from the house,' and I believe them, I always have. And so we have kept a perimeter, a defensible perimeter around the house."
The Mitchells had not kept a defensible perimeter around their house. Manzanitas, very flammable due to high oil content, grow right up against the house, which has board-and-batten siding, exposed wood rafters, and wooden eaves. Tinder-dry oak trees stand nearby. Tall dry grass stood in a pasture behind the house. But even after his wife evacuated, Brent wasn't worried. "I had heard that they were going to make a stand on Highway 78, and we're on the other side of 78 from where the fire was burning."
Though Brent wasn't worried, a close friend of the Mitchells, who happens to be a former 911 operator, was worried, and she decided to do something about it. "She was so worried about it," Brent says, "that she called the sheriff on Tuesday night to come out and check on me, and I thought he was going to arrest me."
"She wanted him to arrest you," Charlotte adds.
"I was in the house talking on the phone," Brent continues, "and I saw him coming with his spotlight, so I hung up real fast and hid under the workbench. But the workbench has a glass top, and I figured the light would shine right through it. So I went and hid in the bathroom, and the sheriff came around shining lights through the window, and he actually opened our back door."
But the deputy didn't search any farther. No deputy ever visited Smith and Heglin. "A Border Patrol agent came," Smith recalls, "and asked, 'Are you leaving?' We told him no, and he just wrote it down and continued up the road."
After a few hours of sleep Tuesday night, Brent made some coffee and took a mug of it to the tree house on the canyon rim. At 9:00 Wednesday morning, as he sipped the coffee, he saw the fire jump over Highway 78 southwest of his house. Though he had counted on the highway standing between him and the flames, he still wasn't too worried. "It wasn't very big," he explains. "Most of the flames only seemed to be about three feet tall, and every once in a while, it would hit an oak tree, and then you would get a 20-foot flame, but then it would die back down. It almost looked like it was just going to go out."
It didn't go out. The fire moved northeast up the canyon below the Mitchells' land, picking up speed and intensity as the morning wind grew. "I watched it for three hours," Brent says. "And all of a sudden, the wind changed from coming from the south to coming from the west, and the fire that was way over there, on the far side of the ridge, all of a sudden started coming this way, and it came up between Hubble's residence -- which is next to us -- and the Lises' just beyond. And that is where the fireman died.
"The five firemen from Novato," Brent continues, "had gone down about 100 yards into the canyon where the fire was. Whether they set a backfire or not, I don't know. But when the wind changed, and they saw the flames coming toward them, they all turned around to hightail it back up to the house, which I thought was kind of weird. But I've heard they are trained to go inside the structure and hope the fire roars over them, and then they can come out. Well four of them made it up there into the house but then realized Mr. Rucker wasn't there. Well, in order to get up into the house, you have to climb up three steps, and then there is a patio, and then you go into the door. They found him on the patio."
After the "wall of flames," as Brent remembers it, reached the canyon rim at the Lis property, two parcels north of the Mitchells', it turned south "and started coming this way. And that is when I decided I had to move. Charlotte had taken the camper full of stuff, but we had also packed a car full of artwork and so forth, and I told her that I would drive it someplace safe. So I got into the car and drove it down to the end of our driveway, and there were some fire marshals and three other men who had 'INFORMATION' written on the back of their jackets. I think they were press because one guy had a microphone in another guy's face, and there was a third guy moving around with a camera. Anyway, I said, 'I need help, my place is burning,' and I said, 'Where is the air-tanker support?' and the marshal told me, 'Well, sir, we don't have enough visibility today,' and I looked up, and it was blue skies above us."
Brent drove his car down Orchard Lane and parked it at a neighbor's place where Orchard meets Highway 78. Figuring that fire officials wouldn't let him walk back up Orchard to his place, Brent decided to walk it overland. "So I came up through the woods, back through the fire. By then, the main wall of fire had passed through. But everything was aflame and burning like mad."
Having been gone about an hour, Brent got back to his house and was amazed to find it still standing. The fire had burned around it on both sides. A row of interconnecting manzanitas near the house had all burned except for the one against the house. A plastic pickup truck-bed liner lying in the driveway ten feet from the house was incinerated. A fiberglass stepladder standing next to the house was severely scorched. Though the tree house burned down, and the old streetcar -- with $10,000 worth of sheet glass and art supplies inside of it -- was reduced to a pile of twisted steel and molten glass, all three cabins were unburned, and one blackened spot on the siding was the sum of damage the house endured. "Why this house is still standing," Brent shakes his head in disbelief, "is amazing."