I yell, "Just open the door and come right back!"
"No, I'm going to get her!"
Out of the truck now myself, I run up toward the field. I see unfamiliar faces, one in a gas mask, helping Kent load goats into the camper. The strangers yell, "We gotta get out of here. Now!" I scramble to open the chicken pen and the goat gate, because the two younger non-milk goats are too scared to let us catch them, and they have to be able to get free.
Meanwhile, Kali is crawling along the floor in the smoke-filled garage, trying to find the cat. I'm worried, but I have to drive the empty rig out, since it's blocking the road. I tell Kent, "Don't leave without her!" A neighbor jumps into my truck. In the cloud of dust behind us, I see Kali. She's trembling, clutching the cat in her arms.
I drop off my passenger in a neighbor's yard. I am relieved to see the camper following behind. Kent had already brought out Kali's truck, and his van, crammed with four of our dogs. There should've been five, but in the commotion no one has noticed. Kali lifts the cat into her truck and drives to my sister's house.
We now begin our relay race out with only two drivers for three vehicles. We manage -- Kent's a runner. We both gag and cough from the smoke burning our throats. As we leave our canyon, flames, shooting a hundred feet high, blaze down the mountainside toward the Fernbrook houses.
When I was a kid, this old two-story cabin, down the dirt road from where we then lived, enraptured me. An artist had built the cottage during the 1920s, nestling it into the hillside, and the place oozed charm. No two rooms were constructed on the same level. Rockwork in the patio led the way to a cistern on top of a boulder behind the house. If I was having a particularly tough day, I would venture down here with my dog and guitar and enjoy the peaceful setting. At that time, no one lived full-time in the cabin. It belonged to several families who retreated there a few times a year. Huge live oaks shaded the house and front yard.
In 1992, Kent and I bought our paradise and moved out of my old trailer/house that I'd built on Mom's property. It's funny how things come around. I'd always felt the cottage was my house, and now it was. It became a kind of heaven when my better half fell in love with it too.
Unfortunately, the place had changed hands over a couple of decades. Subsequent renters trashed it. To say there was a lot of work to do on this fixer-upper would be a gross understatement; a "Condemned Notice" was posted on the kitchen door. The toilet had been ripped out of the bathroom, leaving a gaping hole in the floor. The concrete bathtub was unsightly and cooled water and buns much too quickly. I scoured the tub with muriatic acid and painted it navy blue with epoxy paint. Daylight could be seen through the cracks in the walls, so we added plywood, then painted the room antique white with blue trim.
The house sat precariously on a thin rock-and-mortar stem wall -- classic Craftsman style. The back patio sloped into the living room through the rotting French doors. The Douglas fir floor was decayed and sagging. We beefed up the living-room floor with foundation supports. We dug ditches and laid pipe. We painted until our arms ached and we made innumerable trips to the dump. Anyone else would have torn the place down. But even if we'd had more money, we still would have worked with what was here. Simplicity and making do with less has always fit us.
Former owners had painted over old cowboy paintings on the dining room walls, which I knew about from childhood escapades. A friend and I applied a special solvent and removed one layer of paint at a time. We tipped the can of solution onto wadded-up rags and rubbed the edges of the pictures, working our way inward. Through several layers of paint, we uncovered cowboys flying off bucking broncos onto cactus plants. These paintings were not extraordinary, but they were rugged, free-form illustrations that had become part of the house. They belonged here. It is said that San Diego landscape painters would come up the mountain to paint this house.
An arm from the Paradise fire has started to reach around us from the north. For days we've been on alert to the possibility of evacuating from my sister's place. There are four fires burning now, eating up vegetation and dwellings. Authorities fear that the fires might connect and overwhelm the entire county. We sleep hesitantly, looking out the camper window at the glowing horizon. The kids stay in the house, while Kent and I lie on our bed in the camper, over the truck cab. We can see out to the mountains toward our place. "I wonder if this is what a volcano looks like," I say.
Two days after evacuating, Kent and I decide to go home without the kids. We park the van at the top of Mussey Grade, because the police won't let us drive down. Flames are still burning the brush behind the homes at the top of the grade. The smoke chokes us. We each carry water and a bag of nuts and hoof it down the road.
We make our way into the canyon. Trees and bushes are still burning all around us, but at a slower rate, as the bulk of the fuel is gone. The first house we pass, an old rock dwelling called the Fernbrook House, stands within its smoking surroundings. Up the hill and off to the left is a new house that seems to have escaped the fire, but several neighbors have lost their homes.