This ceramic woman’s bust, of beautiful proportion, has always been one of my favorite works of art. This is my angel in the rubble.
  • This ceramic woman’s bust, of beautiful proportion, has always been one of my favorite works of art. This is my angel in the rubble.
  • Image by Alan Decker
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On October 25, 2003, I go outside to touch base with the night sky and feel the air before retiring to bed. Tonight feels different. A Santa Ana is brewing and I smell smoke.

I come back inside through the creaky kitchen door, releasing the knob too soon, and the glass pane rattles as if it will break. My husband Kent says a neighbor called. They smell smoke.

Our 1920s two-story cabin is nestled in an oak-studded box canyon, located about a mile due north of San Vicente Lake.

"Yeah, I do too," I say, "and there are hot and cold pockets in the air outside, which means the east wind is on its way." Kent grew up on the East Coast and is not as familiar with the natural omens of our area. Our 1920s two-story cabin is nestled in an oak-studded box canyon, located about a mile due north of San Vicente Lake. There's only one way out of this valley that cradles five houses belonging to the four generations of our family that have lived here: three dwellings at the end of the canyon (Mom's house, my sister's vacant dome, and my old trailer with an add-on), my grandmother's cabin (a quarter-mile out the road), and our own paradise across the creek.

The author, Chi Varnado. "Can we hurry up and go? It looks like the fire is coming!"

There's only one way out of the valley.

At 3:00 a.m. a ridge-sitting neighbor calls.

"Chi? Do you know about the fire? It's going to get us.... You may be all right, but we're up on top. We're going to get it. This is it."

An arm from the Paradise fire has started to reach around us from the north.

I hear her words and feel the need to go to where there's a decent vantage point on this fire. Though I turn on an old flashlight, I can barely see the ground in front of me. After fumbling with the car's resistant door handle, I drive out our dirt road and up a neighboring ridge. I park on an overlook and get out of the car. By now the warm wind has begun to carry the daunting smell of a forest fire. I lean against the car and watch the fire-brightened sky in the distance. The first flames burn over the far ridge, and the hairs on the back of my neck rise. A bright orange snake slithers along the mountainscape as it heads toward San Vicente Lake. I'd better go hook up the rig and load our livestock before my car gets blocked in on top of this mountain.

Construction crew, July 2004. "Our family is living in two tiny trailers, and it's pulling us apart. I really need your help!"

I find Kent still in bed and convince him to get up and moving. I'm amazed at the calm in my voice. "Could you hurry and hook up the patio hose to the roof sprinkler? I'll turn on the yard sprinklers and -- oh crap..." The flashlights are dead, so I put new batteries in them. I call my sister. "We're starting to evacuate. Did you know there's a fire?" She doesn't know. I call her again about moving her old horse from up the canyon.

Construction finished, May 2007. Kent appears with plates of baked salmon and salad, along with a bottle of wine.

Kent holds a flashlight and guides me as I back the truck to the horse trailer. We crank the trailer tongue down over the ball. I fumble with the emergency brake wire, weaving it through a clip dangling from under the truck, then cram the electrical plug into the receiver. We run up to the barn, yank open the door. I stand there dumbfounded for a few seconds, trying to figure out what tack to take. A wave of déjà vu crashes over me. I wonder if this will be a dry run, the way all our other evacuations have been. I shove a saddle and a couple of bridles into Kent's arms and scoop up another two saddles to load into the back of my old Toyota wagon. We carry more armloads out and throw them into the car, until there's no more room except for two laundry baskets full of photo albums I snagged on my way out of the house. We'll hold off loading horses until daylight, if possible, to avoid trailering problems.

The knot

I check on the roof sprinkler, only to find that it needs manual assistance to get it to oscillate. After removing the screen from an upstairs window, I climb out onto the roof. I stand on tiptoes, slipping on the loose, mossy cedar shingles, and reach up to turn the head a few times. I get soaked in the process. Finally, the dang thing decides to work on its own. I climb back in through the window.

Kent, our ten-year-old son Chance, and I hurry out to catch the horses as it begins to get light. My sister drives past to get her old horse. My teenage daughter Kali goes off to help her. We lead our nervously snorting horses down to the rig and stroke their necks, saying, "It's okay now." I load the two horses first, because I know the donkey will be trickier. We tug, heave, even try lifting her feet into the trailer -- all standard donkey-loading procedures -- to no avail. By this time the smoke is billowing over the mountains, and I cry, "Bailey, you either need to get in now or you're gonna have to stay here!" Fortunately, she decides to be a smartass, and within a minute she's in the trailer and we close the door.

"Can we hurry up and go? It looks like the fire is coming!" Chance's quivering voice conveys more than his words.

We pull out of there, leaving Kent to load the goats and dogs. We are taking the horses ten miles across town to my sister's house.

About a half mile down the road, a woman is waving her arms for me to stop.

"Do you have room for my horse?" she asks.

"No, I'm sorry. I'm full."

"What do I do?"

"You wait until you absolutely have to leave, then turn him loose."

An hour later, Kali and I are on our way back to the cottage. Flames leap down the canyon walls. The smoke is thick and black. The truck barrels in the dirt road. As I turn the rig around, Kali jumps out and disappears through the smoke to rescue my uncle's cat from the garage behind Grandmother's house.

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