Last week our house just missed burning to the ground. From a glass half full perspective, last week our house was saved. I feel self-indulgent to even be focusing on it, because as I write this there is a raging fire in Northern California. Thousands and thousands of people have been forced to flee, hundreds of homes have been burned to the ground, people have died. Here in Utah, there are at least six active wildfires burning today. As my wife, Tami, noted this morning on our neighborhood walk in this valley-wide smoky air, “It seems like the earth is smoldering.” Yet in the midst of wildfires and national political chaos (where it seems like our country is divided into two acerbic camps who have no chance of understanding one another), our fire gave us the chance to experience a fabulously functioning local government and the generous and courageous actions of family and friends.
July 24this “Pioneer Day” in Utah. It is a state holiday and people celebrate with parades, picnics and fireworks. Because we live on an open mountain of grass that is always dry and combustible by July, we make a point of being home on July 4thand 24thjust in case someone’s fireworks get out of control. On the afternoon of this July 24th, Tami was home with all three of our grandchildren (ages 16, 14 and 13). They were here to do one of retired English teacher Tami’s summer lessons, this one called “how to write the five-paragraph essay.” They had just started the lesson when Tami noticed smoke coming up the hill. It was a fire that burned about 100 acres, sent many residents fleeing, injured three firefighters, came close to many backyards, and fortunately did not burn down any homes. The fire lit up a blue spruce in our yard like a torch, and while that tree was only four feet from our home, the sparks and ashes were kept at bay by the quick actions of our son, a neighbor and a bevy of Salt Lake City firefighters. We lost some trees and shrubs, had smoke in our house, and damage to our air conditioning and electrical systems — all minor issues in the scheme of what fires can do.
This event was terrifying; yet it also gave us a chance to experience the courage of family, the kindness of friends, and the high degree of skill of our local fire fighters. Here are a few observations on our experience:
-Between the time Tami first spotted the fire and the moment she and the grandkids were forced to flee our home, they had about 15 minutes to load valuables into our cars. The kids were calm, fast acting, and constantly trying to reassure their grandmother that things were going to be all right. When it came time to drive away, the 16-year old and the 14-year old drove the cars up the hill and away from the danger. (who knew the 14-year old could drive, but how he learned is a question we will save for another day….)
-Neighbors came running to our house to help. One helped get a hose on our burning side yard before the firefighters arrived. Another came into the house and helped organize what possessions to try to save.
-Our grandkids called their dads, both of whom came flying from across town. Our son, after running up the mile-long hill to our house because the police weren’t letting anyone drive up into the affected neighborhoods, got to our side yard before the fire crew and got a hose on the blue spruce as it exploded into a fire torch. Our son-in-law got here separately, had to run up that same hill, and helped calm down the family and organized the disaster clean up team once we were allowed back to the house.
-I wasn’t home when the fire started, and by the time I got to the bottom of our hill, the police weren’t even letting anyone walk up the street. I had to wait for two hours, and it was clear from news clips that were coming in that our house was endangered. While waiting there with 40 or so other frantic neighbors who wanted to get to their homes, their pets, their kids, I met many people who offered me water, a shoulder to lean on, a place to stay should we not be able to get back into our home.
-While I was waiting to get back up the hill, and back to my family (who were told to stay put in the cars at the top of the hill), my phone lit up with texts and calls from concerned friends and colleagues. One of my work colleagues, who was on the other side of the country, saw the news alerts and immediately texted me the security code to her home in an adjoining city in case we needed a place to stay.
-Events like these can also come with a sprinkling of humor. For us, the laughter came later that evening when we were allowed back into our home and we unloaded the cars. It was fascinating to see what the kids had saved. Computers, the contents of our safe where we stash some extra cash and our jewelry (who knew they knew the safe code, but again, a question for another day), Bert & Ernie from the toy room, lots of baby pictures, Lucy our dog, decorative Buddha statues, and all of our winter coats.
-We have a new appreciation for the value of local government. The importance of keeping things running gets lost in the 24 hour a day news cycle about all the dysfunction in national politics. However, our city rocks! Within minutes of the fire’s outbreak, fire fighters were on scene. Within an hour, there were probably 60 fire fighters on scene, along with helicopters dropping huge buckets of water from the air on the edges of the fire. That kind of response doesn’t happen without a ton of behind the scenes smart organization of city departments. Our Mayor called that night to see if we were OK. Our City Councilman came to our house the next day to see if we were OK and to inspect the damage. This is what government is all about — proper planning, excellent execution, and being present when your citizens experience problems.
-Over the next few days we cleaned up our house. It will take longer to get over the trauma of coming so close to losing this home we built 16 years ago. We are left with new appreciation for all those people who saw us in trouble and ran toward the fire, and us, to help.
Final glass half full observation: it was actually an anniversary present to us that our home was saved. July 24this not our only anniversary (see Why I’ve Been Married Eight Times ), but it is our first anniversary and the one we celebrate.