Column: When fire hits home
Growing up on the east coast, wildland fires were something we watched on the news that only happened out West. Fire wasn’t something we were used to living with.
When I moved out to Truckee almost two years ago, I quickly realized what a big deal fire season is, as small vegetation fires began springing up on a weekly basis during my first summer.
The biggest fire last summer crept up a steep slope off of Interstate 80 westbound near Floriston, and I stood watching firefighters attack the jumping blaze from my cozy perch near homes across the interstate. I watched in amazement as helicopters scooped large buckets into the Truckee River to drop water on the blaze. Planes were whizzing by, releasing that magnificent red retardant powder.
Later in the summer, my roommate Jamie and I were down in Reno running errands when Jamie noticed thick smoke rising into the sky in south Reno, where her parents live.
We drove to their house quickly, and as we became closer, we could see the fire but it was far from her parents’ neighborhood, up on what seemed like a distant hill. We arrived at her parents’ house, and we viewed the fire from their patio, which has an excellent view of southwest Reno, the Sierra foothills and Mt. Rose. When we looked through binoculars we could see the firefighters battling the small blaze. A helicopter was scooping water from a manmade pond at the next-door neighbors’ house. We waved at the helicopter pilot and he waved back. I couldn’t help but be caught up in the excitement, as if I were a stand-in in an action movie.
I had become a rubbernecker.
Just last Tuesday night, Jamie’s mom called us to tell us she was watching a fire on the same hillside behind her house, just like last year. An excited tone in her voice, she told us she could see flames that were 20 feet high. But she said the fire wasn’t near the house.
Ten minutes later, she called back to tell us they were evacuating.
I interviewed Jamie’s mom, Ann, a few days after last week’s fire.
Known as the Arrowcreek fire, the south Reno blaze apparently broke out late afternoon Tuesday from a lightning strike. Ann and Jamie’s dad, Chuck, watched the fire and saw it switch directions quite a bit. Suddenly, an unexpected thundercloud caused the winds to dramatically change direction. When they saw the fire heading straight for the neighbors’ house across the street so suddenly but no firefighters in the area, they called 9-1-1. It was 6:30 p.m.
“I had no clue it was that serious,” Ann said. “But we opened the front door and we could feel the heat. Chuck said, ‘we need to get out of here before we get trapped.'”
She watched the flames across the street.
“I just stood there … you’re not quite sure what to do … The heat was so intense,” she said.
Not prepared for an evacuation, Ann grabbed her purse, her cell phone and their German Shepherd, Taylor, and met her husband in the garage.
They tried to turn the sprinklers on, but they are on a well, and with the power out there was no water pressure.
They got in the car and drove down the hill.
“I looked back and I thought my house was gone,” Ann said. “I saw 10-foot flames just blowing towards the house.”
When they got a few streets down, sheriff’s deputies had arrived and were closing down streets.
“I sat in the car down there and said to myself, ‘I wonder what it’s going to feel like to just have my car, my dog and the clothes on my body.’ I would have to learn to face it.”
They found some of their neighbors and got out of the car to look up at their house -their dream home which they built just five years ago.
“I felt lucky. Everyone was a mess, we were all crying and hugging and trying to keep our morale up,” she said. “My daughters rushed over and I felt more connected.”
Most of the time, they couldn’t see what was happening up on their street – the smoke was too thick.
Their home never burned or caught fire. At 12:30 a.m., they were allowed to return to their home and begin a rather sleepless night.
All around their house the ground was scorched. Some trees in their yard were singed black.
“This was so last-minute,” she said. “The fire moved so fast. Now if a fire kicks up like that again, I will watch it. I was in denial this past time. I have so much more respect for fire. Like everything else, you think it’s not going to happen to you. I’d never been put in a situation like that.”
Ann said she’s glad for one thing: they have done their landscaping in a way that their home is not surrounded by total sagebrush. Their home passes the defensible space test. They are also well covered with fire insurance policy.
“What I would do differently is be ready,” she said. She had nothing prepared this last time. She said she will now put important belongings and paperwork in a fireproof box to be more prepared in an emergency situation like that.
It happened to people that are close to me. It could happen to any of us here in Truckee, and that is a reality that took me this long to realize.
(Abby Hutchison is the Sierra Sun’s senior reporter. )
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