Since you asked …

Since you asked (and because he’s such a lovely young thing) here’s a photo of Shadow, our new family member. He’s a black Labrador retriever, about 15 months old. He’s gentle, friendly to a fault and surprisingly quiet-natured for a Lab, even


though the only command he recognizes and responds to is “sit.” It works pretty well, actually, but he needs to learn a little more, I think.

Mr Wren picked Shadow out for himself, much like I did Finny, though of course we love them both. But Mr Wren has always loved, in particular, big dogs. He’s always had at least one for almost as long as I’ve known him, which is nearly 30 years now.

(Gulp) How time flies …

Shadow was actually Mr Wren’s second choice. His first was a black, 2-year-old Great Pyrenees-and-something mix – a gorgeous, pony-sized dog – but someone adopted him before Mr Wren could stake a claim. I’ll be honest; I breathed a private sigh of relief. Nice as that gigantic dog probably was, he was also simply too big for our little house. And then there’s the fact that the extra-large breeds tend to have relatively short lives; they rarely make it to 10 years old. Our next door neighbor Alison loves Irish Wolfhounds. They’re wonderful dogs – huge and gentle, and so goofy-looking with their big heads, long legs and scraggly hair. Sweet dogs, really. But in the almost 13 years since we’ve lived here, she’s raised five of them from puppyhood and grieved terribly as each one died after only a handful of years. I think the longest-lived one, Ian, was five when he passed. It was just so sad.

But I’m just delighted with Shadow. Finny likes him too, and loves to play catch-me-if-you-can with him, running around the house at 90 mph. There’s just one problem: Shadow, being a very young, adult but un-neutered fellow, sees Finny as a furry, teensy sex-toy, so they haven’t gotten to spend a lot of time together so far. Shadow will be relieved of his raging hormones very  soon, though. I think he and Finny McCool will be great friends.

What if?

Lene Andersen, who writes “The Seated View” asked a good question in her latest post. It was: “What would you take with you if your house was on fire and you only had 60 seconds to escape?” I’m paraphrasing, but that was the gist.

My flip answer? “I’d probably succumb to the smoke and flames trying to drag my mattress out with my laptop, external hard drive, and accordion file full of Important Documents hugged beneath my arms.”

A little further thought, and I added, “Oh, I’d try to grab the three cats, two dogs and Mr Wren, too. I’m doomed.”

In reality, I think I’d leave the mattress behind. It can be replaced. I would grab my laptop, external hard drive and the Important Papers, though, and I’d save all the beasties I could catch in the time I had (realizing that cats perversely refuse to be caught when it’s Very Important). Mr Wren most likely could save himself, but I hope he’d be helping me herd cats or something before the place fell in on us.

And everything else? While much of what’s in my house has sentimental value (collected over many years and from many places), and I have a few treasured, beautiful pieces of antique furniture from Europe I’d be heartbroken to lose, it really is just “stuff” in the end. Most of what I have is replaceable. And the stuff that isn’t? Well, I’d grieve, that’s for sure. But then I’d move on. Life is more important than stuff.

This is a matter that I’ve given plenty of thought to before, living in the tinderbox mountains of California as I do. To be honest, my private phrase for summer is “the fire months” because usually, from May through October, wildfires are imminent just about everywhere in the state. Drought years don’t help, of course, but even in years with normal precipitation and a good snowpack in the higher elevations, California is naturally dry, with very low humidity. Hardly any measurable rain falls during those months, and usually, the temperatures range from 80 to 110. Every single day.

See why I love rain and snow so much?

Fortunately, I live only a few blocks from our local fire station, and only a couple of miles from the state’s fire dispatch and staging center for my region. Even so, not a summer’s day goes by that I don’t hear sirens as firefighters zoom to the scene of another blaze, or the whop-whop-whop of low-flying helicopters passing overhead with huge canvas buckets dangling, headed for yet another water fill-up from the local reservoir.

It’s a mixed blessing, but California’s firefighters are incredibly swift in response to reports of fire. They put out thousands upon thousands of small blazes each year, most of them caused by lightening, sparks thrown by cars that kindle in the dry grass and brush at the sides of the roads, arsonists (grrrr boo hiss!) and, believe it or not, unfortunate turkey vultures that sometimes land on power lines, get electrocuted, and start fires when their flaming bodies fall to the dry-grass-covered-earth. Any of those small fires, if left a just a little longer, could turn into huge, grassland-and-forest-eating conflagrations.

I say our firefighters’ swift response time is a “mixed blessing” because it’s a bit sad that they get so much practice at it each summer. But that’s the reality, and I’m truly grateful for their hyper-vigilance and dedication.

Years ago, I covered a huge wildfire for the local newspaper. At the time, I was pretty experienced at the job. I’d been given some very specific training from the fire department I worked with most frequently — training that taught me how to stay safe as I cover wildfires so I wouldn’t inadvertently “become the story” (the journalist’s worst nightmare) or hinder the fire crews as they fought the blaze. I had no idea that the science of fires was so complex.

But nearly all the fires I’d gone out to up to that point were grassland fires. Some of them were quite large, but for the most part they have clear combat lines. Staying safe and out of the way wasn’t too tough.

This fire, though, was different.

Northern California chaparral

It got started in scrubby grassland, but it just happened to be a windy day. The wind and the geography sent that fire raging into the steep, mostly wild, chaparral-covered foothills. To those of you who live in the eastern half of the country, think “mountains,” not hills. Western chaparral land starts at between 1,500 and 2,500 feet in elevation; it’s a distinct natural feature in California. It’s made up of scrubby, bush-like vegetation such as manzanita, sage, buckbrush, live oak and chamois. At its higher reaches, it can include sugar pines. The chaparral’s understory is made up of dry, crispy, often thorny grasses and other small, seasonal plants that survive, year after year, on little water.

But the most important thing to know about chaparral is that most of the plants have extremely flammable resins in them. They practically explode into flames at the mere touch of a kindling spark. Some of them, like manzanita, have very dense, hard wood, too, so they burn long and with ferocious heat.

Nature makes them that way on purpose. The seeds of these plants and shrubs have such a hard outer covering that about the only thing that can crack them open – and thus, allow them to take root and grow – is fire. Hot, hot fire. Before California was overrun by people in the19th Century, just about the only fires that started in the chaparral were caused by lightening – and those burned out of control until they ran out of fuel. Chaparral plants depend on periodic wildfires to renew themselves.

What’s left behind is an almost sterile, blackened landscape. But the soil beneath the char is filled with just the perfect nutrients for the tough seeds to grow in. It’s truly amazing how quickly chaparral renews itself after the fire finally goes out and the winter rains come.

But back to my story.

This particular wildfire was started by a 14-year-old who was playing with matches in the middle of a dry field not far from his home (heavy sigh). Within minutes, the fire had raced through the grass and got into the surrounding chaparral. Urged on by the hot, dry wind of late summer, abundant fuel and the natural lay of the land, this fire moved so fast that even though it was reported quickly, it transformed into a monster and got away from the firefighters who first arrived on the scene.

By the time I got out there to cover it, the fire had climbed much higher up in the hills, devouring sugar pines and fir trees along with manzanita, buckbrush, low, twisted live oaks and understory grasses of the high chaparral. I parked my car in a relatively safe spot, far from the front lines of the wildfire, and hiked up the narrow, two-lane rural road toward it. I could see, in the distance, a scatter of fire apparatus. The air was hot, filled with smoke. My eyes instantly turned red and weepy. I was wearing the required bright yellow fire gear loaned to me by my firefighter friends, along with a Nato-blue helmet with “PRESS” in big letters on the sides. I was overheated and sweaty within moments of leaving my nicely air-conditioned car.

Along with smoke and ash, the air was filled with small, winged insects of every variety. Birds were everywhere, too, headed higher up the mountainside as fast as they could go, trying to escape the flames. It struck me then, as I walked up the road toward the firefighters, that it was strangely quiet. You’d expect to hear the birds chirping and calling to each other in a panic, right?

It was from within this otherworldly silence that I suddenly became aware of the real sound: the low, growling roar of the wildfire itself, voracious and all but unstoppable. I’d heard the roar and crackle of a wildfire before, of course, but this was different. This was deadly serious. I’ll never forget that sound; it raised my neck hairs and sent a surge of adrenalin rushing through me. You hear that sound and your caveman-instinct screams “Run! Run now! Run fast! Run for your life!”

I didn’t run, knowing I was relatively safe, but I picked up my pace – in spite of the heat and my stifling clothing. I am forever in held in awe over how firefighters work for relentless hours in their hot, fire-retardant gear; the stuff I had on was relatively light, compared to the thick, weighty canvas stuff they actually wear while battling nose-to-nose with a blaze.

As I drew closer, that creepy roar got even louder. Ash and cinders turned the bright, summer-blue sky dark as twilight. And then I saw the leaping, orange and yellow wall of flames, reaching up over the tops of the live oaks and sugar pines, an enormous, raging, mindless, living thing. It was the biggest wildfire I ever saw, It literally dwarfed the firefighters and apparatus far below it.

One of the photos a colleague of mine got that day was of a jackrabbit fleeing uphill through the tall grass, the wildfire approaching behind it. I wasn’t quick enough to get shots of the deer I saw, running in great, ground-eating leaps and disappearing into the thicker, forested slopes ahead of them.

I stayed as long as I dared, taking photos, interviewing random firefighters and a small knot of evacuating local residents. They watched the battle with their arms crossed tightly over their chests, their wide eyes red and running, their fear of losing their homes and everything they owned written large on their stricken faces. I’ll never forget that, either.

That particular wildfire consumed something like 45,000 acres of chaparral and forest-covered, steep hillsides. It took the fire crews – well over a thousand men and woman from all over the state – four full days and nights to extinguish it, and another week after that to find and put out the hundreds of leftover hotspots. The fire came within a few feet of several rural homes, but actually burned down only a single, remote outbuilding. Amazingly, not a single person was hurt. Many of the wild creatures that inhabited the area, however, were not so lucky.

Yep. I’ve thought about what I’d take with me if a wildfire threatened my house. I hope I never have to do it.

8 thoughts on “Since you asked …

  1. Welcome Shadow! He’s absolutely gorgeous! (and I’m still snorting about the teensy sextoy line…)

    I thought my mattress, as well – it’s so hard to get comfortable with fibro and I dread the day I have to get a new one. In the end, though, I realized I wouldn’t be able to carry it. 😉

    And that story is… wow. You described it so well, I got all sweaty.


  2. Handsome puppy – even more amazing story. I’ve never really thought about what I would take in a fire, perhaps because they are much more uncommon here in the Northeast. But, really, I think it’d just be the cats and my hubby. Everything else – computers, jewelry, wedding photos, etc. are important – but can either be replaced or live on in my memories. It’s actually kind of freeing to realize I’m not bound to the physical. And the more I think about it, the more I’m inclined to wonder if having RA gave me some of that perspective…


  3. What a great looking dog. I just love a labs personality. I adopted a black lab mix who looked like Shadow in her younger days. She is 12 now but still going strong.

    I was hiking around and on Mt Shasta years ago when there was a fire on the other side of the mountain. The smoke terrified me. I can’t imagine seeing the flames up close. If there was a fire in my house I would just grab the dogs and go. Things can always be replaced or fondly remembered.


  4. I have spent considerable time with CalFire and LACoFD and have published two novels about wildland fire in California –
    One Foot in the Black – a wildland firefighter’s story
    Red Flag Warning – a serial arson mystery

    I have some spectacular pictures of wildland fires, aerial tankers, and firefighters.

    Have a look. Thank You

    Kurt Kamm


  5. You wore me out reading this post.

    Welcome to Shadow to the Wren family. Nice to meet you.

    I like your “what if” response. I would be too busy screaming at my husband and kids to get out that I would forget the laptop. I sure hope Mr. Wren saves himself since you are busy dragging out the mattress, pets laptop, etc. You are the right, the rest is “all just stuff.”

    I hate the California wild fire stories. You would think they would run of grass, trees, etc. 🙂


  6. Shadow is beautiful! I am sucker for labs, grew up with one almost my entire life. I hope he gives you many a happy year!

    As the fire, wow, just wow. I have been to a total of one big house fire in my time on the ambulance and I know that wildfire are simply a beast of their own.


  7. Very nice looking pup there, Wren. And nice fire answer. I would grab the quilts I made, and my sons baby book and photo album, hoping of course that my hubby was grabbing my son. Though my hubby may want to take his humidor, so I better check for the son first!


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