Photography by Scot Facer Proctor and Andy Proctor.
Was it only last Tuesday when I had to stop for a moment on our morning walk to say to Scot, in a rush of joy, “I think we live in the most beautiful spot on earth.” Alpine, our little village, is in the embrace of green mountains on three sides, and on this day with the sky so blue, the peaks soaring, and the pine trees marching up the steep cliffs, it fed the soul of this desert girl. Only those from a desert, where trees have to be carefully watered, to survive their young life, can know the value of a mountain graced with pines.
Only a few hours later my children came rushing with the word I suppose we should have been expecting. Fire! The American West has been a tinderbox this year, with daily accounts of new fires and grasses exploding in flames. We hear of acreages burned and homes lost with a kind of dazed numbness. Too much to understand, to really comprehend, until you are the one who stands utterly helpless, directly in the path of fire.
Of course, we’d known that a drought clutched us. The dryness seemed to undulate off the ground in waves and the air itself was sucked dry of life. Yet, only some of us understood how dry those grasses and vegetation were that ambled near our homes, ready for a spark to ignite.
Out in the road, facing north, I had a clear view of the fire that had been started inadvertently by a backhoe. Was it a spark or a hot engine against dry weeds? I don’t know, but in an instant a fire leaped to life, billowing skyward, and growing with a roar as if it had been a genie in a lamp contained for too many years.
Then in minutes the fire had boomed out of control, growing like a hungry fiend, waves of heat and smoke, that traveled up the slopes of Box Elder peak starving for fuel. Our neighbors and I stood in the road in a bewildered horror watching the inferno grow and feed on our mountain. It traveled with the skilled ease of an Olympic runner to the next mountain north, not malevolent, just simply indifferent to the pleas of our green mountains.
It was out of control in minutes as a hot wind fanned its voraciousness and we watched. We saw it char the trails we hiked every morning, turn stands of pine into black scars, slashes of ugliness across the face of our mountain. We worried. Talk erupted of the highest home we could see on the hill, “The Patterson’s house must be gone.” “How close is this to the church?”
We shook our heads in disbelief, suddenly feeling closer to each other. We watched as if mesmerized, hypnotized by shock. We could not turn our eyes away. I was grieving the scene that I had exulted in that morning that was now only ashes. But more than shock or horror or disbelief was the utter helplessness of standing in the path of a fire. You cannot will it away or explain that this is not convenient or pit your strength against it. You are vulnerable, up against a force you can’t control.
At first, since it rolled up the mountain foothills barely north of us, we wondered if we would be spared. The wind seemed to be going up the mountain and a little north, but that idea was a fool’s paradise, for soon we could see it boiling to the top of the saddle just above us and less than a couple of thousand feet away. That was the end or our street and an even more dire threat to the only two streets above, between us and the mountain.
I told myself if the fire came over that saddle, it was time to evacuate. Unfettered, the fire churned closer. Our little band of neighbors began to move. It was time to pack. Hating to turn our back on the fire (as if facing it were any help), I ran into the house and called our grown children down from the roof where they had been watching.
Pack as if you’ll never see any of this again, we called out to each other. We had to be fast and we learned quickly what mattered-photos, family history, our hard drives with precious journals on them. I grabbed a file of my mother’s writing, the only copy of these private scribblings we owned. We didn’t consider taking any things-even our treasures. Things suddenly didn’t seem to matter.
Of course, we had been praying constantly-for ourselves, for our neighbors, for our beautiful mountain. Now, in a family circle on our knees we pled with the Lord to quench this fire, so indifferent to the houses it was roiling toward. It was in the middle of that prayer we heard the insistent knock on the door and the message, “Mandatory evacuation.”
Our neighborhood happens to be a dense pack of Mormons, and of course, those less threatened rushed to help others, all of whom felt like family to each other. On every side many hands were loading many cars.
We had a car in which a teenager daughter had left the lights on and run down the battery parked in the garage, and we had to stop, get the jumper cables, and jump it before we left. We knew it was dangerous to leave a car, full of fuel, in a garage with a fire coming.
We drove down to the middle of Alpine and looked back at our mountain. Now one of the peaks was so encircled by angry, orange clouds, it could have been a volcano.
As we talked we marveled as that two of our children had had dreams just that week about fires raging out of control.
This was July 3rd, and evacuated, we first went and got pizza from the Red Cross, looking for more information, and then stayed away, calling in constantly to get updates on the fire.
The next night for our July 4th celebrations, we were allowed back into our homes. Across the street to the east, our neighbors couldn’t return and a police car with lights on barred the way up the road heading east toward the mountain.
In this dark night, the fire was still raging on the mountain, now directly above us. It had burned on the north to a few football fields away, and my daughter, looking through her window, at the necklace of golden fires that ran up the mountain posted on her facebook that is was not the kind of view that gave you sweet dreams.
Our fire had now been classified as a Type 2 fire, which meant it was being fought with the additional resources of the federal government, but they could do nothing in the night.
Often, the fire would catch yet another pine, and the raw flames would leap a hundred feet into the air, lighting the night more than any firework.
Those of us who were back in our homes had exceptional firefighters to thank. When the fire first started fire engines rolled in bearing the names of one different municipality after another on their vehicles. Airplanes, defying caution, flew close to the mountainside to lay down a ribbon of orange fire retardant. The steady thrum of helicopters bearing a payload of water or a group of fire fighters to drop on to the mountain became our steady background noise. At one time or another about 800 firefighters made their way to the mountain to fight our demon.
“Oh, please,” we prayed, “quench the devourer for our sakes.”
A friend couldn’t sleep at night, knowing that firefighters were finding so little rest. They were digging out a fire line behind the homes that were built so fiercely close to the foothills, now vacated and dark. They sprayed their roofs with water, drowned their walls. Fire trucks lined the roads ready to save a dwelling. Some of the firemen hadn’t slept for 48 hours. Some made the concrete sidewalk their mattress. They sat watchful and ready on the lawns of houses, waiting for the fire to lick its way into their yards.
As the fire raged, the nights were particularly electric with stress as all waited for midnight when the wind changes and rushes back down the mountain, potentially bringing the fire with it. For some reason, the wind never changed, but sat mellow, unstirring, at the top of the mountain.
One fire fighter told us what it was to fight a fire. The inferno creates its own weather, its own self-made whirlpools and eddies. In the choking smoke, sometimes it’s hard to tell if the fire is before you or behind you. At one point, the fire was burning directly in front of him, coming like a freight train, and then the wind reversed and sent it away, saving that very Patterson home that everyone thought was gone.
For our part, we kept binoculars strapped on the stair railing and trained on the fire, its leaps and assertions, the planes and helicopters that looked so small against a cloud of smoke so large.
We were taught this fire fighters’ reality. Men and women can’t put out a fire. Their helicopters and airplanes look like toys against an inferno. They can contain it somewhat, but God has to put out a fire.
It was our ward and the one next door that was particularly threatened and we prayed for deliverance. We later learned that some of the missionaries at the MTC prayed and fasted for us and others caught in the downdrafts of leaping flames. The very day they fasted and prayed, something happened.
July 5th dawned with a sense of moisture in the air. The humidity that had been 16% was now up to 46%. I did not know what joy the sense of wetness could bring. Imperceptibly, slowly, the moisture began to gather in gray clouds on the mountains just west of us, across our little Alpine valley. Glued to the window, I saw the rain start to fall there, and, like everyone else I knew, I prayed. “Remember us. Stop this fire that threatens our homes and decimates our green mountain.”
The clouds crept across the valley on quiet, cat feet and then began to sprinkle on the sidewalk. “More rain, please more rain. Spare us and save us some little patch of woods.” The rain came gently, like a caress, like a spring rain. It began to fill in the dry spots on the sidewalk, falling harder, as those clouds settled like a crown upon the burning mountain before us. Smoke was rising everywhere as the fire that seemed so implacable, so sternly unyielding, gave way to the rain.
After forty days without a hint of rain or the smell of water in the air, it poured that day on our burning mountain in Alpine. We have not seen rain since.
“What power shall stay the heavens? As well might man stretch forth his puny arm to stop the Missouri river in its decreed course, or to turn it up stream, as to hinder the Almighty from pouring down knowledge from heaven upon the heads of the Latter-day Saints” (D&C 121:33) Or pouring down deliverance when they need it.
A sign in Alpine had been advertising a free showing of the film 17 Miracles. Somebody marked over the 7, making it 18 Miracles.
As a people in our little neck of the woods, we had never felt more vulnerable. We had never felt a greater power of personal deliverance. Not one home had been damaged, let alone, decimated.
As if to remind us that we had been spared by a divine hand, a double rainbow arched across our mountain at the rain’s end.
At church on Sunday, our bishop, with emotion, reminded us of this scripture, “All those that had been delivered out of bondage, that they should remember that it was the Lord that did deliver them: (Mosiah 25:16 ). Those in the path have no hope of deliverance unless He, whose hand is over all things, delivers them.
He also told us to be like the one leper who remembered to thank the Lord.
Anyone who saw the way this fire dance around our houses, but burn our mountain, cannot help but be reminded that a higher power came to play.
“Beauty for ashes” – that’s what the Lord promises in Isaiah as a gift for those who love him. I had thought, mournfully, when I saw our beloved green mountain become like a moonscape, that life instead had delivered ashes for beauty.
Still, that idea that the Lord will give us “beauty for ashes” has sat in my soul since then. This is the whole quote: “To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness” ( Isaiah 61:3).
So many instances of “beauty for ashes” came to mind from this fire. The love of good neighbors, who tearfully shared testimony on Sunday, and on Monday banned together to go visit fire stations to give firefighters a big thank you. A blackened mountain that reminds us how little we can do on our own and how ready the Lord is to rescue us. This time he did. We cannot deliver ourselves. The Patterson home that looks like an island of green in a sea of black where the fire completely circled the house, but left it untouched. A sense of personal peace that I am known of the Lord.
But what of those times, when your home isn’t miraculously spared? There are at least nine LDS families who have lost their homes to fire in this dry, blustery summer, and more than 350 others who are now homeless from a fire that assaulted them.
If it’s not fire like these have known, we know what it feels to taste ashes from so many other sources.
Even then, I am assured, that from all of the ashes of our lives, the Lord will deliver beauty. It is his nature. He cannot do otherwise. It may start just as a quiet voice of assurance inside, that someone so much greater than we are, with the power of deliverance in his hand, is with us. It may feel like a greater sense of clarity or that sharp intake of breath when you are expanded just for a moment and realize that this mortal experience is just a visitors’ waiting room, an entrance to something beyond what the mind can comprehend.
Next time, if it is my house that is torched, I will still have him and this steady promise. I hope I can remember this.
Yesterday we took a hike up to the bench, where we hike a couple of times a week. The bench is gone. Only a pile of bolts remains. Far more stark, the cool, greenery that we hiked through just last week is vanished as if it had been a dream. Unlike last week, I am not inclined to say this is the most beautiful place on earth. The ground is soot. The trees that were not turned to powder are blackened, arthritic skeletons.
Still, I will get to see the slow miracle of how the Lord renews a landscape. That’s something to anticipate. Even now, there are signs of life. A pale, shaken rattle snake ventures across the black expanse. In the sunlight, the silken strands of spider webs lace between the remaining blackened branches. Where there has been death, life will return.
Beauty for ashes. I’m counting on it.
Mosiah 25:16 – And he did exhort the people of Limhi and his brethren, all those that had been delivered out of bondage, that they should remember that it was the Lord that did deliver them.
A people with no chance of deliverance. Those in the path of fire have no chance of deliverance. Because they cried mightily unto them he extended his mercy to those who put their trust in him. He required us to repent and be humble. Being humble and grateful for his intervention in our behalf
Thank you to the firefighters
All survived without any loss of any kind.
A feeling of calm over the neighborhood. People checking on each other.
–those who had been worried
But behold, I, Jacob, would speak unto you that are pure in heart. Look unto God with firmness of mind, and apray unto him with exceeding faith, and he will bconsole you in your cafflictions, and he will plead your cause, and send down djustice upon those who seek your destruction.
When things are poured out without measure, it won’t destroy our faith, if our minds are pure.
Isaiah 61 3 To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he might be glorified.
–call to arms with the firemen coming. Description here.