By Jeff Ruiz“What a beautiful sky …” I thought to myself as I lounged in the hot spa, looking out through the sun room windows. I’d had a sleepless night, owing to the noise of high winds, and had risen earlier than usual. It was morning twilight in the six-o’clock hour, and the sun had yet to rise over the eastern ridge of Stone Canyon. The clouds were coloring from light orange to deeper orange and back again. The moment was golden. As I took another sip of coffee I remembered this was to be an extremely windy day. Last night’s weather forecast had predicted 80-90 mph gusts here in Lyons and along the foothills for the duration of the today. Already, we were experiencing above-average winds. After 45 minutes of this magical moment, I reluctantly extricated myself from my cozy aquatic environment and prepared for the day. I kissed my wife, Darla, goodbye on her way out the door and she told me she’d be home around six that evening. We intended to take a break from recent evening outings to stay at home and take care of personal chores.
Well into my workday in the upstairs office, I began to notice a gradual increase in the winds. At times the house would shudder and creak, and I knew it would get worse. Around mid-afternoon, I happened to look out my office window in time to see a small rabbit flying across the back yard like a tumbleweed. I remember thinking (after a laugh or two) that if these winds are that strong, the local phone and power lines are really going to be in jeopardy.
I usually begin to prepare a dinner between five and five-thirty so that my wife and I can eat together upon her arrival from work. Today, I only wanted to throw a frozen pizza into the oven after she got home; so instead of normally being in the kitchen amid the cooking aromas, I sat down at the dining room table just before six to play some online games before my wife got home. I had just poured myself a drink and had begun to relax when I became aware of a slight odor.
Initially dismissive, I suddenly realized that it smelled like smoke—outdoor smoke. I rushed to the window and saw a small brush fire beyond the southeast corner of the property. I immediately called “911” to report it. The small fire was growing rapidly as I spoke to the dispatcher. After I hung up, I realized the whole mess was moving directly at me! I could tell by its rapid advance, voraciously fed by the super high winds, that it would be upon me in a matter of minutes.
I sprang from the table. Over the years, I had mentally rehearsed emergency evacuation scenarios such as this. No evaluation was necessary. Of all our possessions, the computers and the cat were the only things that mattered right now. I scrambled upstairs to my office, calling for her the whole way. I quickly unplugged my computer tower and the external file server. The tower is one bulky and heavy metal box, but my adrenaline was pounding and its weight had no significance whatsoever. I hefted each with an arm and took them downstairs and layed them by the front door. Knowing I had to make two, maybe three trips out to the car, I ran outside to the distant Rav4 and speedily backed it onto the upper level grassy area adjacent to the front porch. I shoved the computer equipment, along with my laptop, into the back. The fire was much broader now and about 50 yards away, closing fast. Returning inside and up the stairs, I continued to yell for my cat. I saw her on the bed. She sensed my hysterical condition and loud tone of voice, deduced within her limited capacity that I was a potential threat, then ran and hid from me.
It was now or never. If I waited any longer, I would be trapped here. Painfully tearing myself away from the bedroom, I ran downstairs and out the front door. As I pulled the front door shut, I remember thinking: This is the last time I will ever see this house. It seemed like I stood there forever. The inferno was now upon me, roaring up the front walkway, and I could feel the accelerated heat and smoke enveloping me. Embers were flying everywhere. The wall of fire filled my field of vision and I could no longer see the yard. I slammed shut the Rav4’s back door and ran to the driver’s seat. The flames were crossing the driveway—my only way out! There was no time to think about it. I would not be trapped up here. I slammed the gas pedal down and flew through the encroaching flames. Temporarily blinded, I knew I had only to keep the wheel straight to stay on the road. As I exited the fire, another thought hit me that left as indelible an imprint on my memory as that moment at the front door seconds ago: we have lost everything, including our cat. I was filled with heavy remorse and anguish.
I drove out to the canyon road to watch from a distance just as my wife was returning from work. We both stood there in utter amazement as we watched the greedy flames consume our livelihood. Knowing the cat was in the middle of that inferno was too much to bear. It was now dark, and from our vantage point on Stone Canyon Road, it appeared the main house and buildings behind it were all ablaze. We waited on the road for about an hour. We could not drive into town due to a downed power line across the road, evidently the catalyst of this event. The condition of the house would not be known for several hours.
When we were finally allowed to exit the canyon, we went to the Outlaw Saloon, where we were greeted with relief. They had been watching the news reports on TV and wanted updates. As we conveyed our story, I noticed I was developing a bad cough. Apparently, I had inhaled too much smoke. Our friend, Diane, who was the manager on shift, took special effort to care for us by providing certain palliatives to me and a meal for my wife.
We finally got the clearance around 10:30 to return up the hill. The house and other buildings were still standing! We would later learn that the flames had been so high on the slopes in front of the house that they appeared to be consuming the structures, when in fact they were just blocking the view. As we rolled up our driveway, our headlights illuminated small areas of charring and devastation. We would not realize the full scope of the damage until tomorrow’s dawn. When we entered the house, the first thing that hit us was the heavy smell of smoke. Ashes were all over the foyer and along the windows and sills. As we survey the rooms our cat appeared from the top of the stairs, apparently none the worse for the wear. Since she did not exhibit any signs of smoke inhalation we assumed she must have taken cover under a bed. We now realized we could not stay the night. We’d had numerous offers of quarter for the night from our friends, but an arrangement for a room at a local motel was already in place for us. Jerry and Sue, owners of the Aspen Leaf, graciously put us both up for the night.
The next morning, we headed back up to the house for the big picture. As we drove up Stone Canyon, we took in the true scale of the wildfire. Of the 20 reported acres of damage, about a third of it was on this property. The fire had come to within 20 feet of the house. The burn area circled around it to the left and behind the rear buildings before swooshing back to the right. Had it not been for the perimeter set by the firefighters, all would have been lost. We spent most of the day ventilating the house. By evening, we left to attend a pre-scheduled event.
Throughout the evening, I couldn’t help but remind myself of how the town of Lyons has always been special to Darla and me. The people we know are like one big family, evidenced by the outpouring of support and offerings during a time of crisis. In particular, the folks who own and operate the Outlaw Saloon and the Aspen Leaf Motel are exemplars of good will. Most importantly, those who put their lives on the line for us everyday deserve the utmost appreciation and gratitude.
We are ever grateful to them.
As we returned home around 10 p.m., the tensions of the last day and a half began to ease and our bodies grew weary. We exited the car to walk up to the front door and I looked up to see a richly star-filled expanse. And I thought to myself … “What a beautiful sky.”