This time is different.
Before, it was only dirt and trees we could lose. This time it was a home—a home filled with photographs and memories culled from a dozen delicious summers.
Fourteen years ago, the Rodeo-Chediski fire threatened and eventually burned close to a half-million acres of forest in the White Mountains. Some communities suffered devastating losses, including close to 400 homes.
But not in Show Low, where we had bought a Ponderosa-studded lot in 1999. We were still working and living full-time in Tucson when the fire broke out in June of 2002. For days, we kept an anxious watch in front of the television as the news reports grew ever more ominous.
On June 22, Show Low, as well as Pinetop-Lakeside were ordered evacuated. We were sure our lot, on the edge of town closest to the fire, would be consumed.
If it burns, I wrote in a whistling-in-the-dark column, we will not build. Without the trees, we might as well cool off in the frozen foods aisle at Safeway.
But the fire lines held, the town was saved, and two years later we did build. For the next six years, we spent weekends and holidays on the mountain, savoring its cool air, and small-town ways. Newly retired by 2010, we retreated to the pines for entire summers.
Life was good. We made new friends, learned how to fly fish, volunteered, putted around the golf course. We also grew complacent. After all, didn’t we have thousands of acres of back burn protecting our flanks?
In 2011, the Wallow fire to our east consumed more than 800 square miles of forest. But no evacuation notices were posted for Show Low or Pinetop-Lakeside. Life, as we knew it, continued. Three years later, the San Juan fire scorched 7,000 acres to the east of us – far enough away to cause little concern, close enough to send hungry bears into the neighborhood.
It was June 15 of this year, early afternoon, when we first noticed smoke in the air. A prescribed burn, perhaps? Not long after, we got the first warnings of a fire at Cedar Creek, 12 miles to the south.
By the next day, the tiny village of Forestdale had been ordered to evacuate and Show Low and Pinetop-Lakeside were put on pre-evacuation notice. A few of our friends retreated to their homes in Phoenix and Green Valley. We canceled a dinner we were to have hosted that night.
We registered with the emergency service, Ready Navajo County, for any and all immediate evacuation notices. I packed one small bag with a couple of changes of clothing, a smaller bag with medicine and toiletries. (Yes, I do need my eyelash curler in case of emergency.) We would, of course, also take the laptop and all our mobile devices.
Then we waited. For some reason, the old Clash song, “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” kept spooling through my head. Meanwhile, the fire crept closer, eventually to within a quarter-mile of the trigger point that would force us to evacuate. We were notified that we would be given green tags to place on our doors or mailboxes, alerting the fire crews that we had left.
But once again, the fire lines held, thanks to the prodigious efforts of more than 700 firefighters. The next day, we unpacked our bags. Friends started drifting back. Our dinner, once again, was on.
Still, as I write this, the fire is yet to be fully throttled. The trees and brush around us remain tinder dry, vulnerable to the slightest spark. Unease hovers above, only to be lifted with the summer rains. Please may they soon come.