In a way, I felt like an executioner: Steady, calculating, devoid of emotion. Three hours earlier, my husband and I were advised by a deputy sheriff: “Be out of Alpine by 8 p.m.” The fire was sweeping northwest, coming over the ridge across the meadow from our home. That was June 2.
Three years ago, we built our summer cabin in the land of my forefathers. On a hill nearby, in the quaint cemetery are my parent’s graves, my grandparents and their parents. Alpine, for me, is about roots, sacrifices and childhood vacations.
People ask how we knew what to take when we were told to leave. Strangely, it was as though we were directed. Neatly stored, many items were already organized: file boxes, financial and other records; labeled treasures from childhoods, a few pictures from the walls and quilts crafted by my mother. And, necessities: clothing, shoes, meds; favorite pillows; a package of nuts as hunger was setting in.
At the last, David snapped pictures of every room and its possessions as I quickly scanned each space and spoke to obvious items. “No. No, you must stay; you, I can replace; you go, you stay.” I spotted the irreplaceable 16” X 20” framed pictures of my children as babies, high on one wall, which I gladly snatched. Original art was left behind.
I felt nothing, really, but then a fear began to build.
Not only was the air thick, mixed with ash, there was a sound. It was different than the howling wind, different than the echo of heavy equipment rattling into town. It was terrifying, a moaning of death.
“Listen,” I told David. We stood transfixed. There was a glow; flashes of orange through the rolling, black smoke, forest high — only glimpses. “What is that?” we asked, eyes wide. We now know the sound and the orange flashes were the fire, cresting atop the ridge, burning the giant Verizon tower and sweeping down towards Alpine’s rustic town center.
Suddenly, lights went out; black smothered us. David quickly equipped us both with flashlights and we continued to rush and grab and shift and load.
We tied a white sheet in front of the house and another at the bottom of the lane, as instructed, alerting fighters that we had left.
Slowly, now fearfully, we pulled out onto the highway, clogged with fighters. We didn’t look back. Not once. The scene was eerie — only seen in Hollywood movies. We moved through Nutrioso and saw others scrambling to leave, on through Eagar and Springville, to my sister’s home in Showlow. Our lungs were filled with smoke, ash everywhere in our few belongings.
Late that night, freshly showered, we rested in the dark and talked about “what if.” We’d just received a false report that the crews had pulled out of Alpine due to the fierceness of the fire. So, for one night, we thought our haven was lost. And that’s what we processed.
We talked of recent earthquake, tornado and flooding victims. We thought of their dead, their lack of warning. We talked of our blessings, of our bright future. We were filled with gratitude, awe rather than grief.
It was then David summarized something we’ve heard from so many others as disasters play out around the world: “We’ll be fine. We have each other.”
It always comes down to loved ones. And, other than personal care items, what we salvaged was all about family. It was automatic, innate. We took who we are. That’s what people do.
(Note: Instead of pulling out that night, firefighters confronted the flames whipped by 40 mile winds. Their courage and skill stopped it cold and throughout the last two weeks, they’ve protected that town like guard dogs; indomitable, as rapacious fire kept slipping back, wanting its way with the pristine valley. No lives lost, limited structures burned. We gratefully praise each one who stayed behind and saved an Arizona treasure.)
• East Valley resident Linda Turley-Hansen (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a syndicated columnist and former Phoenix veteran TV anchor. Her columns appear regularly on the East Valley Tribune’s Opinion page.