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Nothing deserves more respect than fire

Karel Ancona-Henry

Growing up a U.S. Forest Service brat meant my first fire experience came at the ripe age of 6.

We lived in California’s Mendocino National Forest then, at Soda Creek Ranger Station, an array of red buildings nestled between two mountain ranges and the valley cut through by a logging road and a river. We spent many days playing in that river, knowing which snakes were safe and which were not. We built houses inside the massive manzanita bushes, which, by their growth, provided us with several rooms in which to “reside.”

That summer, a napkin blew out of a campfire causing an inferno.

Crews descended on the station as fire camp was set up. The constant noise that comes with fire suppression – air tankers and the hubbub of all those people concentrated in one area was quite exciting and to a small child, rather like visiting the circus.

But within a short time, the air was clogged with smoke, the sun trying to come through. It was unreal and frightening.

Days into this, the fire began to crest the mountain range on the river side of the valley. I remember being mesmerized by this. Then, as the winds shifted, the fire jumped, igniting the range, which ran directly in front of the station. It was like being in the midst of hell.

Mom, as she did every fire season my entire childhood, had already packed family photos, important papers and those things that were irreplaceable. Every year, those items were placed in the car come May and remained there until November. It was as much a part of spring for our family as extensive cleaning is for others.

But standing there in the yard, tankers flying overhead, the fire clearly out of control, I had enough.

I still have the little red metal packing trunk that used to hold my baby doll clothes. That day, I took out the doll clothes and started packing my stuff, as tightly as I could, in the trunk.

Busy at it, Mom came into my bedroom and asked what I was doing.

“I’m packing,” I replied, dead calm in my voice.

“And then what are you going to do?” she asked.

“I’m walking out of here,” I said.

“How are you going to do that?”

“I don’t know, but I’m not staying here.”

Of course, she saved me from myself that day, explaining that if the time came, she would be sure to get all of us out safely. Since both roads were being burned over, I have no idea if that was even possible. But if Mom was scared, she never showed it. I just now realized the significance of her actions that day.

Perhaps in some way, that contributed to my ability many years later, to fight fires, and even in the worst conditions, do it fearlessly. But that’s a column for another day.

As we go through fire season, be smart. There’s nothing that deserves more respect than fire. People need to stop and think before throwing cigarette butts out the window or launching bottle rockets in a neighborhood, or any of the other things that can happen. All it takes is a moment.

And from that point, the landscape never looks the same. Not for a lifetime.

• Contact reporter Karel Ancona-Henry at kanconahenry@sierranevadamedia.com or 246-4000.