The Witch Creek Fire by Tricia Kelly

Its scorching breath, sweet and pungent, ignites pinecones — transforming them into grenades hurled against a neighbor’s flimsy shingle house.  Huge flashes of yellow and blue fire startle upward.  Choking smoke rides the wild, wind-whipped currents of the Santa Ana.

Gina catches her breath, a clean, soft breath of evening air. She and her husband, Jim are watching a television in a tiny train station in England and listen in horror as the destruction of their neighborhood in Southern California is described.  The couple’s best friend, Michael is staying at their home to care for seven year old Annie, their beloved dog.   Their immediate thoughts are, “Where is Michael? Where is Annie?”

“Annie, come!”  Breathing hard, retired Master Sergeant Michael Everly scoops up all 45 pounds of Annie while running down the driveway toward his truck.  The water heater in the garage gives way — flooding the garage and knocking Michael to his knees as the water sheets down the incline.  Annie, without leash, rolls to a confused stop further down the drive.  “Annie, come girl!” softly this time.  “Come; good girl.”  She does.

Michael hobbles to his truck, Annie in his arms, blood trickling down his leg.  He drives, but the road toward his home is barricaded, as is the one to Jim’s office which might have afforded them a place to stay overnight. Michael knows about fire and conflict and about his own need and capacity to establish order.  He also understands that this is why he is drawn to chaos. These were the things that made him a good marine.  Still, frustration sets in, he wants to barrel west to his former base but crawls instead as traffic builds and the smoke billows upward in dark volcanic-looking cones.  The Marine base at Camp Pendleton takes them in.  Not much later, Annie curls into Michael and they sleep.

By dawn, Pendleton is burning.  Michael and Annie evacuate with hundreds of others.  They spend the second night two miles away on the floor of a generous stranger.

Gina wants, with every fiber of her being, to go to them, to help, to fix, to see, to save them — all of which collides with the impediment of an ocean and a continent between them.  Powerless to act, she and Jim switch to cell phones searching for further scraps of information.  Three fires are moving across the thirsty landscape — jumping freeways and crossing into malls, threatening to become one fearful conflagration.  Gina finds herself, surprisingly, offended by the fire itself. She realizes, in that moment, that she has established, albeit unconsciously, some protective boundary that says, fires are not allowed in malls and freeways are not to be jumped.  She smiles at her own defenses.

Out for Annie’s morning relief, Michael stands near the end of the stranger’s street watching her.  He has done this many times before.  Annie is a Bearded Collie mix and a beauty with nine inch long fur and a Benjie face. “Beautiful but not exactly military material” he muses when a sudden screaming siren sends adrenaline coursing through Michael’s veins.  Annie rips away, running for her life.   This time she is blind and deaf to Michael, fear driving her straight into the hills on the base, the hills that are burning.

Michael picks up his phone as if it were napalm. He literally owed Jim his life and telling him he hadn’t kept Annie safe was going to be painful.  Michael remembered the hours, days and weeks Jim had kept watch while Michael struggled to overcome the debilitating depression that took hold of him when he separated from his wife and the service. “Jim, Annie and I got out ok but she spooked this morning and took off.  God, man, I’m sorry.  I’m leaving now. Tell Gina I’ll find her.” The line goes dead. He packs offered sandwiches, kibble, and water, looks at a map and pursues.

By now nearly a million people are under evacuation orders, the largest number of people to be moved in this country since the Civil War.  Nearby the Witch Creek fire burns on.

Annie finally halts, looks around and starts home.

Fourteen hours later firefighter Jeff Burke parks his tactical water-tender a safe distance from the fire line.  “I’m exhausted,” he thinks, with no real intention of taking any time to rest.  He walks toward two of his guys looking down at something.  “What’s that?” he asks.  “Dog, I think,” says one of them. “Pretty long way down, are you sure?” Jeff asks.  “Pretty sure.”  “Want to try? Jeff asks no one in particular.  “Yep,” the two say in unison.

Rappelling down the cliff, Jeff wonders if the animal is alive and, if badly injured, whether it might not be kinder to put it down.  “Don’t get ahead of things,” he cautions himself.  When he finds ground he starts towards the dog but sees, just beyond it, a body.  “Holy shit!” he exclaims, as he kneels and feels for a pulse. “Pete! Jake!” he yells. “Get a stretcher down here stat!” We’ve got an unconscious male, breathing but shallow.  Bring oxygen and make that two stretchers: the dog is breathing, too.”

“How the Hell did you find Annie?” Jim asks.  Michael shifts slightly in his hospital bed. His left leg is in traction.  “I didn’t.  She found me after I stepped off into oblivion.  Didn’t know until one of the firefighters told me.  If she hadn’t stayed with me, they never would have seen me.”

Annie recovers fully from smoke inhalation. Michael revises his opinion of her military possibilities.  Semper Fidelis.

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