By Laney Smith
It was all so simple. Some eighteen-year old boy just wanted to set off some fireworks. Not a big deal. They weren’t permitted in the city, so he went to a quiet, sleepy, little canyon, just south of Redlands, California. I am a single mother with two teenage sons. Not a big deal. We’ve got our groove and life is good. I don’t feel disadvantaged, most days. On the days I do, I’m usually just looking for an excuse to have a pity party, anyway. Bottom line is it can be done. I’ve been divorced for thirteen years and my oldest son just graduated high school. My youngest son is in a pre-med program and he carries a 3.8 GPA. It can be done! My sons and I had just moved. We wanted to be out of the city. They wanted to be able to be rough and tumble dudes, for a while – just to knock some of the city off of them. It was a reasonable request. So, we found ourselves moving to a little canyon, just south of Redlands. We moved on a Thursday in late August. That Saturday, I regretted that choice. In the canyon, there was no cell service to our phones. We had plans to go over the weekend and change from AT&T to Verizon – only because that was the only cell provider for the canyon. It was inconvenient when they were at home and I was out and about, unable to reach them. So, the drive to switch cell providers was there. I just hadn’t had time, yet. So, it is important that you remember my kids are in this new neighborhood, out of the city, with cell phones, that for all intents and purposes, do not work. This is important! I need you to keep that bit of information. On Saturday, my mother’s friend was having a girl’s party – some clothing party. My mom told the woman that she would bring me and we would attend. Very well, then. I went. It was fun. We had a good time. Then, the plan was to go get my sons and we would all go into town and do some shopping, get our phones switched over, and run a few errands. As we left the party, we came off the freeway to the exit closest to where I live. As we crested the off ramp, right in front of me was the biggest plume of smoke I had seen in a long time. It looked like a mushroom, filling the sky. “Oh, no! That does not look good. That looks a little too close for my comfort,” I said to my mother. The closer we got to my home, the more intense the plume of smoke became. I was doing eighty miles an hour down a fifty mile an hour, two-lane road. We could see the smoke billowing and changing, right before our eyes, so we knew it was close – too close. I was hauling with everything my car had. I was panicked. Then, out of nowhere (probably because I was staring at the smoke in the sky, rather than directly in front of me), there was a cop car, turned sideways in the road, before us. “Dear God, please, no!” I prayed. I got out of the car and went to talk to the officer. He informed me we could not get in because of a fire that was tearing through the canyon. My heart stopped. My kids were in there. My kids were in a new neighborhood, without a phone, and without a way to get out. I freaked out and started begging the cop to save my kids. When he told me he had a post to man, I insisted he let me go save them. He wasn’t having it. “I cannot let you go in there. There are flames, massive flames. It is on both sides of the road. You cannot drive through that.” “The hell I can’t! Let me in. I will!” Nope! He wasn’t having it. “Go sit over there in the parking lot of that park and as soon as there’s an update, I’ll update you.” “Sir, with all due respect, I have to get to my kids.” “How old are your kids?” “Well, one is eighteen and the other is fifteen.” That cop looked at me and laughed. Granted I was acting as though I had some helpless infants in there. But, it should be considered that they didn’t know anyone. They didn’t have a phone. And, to make matters worse, my oldest son has Asperger’s Syndrome and I could only imagine how he was freaking out. None of that information helped change the cop’s mind. “You would burst into flames before you got to where they are, anyway,” he said. “Go wait for the update, with all of your neighbors.” Neighbors? I didn’t know any of those people. I hadn’t met them, yet. What neighbors? I hadn’t met them, so I guess I assumed they didn’t exist. Anyway, I went over to the parking lot with the others. It was only a matter of time before people started coming up to my car window, knocking and wanting to trade information. None of them were anywhere near as concerned as I was. Some of them had phones and they were able to speak to their families inside the road block, but the signal was weak – I assume because of all of the draw on the towers. Anyway, the word from their homes was that things were OK, so far. The fire was close, but so far, the fire crews had managed to keep the flames away from their homes. But, what about my kids? What about my home? What about my pets? What about . . . For hours, we sat in this parking lot. The smoke in the sky grew larger and changed colors as rapidly as people blink. We would cheer when the smoke was white because we knew the fire crews were winning. We panicked when the smoke turned black, just certain we were witnessing some family’s future devastation. The fire tromped through the canyon and the smoke seemed to be thinning. Eventually, the first cop who kept me out was relieved of his duties and replaced by another cop. By this point, I had calmed down enough to have rational thoughts. I waited for the other officer to leave and I trucked my butt out into that intersection to speak with the new guy. There were no updates, that the new guy could tell us. I tried the same plea as before; “My kids are in there and I can’t get to them to know if they are OK.” This guy was much more compassionate, but still, he couldn’t let me pass through. He felt bad, and I could see it. As tears streamed down my face, his eyes got a little watery, too. “Listen to me. There are professionals in there. They know what they’re doing. Their first priority is always to get people out, safely. You’re going to have to trust that they’re OK. You’re going to have to believe that they’re smart enough to go for help and that someone would help them, if they needed it. They’re not going to just walk past a couple of kids needing help. They will be OK. I believe in these guys. I know a lot of them, personally. I believe they will keep your kids safe.” “That’s great! But, if this were your kids, what would you do?” I asked. He drew a deep breath and looked over his shoulder behind him. He turned back to look at me as though he were at a loss to find the words he needed. He released his breath and threw his hands out to his sides. “Look, I’m telling you, you can’t go in there. If you choose to ignore me and drive around my road block – going on that side over there,” he said as he pointed to the other lane of travel, “then, there’s not a lot I can do about that. I have to stay right here, right where I’m at. They told us not to move from this post. So, I can’t come after you, or anything. But, if you should decide to ignore my order, there will be another road block, about half-way to where you’re going. That will be the sheriff. You better have a damn good story when you get to him. Understand?” I felt as though that man had just brought me to life. “I don’t want to be in trouble with you,” I said. He shook his head. “You’re not going to be in trouble with me. But, you better be thinking on what you’re gonna tell the sheriff when you get past me. Good luck! Go get your kids.” As I drove past his road block, he subtly lifted his arm to wave and wished me luck, again. I punched the gas pedal, determined to make it as far as I could, as fast as I could, before someone stopped me. If I could just get a little closer, I could walk the rest of the way. As I drove, there were flames on both sides of the road, lapping at dried vegetation. Palm trees looked like birthday candles, flames burning the fronds at the top. There was thick smoke and ashes flying like snow. We could feel the heat coming through the windows. Those flames went all the way to the turn for my house. Directly across the street from where we live, there were old oak trees, fully engulfed in raging flames. However, in that particular place, our side of the street looked as though the fire had jumped right over us and moved around us. The hills were blackened.
The smoke was billowing. And the helicopters were flying in, right over our heads, to dip their buckets in the lake for water to dump on the fire. Our little canyon had gathered by this lake to watch. My kids were right there, with our new neighbors. So many of them had promised my kids that if evacuations orders came, my kids would have a ride to safety. When I saw my sons, I cried and I hugged them so tight that they feared me, more than the fire. I was strangling the poor kids. But, I have never been happier to see two people in all my life. We met a lot of neighbors, that day. It doesn’t matter, in times of crisis, how well you know each other – or, in our case, don’t know each other – the human spirit is a beautiful thing in times of tragedy. People come together and they do whatever they can to help each other. I saw it that day. So many times and in so many ways. Humanity is bigger than the petty arguments we see, every day. In times of crisis, no one cares who voted for who. No one cares about political views. They all become one big, loving, caring family. They all support each other and they take a count of how many there are and what they will need – how to help. It is the most beautiful display of what we are as human beings that you will ever witness – tragedy. After the threat had passed and we could all return to our daily lives, the aftermath of the big foot of fire that had raged through the canyon had definitely left a footprint. We lost a lot of trees. We lost a lot of vegetation. But, we did not lose one single structure (kudos to those fire crews). However, it was surreal to drive through the canyon and see the reminders of how close the threat had been. It was emotional to see how many of my neighbors had yellow ribbon tied to their mailboxes – they were the people who had refused to leave their ranch or their animals. They were the people who stayed behind when their neighborhood was ordered to evacuate. They were the homes where if things went bad, the emergency personnel would likely be looking for remains. Those people refused to leave their homes. They refused to leave their animals. Their whole world was right there – stashed away down a short dirt road, behind that yellow ribbon on a mailbox. I didn’t know the people behind those yellow ribbons, but somehow, I felt closer to them. We had shared something very big. We had shared a traumatic event and in my heart, I loved those people. I was relieved to see those homes, proudly standing beyond those yellow ribbons – streamers flitting in the breeze. I felt happy that my neighbors had made it through that blazing disaster, just as we had. I carried a lump in my throat, for days, every time I saw one of those ribbons. It was a terrifying ordeal and I won’t deny that. I am thankful that everyone and every home was saved. I am also thankful that I got to experience this because I did get to see the love total strangers have for each other. I loved those total strangers and I learned that when things happen, we do care for each other. We do love one another. We will drop everything to rush to aid someone in need. We also pitch in when we see someone in need. Humanity is alive and well, in spite of the stories you hear on the news. That is one thing I hope others can take away from my experience. The other thing I would like to think others will take away is that when all hell breaks loose, when the flames are lapping at your tail, you can come back from that. Here we are, a year later, and while we were all very lucky, we are now a very close knit community. We lived that moment, together. That wasn’t someone else’s disaster. That was our disaster. We learned who the heroes are. We learned who we needed to keep in mind, in case we find ourselves in this position, again. It is amazing how we lived that day – my family as strangers to the others – and since that day, we have some of the best friends – family – in the world. I’d go through anything in this world with these people and I know we’d make it through it. So, for anyone who is going through this experience, it does end, eventually. You come out on the other side so much stronger and you have friends who have already proven they will be there. While the charred, dead trees remain, so too does the friendships we made that day. For the young man who lit off the fireworks that started this whole experience, no one thinks about him, anymore. I do, right now, because I’m reliving this experience. He’s been forgotten, for the most part. However, he will spend the rest of his life, paying for a bad decision – a youthful, fool-hearted decision that any kid could make. That boy ruined his life and as the mother of a, now, nineteen-year old son, that is the real tragedy. That young man should be going to college. He should be worrying about which friends he’s going to call up for a night on the town. Instead, he’s sitting in jail over a silly, foolish mistake – over a firework. That’s sad!