It is the first week of November. Hubby and I venture out for an afternoon drive. Only a few hours, to drink in the intoxicating beauty that blankets our Sierra Nevada foothills each year as the seasons rotate. The spectacular reds, purples, oranges, rusts, and golds that shimmer on branches spread wide.The sky overhead an incredible blue, a small flock of fluffy sheep clouds frolicking on the breeze. The air crisp, exhilarating but not yet cold, perfect for turtlenecks and a light jacket. We park and stroll up and down a bit. So beautiful! So perfect! We exchange a nod and a smile, unspoken confirmation of our decision thirty years ago to uproot ourselves from a crowded coastal community and move to this paradise.
A sudden gust shakes a blizzard of leaves from their moorings and scatters them amid fallen acorns at our feet, where they whirl in a kaleidoscope of brilliant color. A stronger gust ripples our windbreakers and lifts our hair.
Last night the weatherman predicted the winds would pick up later this evening, but we don’t care. We love the cold night air, cranking open the window next to our bed, snuggling under a down comforter encased in cozy flannel, listening to the wind in the tall pines, oaks and cedars outside. Such nights spawn the most wonderful dreams, and deep, sound sleep. So peaceful. So perfect.
With the dawn, the devil comes snarling. A temperature inversion, they call it, whipping sweet breezes into a tornado—a hellish, fiendish monster of a wind from the northeast that races across forested ridges, ripping bone-dry limbs from the trees. Power lines high on a ridge arc, then spark. A tiny finger of flame erupts amid swirling leaves. In moments the tiny flame becomes a fire. Billowing, gray smoke filling the air. Then an inferno. Terrifying reds, purples, oranges, rusts, and golds.
Red-hot embers driven by 70-mile-an-hour gusts spread the fire at the speed of light, here, there, everywhere. Pines, oaks, and cedars now torches. Wild-eyed creatures flee this way, that way, up into branches, down into holes, anywhere at all to escape the searing heat—paws blistering, flesh sizzling.
Flames consume the first buildings and race onward, faster and faster—onward toward Paradise. Closer and closer. Propane tanks explode like bombs.
Screaming, wild-eyed people grab their children, jump in their cars and trucks to head downhill, away from the flames. Hundreds of them clog narrow roads. Traffic not moving, not even an inch. Fiery, shrapnel-like embers, whipped by the wind, overtake them, ignite the forest all around. Surrounded by fire. Nowhere to turn. Nowhere to go. No escaping the beast. Hotter and hotter. Blinding, choking black smoke. Visibility zero.
Panicked people abandon their vehicles and flee on foot—feet blistering, flesh sizzling. Chaos. Mayhem. Home after home, school after school, business after business ignites, solid walls of flame and death.
Screams of agony dance on the wind. Prayers, too, but no one is listening.
Paradise is lost.