Fire

Northern California's wine country is in the grips of the deadliest wildfire in the state's history. We've been lucky here in the City of Napa so far, but it's still too soon to call us completely safe. When I lived on St. Thomas in the USVI many years ago, the compound I was living in erupted in flames one night. It was terrifying. Years later, I wrote a fictionalized version of that fire. That version is the better part of a chapter near the end of my novella Judging Paradise. I reread it this morning. It still terrifies me, or maybe does so once again given the events of the last few days. Here it is: 

Frank had been asleep for a shade more than an hour when he heard the commotion start. In his stupor he reached no conclusions about the noise other than that it was excessive. He was trying to ignore it, thinking it may have been a group of drunks causing trouble for Gaston, when he heard someone pounding on the door to his room. It was Elaine.

"Frank! Get up! There's a fire. Get up. You have to get out of here!"

When in his semiconscious state he grasped that the noise was real, he sat straight up in his bed, and started looking around for some clothes. As he became aware that he was already dressed, he tried to see if he could tell where the fire was. Still in a partial daze, Frank scrambled out of his cottage, heading for the courtyard and into the parking lot. Frank’s first thought was to run to Philippe’s cottage to see if he and Celia were out of danger, but he quickly realized that the worst of the flames were coming from where their cottage should have been. In spite of the danger, Frank, wildly alert now, ran directly towards the flames. He was overwhelmed by the heat before he could get near their door. He called out for them, but he could barely hear himself over the roar of the fire and the commotion in the compound. He looked around in a panic to find Philippe or Celia. He saw neither of them and the fire was spreading. Gaston was desperately and futilely trying to douse the flames with a garden hose. The flaccid stream made no headway against the advancing inferno. He only succeeded in placing himself in danger.        

“Pauline! Pauline! You in there? Get up! Get out!” Joe was pounding on Pauline’s door, the cottage directly adjacent to Philippe’s. Smoke was already coming from her small kitchen window, but the ball of fire had yet to spread. He quit calling for her, broke down the door and ran into the cottage as a great cloud of smoke pushed frantically out of the door. Joe retreated as quickly as he had gone in, his arm covering his nose and mouth. He was coughing, nearly choking, as he stumbled out of the cottage.  He started to head for the cottage at the end of the driveway, but before he got there, Carmen came out. She carefully locked the door behind her before walking to relative safety at the far end of the compound parking lot. 

“Frank! Get the other hose. Get it,” Gaston yelled furiously as he continued to try to make some headway with the pathetically inadequate garden hose.

“Where, Gaston? Where is it?”

“It’s by the pool. At the far end. Hurry, Frank!” Frank, glad to have something to do in the chaos, obeyed and ran off and up the path to fetch the hose. He was aware of his heartbeat, of his sweat, of the clammy feel of his skin under his shirt. He moved as quickly as he could to the far end of the pool. The hose was connected to a spigot and Frank struggled to remove the rusted fitting from the spout. He got the hose off of the spigot, gathered it in loops over his shoulder, and ran back to find Gaston.

By the time he returned, fire had replaced the smoke in Pauline’s cottage, and a quick look around revealed to Frank that Pauline had not gotten out.

“Over there!” Gaston pointed to a hose bib in the garden at the north end of the driveway. Frank ran with the hose and nervously tried to connect it. Sweat from his forehead stung his eyes. His hands were trembling and his heart was racing. The thought of being so close to burning humans terrified and nauseated him.

As Frank finished connecting the hose, a water truck arrived, its huge diesel engine barely audible above the flames. The driver parked the truck so that its back end was about 20 feet in front of the fire. The cab of the truck emptied. Frank thought its crew was moving too deliberately given the unfolding disaster, but once out of the truck they quickly deployed the hose attached to the bottom of the tank, coupled it onto a fitting at the back of the tank nearest the fire, and engaged a large pump at the base of the hose. The stream from the hose was stronger than that from Gaston’s garden hose, but it still seemed pitifully small compared to the fire that had moved from Philippe’s cottage to Pauline’s. Jamal and Delores’ cottage was next.

When Frank got past the banana trees and into the rutted parking lot with the extra garden hose, he could see the flames shooting up over the complex on the other side of the compound. The flames had worked their way around the back of Pauline’s cottage and were now backlighting the interior of Jamal and Delores’ cottage. As Frank looked for a spot to attack the flame with his pitiful stream of water, he noticed people moving in Jamal’s cottage, and just below all the other noises, just underneath the chaos and commotion, he heard drums, the same drums he had heard at the Grand Hotel, the same drums that served as the backdrop to Jamal’s mysterious dance. Silhouetted against the advancing flames he saw the three of them, Jamal, Delores, and Sonny, performing a wild version of what Frank had seen two weeks before. They appeared oblivious to the flames, the heat, and the confusion. Indeed, they appeared to be inspired by the fire, encouraging it, waiting for its sudden, violent destruction. Frank was speechless; no one called to them. Even the firefighters could not believe what they were seeing and hearing. They momentarily froze, mesmerized by the surreal and deadly scene being played out in front of them.

Meanwhile, Joe was looking into the few cars parked nearest to the flame to see if there were any keys in them. The heat should have been overwhelming, but Joe did not move away from it.  Frank, who was trying to work the water from the hose into the flames but careful to keep his distance from the flames at the same time, shouted out to Joe. "Joe! Get away from the cars. Get away from there."

By now the firefighters had regained their composure and they ordered everyone, Gaston, Frank, and Joe, to back away from the flames. One of the firefighters got on the truck’s radio and could be heard imploring a second truck to hurry.

A crash could be heard coming from inside the compound as an interior wall in Pauline’s cottage collapsed scattering sparks and embers that were lifted into the morning sky. Joe flinched at the sound, ducking instinctively. As ordered, he moved back away from the cars and joined Frank and the other onlookers. Elaine and her mother were clutching each other at a distance that seemed to be safe. Frank noticed that James was clinging to the nightgown of Elaine’s mother, shivering, and staring at what was certain to be the terrible death of the only family he knew. His mother had mercifully sent him out of the cottage to play in the parking lot moments before the fire began. Carmen could no longer stand to watch and turned her back on the fire. They had all been joined by George, who looked on with the bemused detachment of a simple drunk.

The fire had now completely consumed Philippe’s cottage and Pauline’s as well, and there had been no screams. Frank hoped in vain that they simply were not home. More embers were being thrown into the morning sky in twisting columns. The fire, smoke, embers, noise, and human confusion all combined to obliterate the day’s promise. The compound seemed to be getting darker in spite of the flames. Thick smoke quickly and mercifully blocked the hideous scene in Jamal’s cottage. The efforts of the various firefighters were coming to naught as the flames spread almost unabated, and then the screams started.

Elaine’s mother grabbed James and led him as quickly as she could toward the far end of the compound so he would not be able to hear the sound of his family’s immolation.  There were three distinct voices in the screams. They were sounds that rose above the rest of the tumult, sounds that brought a halt to all other human activity, sounds that seemed to spew forth from a hot fissure in the earth, sounds that encompassed the terrible agony and confusion of violent, young death. The sounds continued for no more than a minute; the voices each faded as the noise of the flames, of the burning, crackling wood, of the choking, rushing smoke took over and engulfed them for eternity.

Gaston was now running about in a silent and useless panic. Frank noticed that Gaston was barefooted and his feet were bleeding. Gaston had abandoned the garden hose, which Joe picked up, and was dragging buckets of water from his pool and throwing them on the fire, one at a time. He could not have designed a more futile, exhausting gesture. He was approaching his limit.

"Jesus, look at Gaston. The only thing he's going to accomplish is getting himself killed. What the hell is he thinking?" Frank shouted the question to no one in particular. He was about to ask Joe if he should try to help Gaston with the buckets when another large yellow water truck appeared on the far side of the parking lot through the smoke and flying soot. Gaston immediately dropped his bucket and started shouting directions to the small crew of firefighters.

The beginning of the heat of the day and the heat from the fire itself lifted a breeze from the south putting the cottages, including Frank’s, at the north end of the compound in jeopardy. The onlookers in the parking lot felt the wave of heat sweeping towards them.

The second fire truck engine's governor was set to rev high so that the pump on the water tank could drive the water into the flame. The noise of the engine competed with the noise of the fire, one savagely unpredictable, the other steady, mechanically constant and brutally loud. Two men at the nozzle end of the hose of this second truck steadied themselves as the first gush of water shot forth, this one more formidable than any of the others thus far brought to bear on the firestorm. It took the two of them a few moments to direct the stream into the bowels of the flame that had reached more than 30 feet into the air. As they seemed to be getting the upper hand on the fire that was consuming Jamal’s cottage and its inhabitants, Frank noticed that the outer beams supporting the roof of his own cottage were now on fire. Some flying sparks had arced across the parking lot, floating on the recent breeze that seemed to direct them straight for the top of Frank’s home. He dropped the garden hose and ran into the cottage, hoping to salvage something, anything, from his life on Santa Clara.

Elaine saw Frank run into the cottage. She followed him to the threshold and called out after him.

“Frank! Get out of there. It’s not safe. Stay away!”

He ignored her. The fire was moving quickly down through the beams as he looked around in a panic. The cottage was deceptively quiet compared to the chaos of the rest of the compound. Frank could hear his feet slapping on the floor. He managed to grab his wallet and a pile of clothes sitting on his kitchen table. He thought about trying to find his complete works of Shakespeare, and his scorpion trophy, but the quiet was broken as debris was now falling from the ceiling and flames started to surround him; the heat immediately became too intense to continue. He shielded his face from the gathering destruction and ran through the doorway, back into the relatively clear air of Casa Jose’s parking lot. The door slammed shut behind him as if an invisible, demonic hand had decided that this work should be done out of the sight of fragile souls.

With Frank safely out of the cottage, Elaine managed to capture the attention of the first of the firefighting crews. They ran their hose to the north end of the compound, broke down the door to Frank’s cottage and sent a stream of water directly inside. Once they controlled the water, they went about the seemingly methodical task of dousing the flames. From where Frank stood, the firemen appeared to execute a precise plan in exact segments that soon had the fire nearly out. Trucks and crews quickly subdued the fire at the north end of the compound, and just as quickly the flames that had consumed Philippe and Celia, Pauline, and Jamal, Delores and Sonny quit. The fire was out. That was all.

In spite of the lack of flames the firefighters continued to pour water into the now smoldering buildings. The air turned sharp with the stench of the wet, charred structures. Gaston sat at the edge of the compound entrance, exhausted from the turbulent ordeal. As some of the surviving residents ventured back in toward the destruction they put a gentle hand briefly on Gaston's slumped and shaking shoulders. Without a word to the dazed onlookers, the firemen began to retrieve their equipment. An ambulance arrived.

“We’ll need more than one,” Gaston said solemnly to the driver. “I’m not sure how many, but there are at least six people missing.”

As Gaston spoke, two firemen removed a hideously charred body from Philippe’s. Frank could tell right away, from the size of the corpse, that the body on the stretcher had been Philippe. His arms, with the meat of his muscles exposed where his flesh had been burnt completely away, pointed skyward, as if his last gesture had been to seek an embrace. The surviving residents instinctively covered their mouths and turned their heads as one by one they saw the foul result of the satanic deed. What followed was a disgusting parade of charred bodies, six in all, pulled from the steaming and smoking ruins of three small cottages. Celia was brought out after Philippe. The collapse of the wall in Pauline’s cottage made the removal of Pauline more problematic. Indeed, as the firefighters chopped at a timber to gain access to her body, some sparks flew up from the timber. The renewed presence of fire was immediately terrifying, but it was brought quickly under control. By the time Jamal, his wife, and his cousin were removed and set down on plastic next to the other bodies in the parking lot, the heat of the day was beginning to mingle with the stench of the fire, the ashes, the charred bodies, the smoke, and the fouled water to produce a scene so thoroughly revolting to all of his senses that Frank retreated and vomited violently behind the wreck of a structure that moments earlier had been his home.