Wednesday, September 2, 2020

A Lady in a Forest Fire

Excerpt From:
A Lady in a Forest Fire
By Josephine Clifford McCrackin

Published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel (May 18, 1902) and The Wide World Magazine (1902)

Describing the Santa Cruz Mountains Fire of October 1899.

An impressive account of one of those terrible conflagrations which periodically devastate the vast forest regions of California.

We called the new home "Forest Nook." It was really not a new home to us, since we had owned the redwood forest for years, though we lived on our Monte Paraiso ranch, some distance higher up in the Santa Cruz Mountains. But we had concluded to part with the ranch, and had built a cottage in an arm of the forest dose to the " High Gate"—a natural gateway formed by two enormous redwoods, through which lay the entrance to the main body of timber which stretched both east and west, forming one solid line a little distance back from the county road. Grand trees they all were, but the "High Gate" had become famous, and had not only lured photographers all the way up from San Francisco, but had been painted by noted artists. . . .

On my way home I noticed that away in the distance, on the north ridge of the Loma Prieta mountain-chain, there was smoke rolling and wavering with the wind, and I could see flames springing up here and there, even thus 'far away. But I had become accustomed to the way they have of clearing land in this country, which is called reprehensible only when the fire escapes control and burns over other people's property as well as the land intended for clearing. This particular fire had burned un-checked for several days, but in the evening, when the wind began to rise, I called Mac's attention to it, for I was afraid.

"Haven't they got people enough over on that ridge to put the fire out?" he asked.

"But it might get away from them," I protested; "just hear the wind blowing in the timber! What if it should come here?"

"Come here!" he echoed, contemptuously; "it is five or six miles away. It's not apt to run down hill, and it would have the Los Gatos to cross even then."

After dark I noticed how the smoke grew heavier, and thought the fire was going down, till an occasional outburst of flame or a sudden torch-light illumination of a tall tree up which the blaze was shooting told me that the fire had not yet been really subdued. My husband, however, laughed at the idea of danger and went to bed. I myself sat up reading for some time before I retire d. The wind was blowing a gale by this time, and no matter how firmly I fastened the curtains on our bedroom window, which looked west, I could see flashes from the fire now and then, though it was burning to the east of us.

I could not sleep. Sancho, poor lame dog, came from his quarters and touched my arm with his nose, evidently afraid of the unusual howling of the wind, which seemed to grow still stronger as the night wore on.

Still I could not sleep; hour after hour I heard the clock strike until three, and by that time the storm had so increased that the chime of the little parlour clock seemed miles away.

How long I had slept I don't know, but I roused up slowly as to a sense of some coming danger. Amid all the uproar of the storm it seemed to me there was a faint voice, far off, shouting and calling.

But what shook the house so, and what was the voice calling, faintly and far off? Now it came again; the house trembled, though there was just one moment’s lull in the storm, and someone was shouting :—

"For Heaven's sake, wake up! You've lost everything! The whole country is on fire! Quick, for Heaven's sake, or you'll burn in your beds!"

I knew it was the voice of our neighbour Finnie, but where was he and what was the matter? Again came the battering, and again in broken snatches his warning voice, battling against the uproar. "Wake up; save yourselves! Everything is on fire! Monte Paraiso is destroyed—everything is gone! Get up! get up!"

I did not scream, but I shook Mac's arm with a grip that left its mark. Then I tumbled out of bed and ran, barefooted, to the sitting-room door. There was a sound now above the howling of the storm, a roar and thunder such as I had never heard before, and my fingers shook so that I could not find the key in the lock.

Then I found the lock and flung back the door. Heavens! The sight! The terror of it seemed to freeze the blood in my veins; but I did not faint—I knew I must not lose my senses. The blinding, flashing, glaring flames shooting up into the sky, higher than my eyes could follow; the clouds of smoke, muddy, turbulent waves rolling above sudden leaps of fire; the hideous roar and crackle were simply awful. There was nothing hut fire and glare and smoke as far as my eyes could see, and I could think of nothing—my mind was a blank.

Mac's rushing by me without a word, and disappearing somewhere, made no impression on me at all; I was lost to myself and to every impulse and feeling.    Mr. Finnie—good, faithful friend, he had left his own property exposed in order to save us—spoke to me for quite a time before I could understand him. Monte Paraiso was destroyed, he said; all the buildings burned; nothing was known of the Chinamen or the horse. There was no danger for this house, he said, as there were ten or fifteen men already fighting the fire and trying to master it.

The words did not seem to reach my brain. Monte Paraiso fire-swept—the buildings in ashes! I watched a lot of men—looking like demons in the glare of the fire—brandishing axes, swinging brush-hooks, wielding long shovels, whipping the flames, and beating the ground with boughs and branches in their desperate efforts to beat back and subdue the fast-encroaching enemy. I felt no interest in the proceedings, however; I was perfectly indifferent.

Mr. Finnie continued talking to me; he said I must  be calm; that there would be no danger if I kept doors and windows closed, for they might find it necessary to set "back-fire" around the house in order to save it, and the fire must not get in at door or window. Then he advised me to get breakfast for Mac, and he, Mr. Finnie, would be round again after a time.

Carefully I closed the doors, drew the curtains close to shut out the dreadful glare, then lighted a candle and tried to dress myself, while the roar and thunder of storm and fire continued unabated. A do.7.en voices at once might have shouted a warning to me—I could never have heard it. But my toilette was not elaborate. I threw on a skirt and jacket, thrusting my feet into some low house-shoes, then with the lighted candle I went into the kitchen, Sancho whining to come with me. I needed wood and kindling, and was compelled to go down the steps leading from the back porch, where Polly and Paloma had their houses, one on each side. Terrified by the unusual glare and tumult, they came fluttering down to crouch on my shoulder, but I put them back impatiently, speaking to them as I would to children.

"There is positively no danger," I said; "you must be calm; don't be afraid."

It was easy to preach, but I ran around to the other side of the house again, where I could see more men at work, for day was now breaking and they came from all quarters. Some I knew, others were strangers; and I went back into the kitchen and put great pots with water on the stove, so that they might all have coffee to drink when they had finished fighting the fire. The next time I came out I had a dim idea that " back-fire" had been laid along the line of the timberland, and presently I saw the "High Gate," those two majestic guardians, blazing up against the dark background like mighty pillars of fire. And still I thought it was only " back-fire."

Sancho close behind me, I wandered aimlessly about, watching the men outside and my coffeepots inside. Polly and Paloma flew backwards and forwards between their boxes and the stable, which stood in rear of the house. Presently I happened to turn round and saw the entire timber-line one solid wall of fire, an ocean of blazing forest behind it, and the roar and thunder of the storm and fire together blended into a noise that the boom of a cannon could not have penetrated. Then I saw the chain of fire-fighters slowly retreating; it was daylight now, and one after the other they came nearer to the house. The house was safe, they still told me; but I must be calm. Would not some of them have a cup of coffee now, I asked. But they all said, "Not now; pretty soon."

While I stood talking to them a strange procession came into sight, emerging from where the flames had been beaten back down the road. A horse, our Billy, headed the procession. Slowly they came, Hop, our own Chinaman, leading the horse, the other Chinamen hobbling along behind in Indian file, bare-headed all of them, and most of them without shoes. At short intervals Hop drew his sleeve across his eyes, and all the rest of the men drew their sleeves across their eyes. When I ran up to them I could hear Hop sob, shudderingly and convulsively, and all the other Chinamen sobbing, with chattering teeth.

"Housl'—clo'—eat 'em—all go," he sobbed, which meant that his house, his clothes, and all his provisions had been burnt up.

But Hop never forgot his duty, and tethering his horse to one of the big madrones, where a number of the fire-fighters' horses were already tied, he suggested that I should furnish the whole legion with hats, so that they could go help "bossee-man " fight the fire. I ran into the house and brought out everything I could find in the semblance of a hat, and so equipped they trotted off. I paid no attention to where they went, but I noticed that most of the other men were now near the house, some of them being on the roof.

Probably they were trying to get an idea of the extent of the fire, I said to myself, as I looked up to where they were scrambling on the roof of the porch at the back of the house. The piece of ground between this and the stable was dotted with tall fir trees, and I leaned against one of these, watching Polly and Paloma as they strutted along the roof, staring defiantly at the men, whom they doubtless looked upon as intruders.

Paloma flew away presently, and as I turned to watch her I noticed a tiny flame lapping along the fence that ran past up to the road in front of the house. But with the world of fire all around that little speck escaped attention. Presently, however, I saw the men hurriedly jump from the roof and heard a hissing sound behind me. I turned in terror, only to see flames leaping up into the crown of the very tree against which I was standing, while at the same moment the stable, belching flames from its interior, burst asunder with the sound and force of an explosion.

With one wild scream I ran round to where the horse was tied, and where all was now hurry and confusion. I comprehended at last that the fire raging in my dear forest was not " back­fire" at all, but the mad, murderous forest-fire itself!

I gave up everything for lost. In a moment I had untied our horse from the tree, in the branches of which the fire-fiend was already making havoc, and rushed round to the front of the house in order to make my escape down the road. The fire, however—probably the little rill I had seen but a minute ago—had reached the road before me, setting light to everything on either side and cutting off this natural avenue of retreat.

Where should we go—which way turn? North, east, and west were barred by fire, and our only chance was to get through on the south, though the tall firs on the land of our neighbour Williams were already on fire. Some of the men, being strangers to the locality, grew bewildered, and I could not make myself heard in the wild uproar. Making a dash for some bars in the fence that could be let down, I motioned to the men which way I wanted to go. We had plunged through the vineyard only a short distance when the wind, with a sudden swirl, brought up flames and smoke from the very direction in which I was heading. A little to the west lay the only avenue now open, but this was barred by a stout line-fence, on which the men at once got to work. The fire was now crackling in the trees above us, and I was half-stifled with smoke and flying ashes. Huddled together here, I suddenly missed Sancho from our crowd, and though I shouted myself hoarse it was of no avail; perhaps he was already dead.

When I saw the fence give way I put Billy's bridle into the hands of the men while I rushed through the opening first of all. My false courage had left me, and I ran scream in g, but always straight on, away from the fire, through orchards and vineyards, scaling or breaking down fences as I came to them. What I saw whenever I turned my head only drove me on the faster—the same blinding, glaring ocean of fire, the waves of flame rolling high as the tree-tops, in which fiery serpents seemed to be hissing in rage and fury, and clouds of suffocating black smoke. Every now and then pieces of burning wood came hurtling through the air, murky with smoke, and made still hotter by the rays of the sun.

Presently I came to a fence which I could neither climb nor break down, and I ran back to the highway, where, in the few houses that stood here, the women had all their possessions bundled up, ready to move, while the menfolk were away fighting the fire. None of these women succeeded in stopping me, but when I reached the bottom of the next hill I dropped exhausted on the steps of a veranda, where friendly arms were laid around me.

"Stay there," said my little friend, Eva Smith; " I will make a cup of coffee for you while you rest."

But the moment she turned her back I remembered my husband, Mac. Running back until I had almost reached the fire again, I met a number of the brave men who had so heroically and unselfishly laboured for us, though without avail.

"We could save nothing," said Mr. Frank Matty, their leader. "We tried hard to save the piano, and Mr. Burrell badly burned his hands trying to roll it out, but it burned up under the trees outside. We can do no mo

All this time the bell of the little mountain church was clanging out its call for help. It was about eight o'clock now on Sunday morning, but there would be no service in the church today.

Turning away from the men with a curious feeling that nothing concerned me, I pursued my way up the hill. One of the men had said that Mac was safe and was at Williams's house, which had been saved by the utmost efforts. The sun burned dull through a veil of smoke, cinders, and ashes, and l shaded my eyes with my hand, for I had no hat. My thin shoes were broken and torn, and the greater part of my dress was hanging in pieces on the bushes through which I had rushed.

I was now approaching the last rise in the road just before reaching the spot where people had always stopped with cries of admiration; they would have only exclamations of horror now. Mechanically I called frantically for Sancho, and my call was answered. Poor old Sancho came limping and whining piteously up the hill after me, one of Finnie's men following him; the poor brute had hidden under Finnie's house, which had fortunately escaped destruction.

The man kindly offered to go with me. I gave but one look toward the scene of desolation and ruin, where only an hour before had stood our tree-sheltered, flower-decked "Forest Nook." Nothing was left but the pitiful stumps and blackened bodies of the great spreading madrones; the tall firs lay dead among smouldering ash-heaps; the fire-crisped leaves on the charred, half-burned branches of the oaks were falling one by one to the heat-baked ground.

"All go," the old Chinaman had sobbed a little while ago. "All go," I repeated after him, but I did not sob—I could not.

I followed in the steps of my leader to the Williamses' place as if I had been blind, or had never travelled this road before. Half-way to the house I met Mac, his face begrimed, half his beard gone, and his shirt in tatters. He had been caught between the "back-fire" and the real fire in the timber, and he had had to throw himself on the ground for a long breath before plunging through the flames.

There was no time to waste on sentiment now.

"Jo," he said, "Hop tells me that the old fruit­ shanty was not burned when he left the place ; I am going up to see about it."

"Can we get through the fire?" I asked.

"Everything is burned that can burn," he replied, bitterly ; "it may be a little bit hot on the ground, though, and you had better leave Sancho here."

But the dog pleaded so pitifully, snatching at my hand and holding it, while his eyes positively wept, that I said he must take his chances with us.

It was not easy to find the road, for the whole stretch of country was now one blackened plain, with rills of fire still running through it. We found, however, that we had only to follow the trail made by the half-burnt bodies of rabbits, foxes, skunks, and wild cats, who had evidently made for the open road when driven from their lair by the fire. Birds, partly consumed by the flames, had dropped in their flight and lay thick strewn along the land. Every now and then I had to stoop hastily to crush out the flames that came lapping up the shreds of my skirt as I picked my way along. Sancho, poor beast, would howl dismally when his foot accidentally stirred up a bed of hot coals, and he limped worse than ever.

Alas for Monte Paraiso and its groves and gardens! The melted glass from the tall windows lay in lumps where the frames had dropped from their settings; there were a few melted door-knobs and nails by the thousand, but no vestige of the building they had come out of. Only the one big chimney, all-sufficient for the sunny clime we lived in, marked the place where the house had stood. The ramshackle building called the fruit-house, the oldest on the ranch, had been left by the fire in mocking irony. As for the rest, barn, stable, Chinaman's house, waggons [sic], ploughs, harness, hay—"all go."

I grew faint at last, and reminded Mac that neither of us had tasted food since the night before. So we went sadly back down the road and made known our desire for food, and a score of hands were stretched forth to feed us. It is worth something to find out how much kindness and sympathy there is still in the world: every door on the mountains was open to us, and when we decided to take up our abode at the old fruit-house till we could re­ build there was a procession of neighbours that whole afternoon bringing us things to eat, to drink, to wear, to sleep on. From our neighbours above we were still cut off by a wall of fire.

When darkness fell an old arm-chair was brought up for me, and I decided to pass the night in this, outside the shanty. to which had now flocked all the Chinamen. The wind blew hard again, though it was not now a raging storm. The air was thick with ashes, and the smoke, once caught among these hills, was not so ready to withdraw. For the fire was not yet out by any means, though everything above­ ground had been swept away. The huge roots of the manzanite, covering the hill-sides, were all aglow underground, and when the wind swept over them it would take a piece of the burning roots and carry it for hundreds of feet, starting up fresh fires. To me it seemed that no more fires could be crowded into the space visible. The flames had spread from east to west, from north to south, cutting across country to devastate fresh stretches and running swiftly back if but a narrow strip of land escaped. No­thing but fire on the entire horizon, and where there was no fire dense columns of smoke.

And so I sat the night through. Mac and the dog lay asleep in the shanty; Hop, watchful and alert, had drummed up old buckets and coal-oil tins enough to arm all his followers with, and whenever a shower of sparks was whirled by the wind toward the house, or a piece of burning wood was carried by, I could hear the water hissing as they put the threatened fire out.

I had not shed a tear; I did not close an eye. Sometimes, as a fiery fragment flew by, it seemed like the whirring of Paloma's wings when she returned from the forest to alight on my shoulder. I did not cry, but I groaned in bitterness of spirit; and ever, as the pieces of burning wood flew by with the whirl and the flutter of birds’ wings, I started up in my chair to call wildly to my pets: "Polly ! Paloma, come, come! Paloma, come back to me! Oh, Paloma, come home, come home! "