A romantic weekend!
My sister Patty and her husband, Marlin, were on a long-awaited break, relaxing alone at our family’s remote hunting cabin. The first evening, they gazed out at an idyllic meadow, sipping cold drinks, and watching the sun set beyond the purple hued mountains. Far off in the distance, a thin column of smoke rose into the pink clouds.
It had been a hot, dry summer. The worst forest fires in thirty years had destroyed more than four million acres of northern California forest. But those fires were too remote to concern them.
At dawn the next morning, they were surprised when firefighters. stopped by the cabin. The fires had spread into the forest a few miles away, they were told, but the winds were blowing in the opposite direction. No one anticipated danger, yet protocol warranted that everyone in the area received a warning.
The firefighters predicted that within a few hours the fires would be under control. Hundreds of fire engines, bulldozers, air tankers, helicopters, and water trucks had come to the Mendocino National Forest from all over the country to do battle with the forces of nature. Many of these strike teams were from urban and suburban areas, unaccustomed to forest conditions and unfamiliar with the tangle of pines, oaks, and manzanitas that feed a fire frenzy.
The atmosphere changed. By mid afternoon, the sky was dark and the air was acrid with smoke. The temperature had risen to 105 degrees. A distant roar like a waterfall reached their ears. Patty and Marlin were hurriedly throwing things in their truck to leave when two fire trucks sped up the dirt road and stopped abruptly next to the cabin.
“You’re not going anywhere,” Captain T. J. Welch shouted. The wind had shifted. A firestorm was coming their way at more than seventy miles an hour. All exits out of the canyon were blocked.
Battalion Chief Chris Pollack had devised a plan. The sixteen civilians trapped in the valley were being gathered in the meadow around the cabin. This acre of lush green grass would be the safety zone, everyone’s last hope of survival.
Ninety firefighters had been spread out along the roads, trails, and hillsides in the fire’s path. Their orders were to stay put until the fire was upon them, then to light a backfire and escape to the meadow.
The wind-driven flames raced south and east, sucking the oxygen out of the air and scorching everything in their path. The intensity of heat and smoke must have been terrifying. If a single firefighter had panicked and lit the backfire too early before fleeing, lives would have been lost.
The sound was deafening as the retreating firefighters and their trucks began arriving at the meadow safety zone. Marlin and several others had sprayed fire-resistant foam on the cabin and nearby area. Now they pumped water from the creek to keep the surrounding ring of trees from exploding in a fury of flames. Ash billowed up, coating everyone’s teeth and burning their throats. The civilians were ordered inside the cabin and told to lie on the floor. Patty calmly distributed wet towels to breathe through, but they dried almost instantly. Marlin was still outside, pulling fire hoses until they melted from the intense heat. He returned to the cabin to hold Patty close one last time. “I don’t think we are going to make it through this one,” he whispered.
Patty thought of our deceased father who had been a Captain in a volunteer fire department for forty-six years. “Daddy,” she prayed, “please don’t let us die like this.”
A running crown fire came rolling down the hillside toward the cabin, moving faster than any human could run. Trees vaporized. The energy released was a hundred times that of a normal forest fire, with an explosive force nearing the intensity of a small atomic bomb. Death seemed seconds away.
No one panicked. Everyone prayed.
Then, almost imperceptibly, the roar began to diminish. The smoke thinned slightly, and they could see each other. Finally, someone rose and peered out through the heavy storm shutters. The fire had passed over them.
Everyone stayed at the cabin for two more days until rescue workers could clear an escape route. Instead of evacuating with the others, my brother-in-law and sister drove to the top of the canyon where they could use a cell phone to call for supplies. My mom, brother, sister, son, and nieces hurriedly filled several trucks with supplies—food, water, beverages, toilet paper—all the necessities to care for the firefighters over the next ten days and drove for hours through the devastation.
The fire continued to rage for fourteen days in nearby canyons, ultimately burning over eighty-two thousand acres. It became the second-worst firestorm in United States history, but not a single life or home was lost because of the discipline and courage of these firefighters. These heroic men and women stuck to the main plan exactly and concentrated on survival for all, not just for themselves.
As a television reporter said later, “They had to look the devil in the eye and not blink.” Of course, as everyone will admit, a little prayer didn’t hurt either. Our family believes that my dad heard Patty’s pleas and did his part to save lives.
Afterward, our family made a sign saying, “Thank You, Firefighters. God Bless You. ” God did indeed bless them that terrible day.
Since then, my sister and her husband hold annual reunions at “the safety zone” with the firefighters who saved their lives. (This extraordinary combat between man and nature was cited in a special national training video for firefighters and aired as a feature story on 20/20.)
Survival can be highly dramatic, worthy of the front pages. It can also be ordinary, something we do daily almost without taking notice. We should celebrate both. Acknowledge your major victories, but don’t forget to salute each small triumph. Each time you remain positive in the face of adversity and find your personal safety zone, you are one step closer to being the star you are.
Cynthia Brian is a New York Times best selling author, speaker, coach, and Founder/Executive Director of the literacy and positive media charity, Be the Star You Are!®. Tune into her popular life changing talk radio program at http://www.StarStyleRadio.com.
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