FICTION November 3, 2023

Fire Family

I’m unlocking the door to the Gas and Go, starting my 6 a.m. shift, when I get another emergency text. There’ve been fire warnings buzzing through the Sierras all summer long, and it barely feels worth it to check my phone. But this notification isn’t about air quality—it says there’s a mandatory evacuation for everybody here in West Pine. I go outside and crane my neck to see the sky under the bill of my A’s cap. It’s only a little hazy, and the air doesn’t even smell like smoke. I text Ed to ask him what to do, just as a car rolls up. I turn the door sign to “Open” and hit the breakers for the gas pumps. 

When the fire started in the foothills two days ago, they evacuated East Pine—everybody knows those fancy new houses go up faster than a box of matches. But with the river and the interstate dividing the two sides of town, West Pine feels safe and distant. I go online to check the Pineville neighborhood Facebook page, but it’s hard to tell if anyone’s scared without seeing their faces. Lots of people are saying there’s no way the fire could jump the interstate. One guy who sat next to me back in metal shop class posts that no one can force you to evacuate, and only an idiot would leave their stuff for the looters. But then people start pulling into the station, their cars loaded with supplies, headed for shelters or motels or family. They need to get their gas from somewhere. So I stay. 

People on the neighborhood page know me as Charlie from the gas station who keeps losing his tortoise. I got some nasty comments the second time it happened—they don’t understand that Dave’s a real escape artist. Mom bought him out of the blue after Dad left, even though Dave would grow up to be the size of a platter for a Thanksgiving turkey, even though she must have known he would outlive her and me, too. Then Mom got sick, and I moved back home to help, but the cancer got her anyway. Now it’s just Dave and me, and he breaks out of his pen so often that I taped a note with my cell number to his shell. 

My shift finishes at 1 p.m., but Mona doesn’t turn up. Ed still hasn’t answered my texts, so I stay, scrolling through the neighborhood page. Turns out, lots of people left West Pine yesterday before the order even came. Mona was one of them. I can’t blame her, with those kids to look after. I close up the Gas and Go and head for home to check on Dave. 

Dave’s outside his hutch trying to soak up the sun, but it’s getting hazy outside, not much better than the special lightbulb I have to use inside for him in winter. I put lettuce leaves into his dish, and he tears at them, bobbing his head up and down like he’s agreeing with something I said. I check the Facebook page. Firefighters from as far as Sacramento are headed up the hill to Pineville, trying to knock down the fire before it spreads any further. Somebody posts, worried about their house down the hill from mine. Once you’ve evacuated, you’ve got no idea what’s happened to everything you’ve left behind. I get the ladder from the carport.

Growing up in this house, I never once climbed on the roof, and I’m surprised there’s such a good view from just one story up. I can see all the way down Main Street until it curves round and goes over the river right before the interstate. There’s a streak of blue sky up over the Sierras to the west, but toward East Pine, there’s an angry glow. They say the fire ripped right through the Kmart and the bowling alley, even my old high school. It wasn’t so long ago that I wished someone would burn that place to the ground. I wouldn’t have thought that way if I’d known what it was like to watch the smoke rising from where it used to be. 

Holding on to the chimney with one hand, I take photos with my cell phone of houses in every direction, and I post them right away to the neighborhood page. Aw, thanks, Charlie. So good to see the street is ok. Stay safe up there, buddy. Just by being here, I’m helping people, which is better than being scared.

I’m coming down the ladder when a police car crawls to a stop in the middle of the street. The officer gets out and stands there, waiting for me to come to him.

“You’re aware there’s a mandatory evacuation order?” Nothing about him moves but his mouth.

“I heard you can’t make people leave.”

“So if the wind changes, the firefighters should stop what they’re doing and go rescue your ass?” 

“I’ll just take Ice House Road and follow the river to Grizzly Flats,” I say.

He pulls a pen out of nowhere. “I gotta take down your name.”

“Is it for a ticket?” I ask, feeling caught.

“It’s to notify your next of kin in case the wind changes.” 

I see myself smile in his mirrored sunglasses, but I can’t tell if he’s joking.

The wind dies down overnight. Someone renamed the neighborhood Facebook page “Pineville Fire Family,” and they’re all helping each other. Everyone—well, mostly everyone—stops complaining about the rich people buying up the town. Now they’re posting lists of the missing and which shelters take dogs. There’s no place to get supplies, so I walk over and open up the Gas & Go. I still haven’t heard from Ed, and what harm is it to make more money for him? This way, I can fill up Mom’s old Kia, especially since my truck’s still up on cinderblocks while I try to fix the fuel pump. 

A few people come in for gas, but most want food, especially folks from East Pine, who are driving round the fire lines hoping they can get in to see their houses. Wildfires feel like something that happens to other people, but it happened to them. They buy Lunchables and Hot Pockets so they can eat on the go. On the Fire Family page, I watch them sneaking past the barricades, livestreaming what’s left of their houses. There’s smoke coming out of the rubble, nothing there but chimneys, the burnt-out shells of washers and dryers, and charred cars with frozen rivers of melted chrome running down the driveways.

The sky gets dark in the middle of the day, and tiny particles of ash and debris are blowing on the wind. I go home and climb onto my roof, taking photos of the neighborhood with my phone to let people know their houses in West Pine are still here. It hurts to breathe, so I pull my undershirt up over my nose, inhaling my sweat. With white flakes of ash spiraling around me and the sun lost in a silvery haze, it could be Christmas and not wildfire season. I post the photos right from the roof and watch my phone.

Atta boy, Charlie. You’re the best. I smile. From here, Dave’s hutch looks like a house in a little village dusted with snow. It’s quiet and calm. I climb down the ladder and put fresh water in his bowl. I change my profile picture to me and Dave looking down Main Street like we’re standing guard. All evening, I keep checking my phone. Everybody likes the photo.

This morning, the air smells like burnt Styrofoam. Orange light filters through the blinds. Someone posted a photo of a single house standing in a burned-down neighborhood in East Pine. Turns out the guy stayed up on his roof, defending his house with a pressure washer. The wind’s kicked up, so I hose down Dave’s hutch and the roof of my house. Then I walk along the street, hooking up my hose wherever I see a spigot, spraying roof after roof. Maybe I could save the whole neighborhood. My hose only reaches the roofs of other little houses like mine and not the fancy new houses that are three stories tall. I guess those millionaires aren’t so lucky after all. No one else is around, not even the guy who said he was going to stay to shoot the looters. I post selfies of myself spraying roofs and stay on the page to watch the comments come in. Way to go, Charlie. We should have a block party when this is all over. Stay safe.

Mona from the Gas and Go sends me a text saying Ed, our boss, is missing. He lives in East Pine, but maybe his phone burned up in the fire. I open up Google Maps and drift down the streets of East Pine before the fire took it. I can see those houses still standing when I know, for a fact, they’re nothing but a burn scar now.

I’m running out of food for Dave—I shake the last of the tortoise chow in his bowl just as there’s a roar from above. We both look up at the plane spewing a cloud of bright red fire retardant so close that I can taste it in the air. Plumes of smoke rise, but maybe it’s a controlled burn to stop the fire from spreading. There’s a glow in the distance, like a broken sunrise. Dave cranes his neck to glare at me. I walk to the Gas and Go to see what healthy food I can find. There’s trail mix and tubs of live bait—could Dave eat a night crawler? The lights flicker, the hot dog rollers stop spinning, and the lights go out. It’s so quiet without the hum of the drinks machine. It’s only then I remember that the pumps cut out when the electricity does. I should have filled up sooner. I’ve got a little gas left in Mom’s Kia, but half the time, the gauge sticks, and I don’t know which half. 

On the Facebook page, they’re saying the fire jumped the interstate, and it’s headed up the mountain to West Pine. You can’t believe everything you read online, but the wind is blowing like crazy, and the ash is burning my eyes, so maybe this time it’s true. I run home, trying to come up with an escape plan, but the fire feels so real now it’s hard to think. One of the new houses has an in-ground pool, and I could stand in the middle of it while fire burns around me, but I can’t hold Dave that long. I could drive away, but my quarter tank of gas might well be empty. 

Then I remember the Pineville Fire Family. I barely finish typing into my phone, “Anybody got a can of gas?” and I get replies. SAVE DAVE! someone comments. A guy on my street has a can in his carport. Get outta there, friend. By the time I get the can, embers float like fireflies over Dave’s pen. One lands right on the paper I taped to his shell. I run to hose him down and knock over the gas can. My shoes are splattered with gas, the pines above me are burning. It’s time to go.

I heave Dave onto the front seat, and he stretches his neck toward the windshield, ready for escape. I push the button to go live on Facebook, wedging my phone into the holder on the dashboard so everyone can watch me winding through the forest. Thumbs-ups and hearts rise like balloons, and I ask everyone how to get to Ice House Road without using Main Street. Ash and embers are raining down on us, and the pines are burning with the roar of a freight train. My one headlight lasers through the dark, aiming up the mountain to a place that’s not on fire. But Dave and I, we’re not alone. Everyone’s so close, they’re out there in the dark, I can feel the heat of their breath.

Erin Striff’s fiction has appeared in Split Lip Magazine and *82 Review. She is an associate professor of English at the University of Hartford, where she teaches creative writing, drama, and literature. She lives with her family in West Hartford, Connecticut.