It was another one of those hot, summer days in the golden hills of Clayton, California. My sister and I were playing with toys inside our house while the baby sitter, Crystal, watched over us. My parents were always busy running the horse ranch, so I was well accustomed to someone else watching us during the day. I was about to reenact a Batman fight scene with my action figures when suddenly my mother ran into the living room. Without a word she went over to the phone and dialed 9-1-1. Crystal asked what was the matter. My mother had enough time in between trying to catch her breath to say one word: “Fire!”
By the age of six, fire symbolized cherished times during the rainy season. My family would relax by the fireplace in the evenings and reconnect with one another, the warm flames scaring away the cold. The gentle crackling of the logs slowly coaxed my eyelids to fall and sent me into a dream world all my own before Dad carried me to bed. This new experience of fire was far from that. We went outside to find the sky filled with black smoke. Roaring flames covered the hillside. The wind was whipping the fire across the pastures at a remarkable speed, all that delicious, dry, golden grass for the taking. My mother went back to coordinate the removal of horses to safety while my dad gathered the rest of the crew to try to beat back the fire. My cousin Joe didn’t even bother to put on his shoes before he ran out and started beating the advancing flames with his shirt. Crystal took my little sister back inside while I stood watching. Soon I could hear fire engines in the distance. Neighbors from miles around saw the smoke and did not hesitate to load up their earth moving equipment so they could dig trenches around the fire. Others pulled their horse trailers onto the property, readying for a possible evacuation. I stood looking at the great, orange beast.
I was terrified, terrified for all the people I saw taking on this force of nature, terrified for the trees and animals I had known my whole life. I started to cry. Behind me I heard a familiar voice call my name. I quickly dried my eyes and looked around. It was Uncle Bill. He was not my actual uncle but was a good friend of the family. He was a thin, quiet man with a black beard who wore a large, Russian Ushanka hat even in the summer. He was someone who people thought of as a little odd, but to me he was a friend. He said he wanted to show me something. We walked down a small dirt path behind the house that led to the ranch pond. I watched in awe as a helicopter suddenly appeared above us suspending a large rubber bladder underneath. The wind generated from the propellers shook the trees around us. It hovered and dropped down to fill the rubber bladder with water from the pond, then flew off towards the ongoing battle, dumping the contents on the fire. We must have watched the helicopters do this for what seemed like hours. Each time part of my fear evaporated. Small planes flew overhead, spraying the flames with fire retardant. Huge bulldozers came and pushed large mounds of dirt around the fire.
By the time we returned to the house, the fire was getting under control. This grand collaboration was something to see. After a long struggle, the fire was finally put out. Everyone gave a loud triumphant cheer and returned home. The firefighters, on the other hand, kept a vigil through the night to ensure that the charred embers of burnt trees would not reignite the blaze. When I looked out my bedroom window into the dark I could see little splashes of bright orange light spotting the hillside.
The morning after, what were once golden hills were now black. A man was arrested for trespassing and driving under the influence. The burnt remains of his car were towed from the ranch. The hot underside of his vehicle had started the fire. I knew the black would disappear with the winter rains and the green growth of spring. I also knew now that in case something like this ever happened again the quiet farming community we were a part of would always be there to lend a hand.
Paxton Sommer is the 2nd place winner for non-fiction in the 2018 Art & Literary Contest. He is a current Lake-Sumter State College student