©2018 C. Henry Martens
Two weeks ago, Julie was cleaning her house. She was always cleaning her house, a home made beautiful by her effort as she put a woman’s touch into every nook and cranny.
She wasn’t feeling well, and she’d noticed a tinge to her skin color, but the weekend was looming and she decided to put off her concern. She was a woman, a mother, a wife, and she was comfortable with putting off her concerns about herself.
On Monday, Julie was in the hospital. She was so yellow some of her family thought she was orange. An emergency procedure placed a stent, a tiny plastic tube to keep a duct open, in the vicinity of her pancreas and liver. The procedure was relatively minor, so Julie was released to go home.
Somewhere in this time frame, a fire started. It would become known as the Dollar Ridge Fire.
Julie went home with hope. The doctors were concerned. There was a mass. There were tests performed, the results to be waited on. The family was made aware.
Wednesday, Julie returned to the hospital in pain. The stent had caused swelling, which shut off the duct that it was intended to open.
Over the course of the next week, things deteriorated.
Family gathered together as strong families do. Julie’s husband, Tony, stayed by her side, a son and daughter-in-law took over much of Julie’s care when the medical establishment was too involved in other things. Grandchildren visited and hovered if work didn’t conflict, and Julie’s younger sisters visited the hospital room so often they became a fixture.
In some ways, it was an ugly, painful, and frustrating time. The not knowing was the worst part, but eventually, the knowing, as realization dawned on all of us, was even worse.
In some ways, there was beauty. To see a family close ranks in the care of a loved one is a valuable and mystical experience.
Julie chose to die at home and left the hospital on a Saturday after a week and a half in medical care. My wife and I helped Tony get her in the truck, a mismanaged affair by the hospital.
Hospice supplied a bed at Julie’s home, and it was set up in the front room by the window. The hospice nurse advised and supplied pain management.
The Dollar Ridge Fire was growing but seemed far away. It was consuming one of the family’s favorite areas and feeding itself on the drought-dry cedars and pinions and sage.
Focused on Julie, Tony and his sons watched the fire, hoping for the best. The son and daughter-in-law caring for Julie in the hospital lived next door, so two homes and all the tools of their trade were threatened.
The aircraft fighting the fire flew overhead so often that it was not uncommon to feel droplets hitting those below.
An area was designated for mandatory evacuation, and Tony and Julie’s home was right at the boundary. Perhaps because when the sheriffs were informed of Julie’s condition, the boundary was adjusted.
Julie continued to decline.
We had planned a trip to see Julie on the Fourth of July from our home several hours away, but emotions being what they are, my wife, Julie’s youngest sister, vacillated between not going at all and going a day early.
Early on the third of July, my wife decided to stay home. The news wasn’t good, and I could tell she had reservations about seeing her sister in a declining state.
The telephones had been getting a lot of use, and as one of our major concerns was that we didn’t want to be in the way yet wanted to help, ours was getting a lot of use. In calling Tony to offer any help we could give, he asked us to buy him a broom.
He said, “I don’t know how Julie kept up with all the dog hair.”
Of all things, he wanted one of those rechargeable electric brooms.
We had planned on taking the car since it gets much better mileage than the truck. The morning news and some comments on the phone conversations made me wonder if the truck might be needed. We’d already offered, even suggesting that we bring a trailer in case of evacuation, but Tony had declined.
It occurred to us that he might be entertaining some fatalistic thoughts, trying to minimize events as sometimes people do.
We decided to take the truck.
By the time we got to the house… broom in hand… Julie was unconscious. We missed her by minutes. The hospice nurse just happened to be visiting and had administered a high dose of morphine.
The room seemed overly crowded, so I went outside to sit in a shaded plastic chair, watching the smoke from the fire rise.
The fire was south and west of the homestead. Fruitland is high in the mountains of an old range with low, rounded peaks and eroded canyons. The peaks south looked like nothing more than large hills, and there were no flames visible in the miles I could see. Mostly white smoke poured up, filling the horizon.
We had watched a helicopter dip water from a pond on the way in, just up the road not a mile away. There were constant planes in the air, some small crop dusters and at least one identified as a B-26. They appeared to be having some success as the fire had topped the ridge the night before in places, yet now, there were no flames visible.
Occasionally, someone would come out of the house. The vigil over Julie was wearing, and they needed some release, some time away. They found relief in watching and discussing the fire, the planes, and in discussing the stories they knew of neighbors and friends evacuating. I was told about the propane tanks exploding and of the two police vehicles being engulfed in a flare up as the officers fled on foot with the elderly couple they had come to rescue.
My wife came out and cried a little but mostly expressed that she was so glad we came.
We started to discuss leaving. We had a three-hour trip home and didn’t want to stay for dinner, again not wanting to be in the way.
The smoke west of us suddenly blackened.
Within fifteen or twenty minutes, the flames had breached the top of the ridge, and we could see the fire moving toward us as the wind picked up.
Everyone seemed to come to a decision. Perhaps they had already discussed evacuating when the flames breached the ridge, but it seemed like there was an unspoken and universal agreement. We all began to pick and choose what we considered valuable and began to load the trucks.
Tony and sons plow snow and remodel and build in the summer months. Their livelihood is tied up in their trucks and tools.
Three men showed up. The local Baptist pastor and two weathered and well-worn men, locals that the family know.
While Tony stayed in the house with Julie, he and the pastor worked together to remove what they could, the pastor packing the truck outside.
The elder son, Tod, his home next door threatened, concentrated on his own priorities, loading his own truck. His son Nick helped, loading his own truck with Tod and Wendy’s valuables.
The younger son, Little T, took over for Tony outside. He took charge and let the rest of us know what we should do to best help in saving what we could. Little T’s son Daniel showed up and pitched in. The snow bladed trucks were hitched to trailers, the beds loaded, the trailers stacked. ATVs, tools, tires, ladders, and chainsaws, as well as anything else movable and of value. Five snow plow pickups and three utility trailers as well as a pontoon boat. My own pickup would tow the new camping trailer.
My wife began to strip the house of sentimental things, loading them into our pickup. I had to stop her, saying that the truck needed to be empty so I could use the truck to shuttle people back to get the rest of the every-day-driven trucks.
We would be taking them to Daniel’s house, seven miles away and across the highway to the north.
The farm animals would be left behind. There was no place to keep them, and domestic rabbits and ducks would die in the wild if released anyway. If the fire bypassed them they would be better off where they were. The Labradors would ride on top of the loaded trucks.
In the meantime, my wife, Wendy, Julie’s daughter-in-law, Nick’s wife Catherine, and Mary, a friend of Julie’s that had flown from Oregon to be with her, took care of Julie.
Tony was reluctant to call for an ambulance.
In the midst of the chaos, the two sons pestered their father to call the ambulance.
Tony didn’t want to… but he finally called the ambulance.
The flame was moving across the hills fast. Every fifteen minutes or so, I had stopped to look up and take stock of the fire’s progress. The fire breached the ridge two miles away. In the two hours we had been saving what we could, it had advanced a mile.
We had to move. It was time. If we didn’t shuttle the plow trucks soon we wouldn’t be able to return to get the rest of the trucks and help with Julie and getting our women out. Tony and his truck were to be left behind for those staying behind, just in case.
For some reason, everyone seemed hesitant to leave.
We intended to caravan to Daniel’s, but he and I drove too fast, leaving the rest behind when entering the highway in heavy traffic. Still, everyone made it as they followed others that knew the way.
We parked the trucks and I was having trouble unhooking the camper. Daniel jumped in and pulled the pin on the receiver rather than unhook the ball. Because I was stuck, the other men unloaded one of the plow trucks and took off. Little T arrived with his truck late, slowed by towing an unstable wood splitter. He and Daniel piled into my truck, and we drove like mad to get back to the homestead.
We couldn’t even see the smoke of the fire from Daniel’s, seven miles away by winding roads. As we got closer the smoke seemed to grow larger and darker and more threatening. By the time we were on the highway, I wondered if there would be much time.
We got back to the homestead, and the flames were still over a half mile away. The mountain was no longer visible. Orange eruptions flared and danced below the dark clouds of ash at the fire line. Some flames were huge. Houses or outbuildings or larger trees.
The ambulance was still not there but was expected any time.
I told everyone I was going to move my truck so the ambulance would have plenty of room, and everyone jumped to do the same.
The ambulance arrived.
My wife appeared as she left the house to stay out of the way. She collapsed into my arms, aggressively attached to me and sobbing.
“Never leave me! Never leave me. Oh God, you can’t ever leave me! Please don’t ever leave me!”
I held my wife. At this point, there was nothing else to do. She was my priority.
As suddenly as her tears had started, they were over. She had things to do.
Last minute scrambling to save what we could. I put my favorite antique metal lawn chairs in front of the garage where there was no fuel for the fires. Maybe they would survive.
The fire was a half mile away and covered the hill to the south. With a wind from the west, most of it would bypass the homestead, but there was an arm of encroaching fire still to the west, oncoming. Heavy gusts blew over the metal lawn chairs, and the sky was lost to the smoke. Everything was tinged orange.
Julie came out of the house on a collapsible stretcher. I remember noticing the bright yellow parts on it. She went into the ambulance. Tony climbed in with her.
The ambulance left.
I told Mary, Julie’s friend from Oregon, that she would be going in our truck. I threw her bag into the back. She climbed into the truck and suggested it was time to leave.
I heard Tod say that he and Wendy were going to stay behind for a while.
Everyone else had left.
My wife climbed into the truck and we took off.
Arriving once again at Daniel’s, we pulled up to the porch to unload the easy chair we had in the back. Tony had suggested in the last minutes that he would like to save it.
The ambulance was parked directly to our left, the doors open wide. Julie was inside.
We were informed that Julie had passed away.
My wife is glad we were there. She told me she had the privilege to close Julie’s eyes in the ambulance.
Life… and death… brings out the best in strong families. Those people that lost things to the Dollar Ridge Fire will be stronger for the experience. But it was a tough day.