We always knew fire was a possibility. When it came that day, there was no warning. We smelled smoke and that was disturbing, so we got on our phones and tried to find out what was going on. All five neighbors on the dead-end road where we lived had left. We decided to throw stuff into our cars and drive down to check our exit route—but by then the fire had reached the end of the driveway. We could see it on the ridge coming toward us. I thought, This is not possible.
What actually saved our lives was a motorcycle trip we’d taken about six years earlier to Big Bear Lake, in Southern California. We’d stopped at a coffee shop and the guy who ran it told us how a fire had come through and he and his buddy had survived in a pool. After that, I always had that in the back of my mind as a last resort. Jan called 911 as we were running and told the dispatcher we were going to the neighbor’s pool. Luckily, it was only five feet deep, so we didn’t have to tread water. When the fire hit, the tree went up behind the pool, it got so hot. We were underwater holding our breaths and then coming up and sucking air, and then going back down. We did that for, I don’t know—it was timeless. There were ashes flying all over and the neighbor’s house was burning, so we moved as far away from it as possible.
Once the trees, the houses, everything was consumed, I thought, We’re going to be OK. Jan’s phone had melted on the pool deck, so we had no way of connecting with the outside world. We decided to get out of the pool and see if our house had survived. It hadn’t. We stayed there, keeping warm by a burning railroad tie. I think it was 48 degrees that night. We huddled around that little thing until dawn, then walked three miles, barefoot, to the road at the bottom of our hill. We ran into a sheriff, who took us to a friend’s home. When I got out to thank him, he saluted me.
As told to Will Cockrell.