Fathom Mag
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Published on:
March 26, 2019
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2 min.
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What Fires Burn

Four years ago, hot ash fell at their feet while my parents loaded up the car with pictures and passports. I wasn’t home. I was a couple miles away at the store when my mom called and told me she had time to grab two things from my room. Faulty hot-tub wiring had started a fire in the neighboring town which, encouraged by miles of dry California brush, created its own weather system - a real-life firestorm - that spread within about fifteen minutes to the two nearby towns and eventually destroyed over a thousand homes and killed four people. 

The flames were close and bright.
Rachel Joy Welcher

My family, along with 10,000 others, had to live out that cliched question: What would you grab if you only had five minutes to decide? 

People opened their farm gates and let their horses run from the smoke, unable to corral them in time. Some had the foresight to grab tents and sleeping bags, while most of us didn’t think about evacuation life, but only what we wanted to save from melting. The flames were close and bright. 

That was the Valley Fire of 2015. My parent’s home was still standing when we returned two weeks later. Two years after that, I heard a knock on my door at 6 a.m. and my mom’s voice telling me: “The house behind ours is on fire. Get dressed and grab what you can carry.” 

The adrenaline rush, now familiar, spurred me on, but I wasn’t awake enough to think. I looked out from our back porch and could see the flames engulfing the house on the hill behind ours. This time, I knew our house wouldn’t survive. I decided to help my mom gather the cats, which isn’t an easy job, as cats rarely obey humans. Before we even started the car engine, firefighters had successfully stopped the flames from spreading. Two houses were gone, but the danger for us was over. We unpacked, sighed, but couldn’t get back to sleep. 

Less than a year later, two weeks before my wedding, fires broke out again in Northern California. My town was put under advisory evacuation. We packed suitcases but stayed put. The smoke blew in and out of our town as we drained our inhalers and tried to keep the windows shut. Main roads were closed for weeks and the fires raged, mostly uncontained, in multiple directions. I wondered if my wedding dress, which was at the dry cleaner’s, would make it. I wondered how our wedding guests, including my fiancé, would get there. I wondered if more lives would be lost and more homes, in our still-recovering community, would burn. 

That fire never reached our town, but it destroyed acres and structures all over Northern California. With the hills behind us still smoking, we got married, I wore the dress, and Evan read his vows:

I promise to walk this narrow path with you.

I promise to carry the cross with you.

You are summer in the forest.

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Rachel Joy Welcher
Rachel Joy Welcher is an editor-at-large at Fathom Magazine. She earned a Master’s degree in theology from the The University of St. Andrews, taught high school English for ten years, is a published poet (Blue Tarp, Finishing Line Press), and writes for magazines such as Cordella, RELEVANT, and The Gospel Coalition. She lives with her husband Evan, who is a pastor in Glenwood, Iowa.

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