The light through the trees was unmistakable.
It was 11:45 PM when I dawned my coat and slippers to get something I had left in my car. As I approached the driveway I noticed the night sky was lighter than an hour before. I looked up. Beyond the cedars that separate my property from the tree farm next door, an orange flickering glow lit up the sky.
My hand was already dialing 9-1-1 before I could fully see the inferno. I ran to the gate, walled by concrete barriers to limit theft, and slipped through an opening to the side. I tempered my jog while talking with the emergency operator, but as I cleared the nursery of saplings, I was hit with a full-scale reality of the moment. My neighbor’s house was on fire.
The tree farm, countless acres of nursery and new growth, had an old rustic, two-story house on the property—used occasionally by the owner. The house was large, set in a scenic spot surrounded by woods and overlooking a mountain view. And it was thoroughly engulfed in flames. I ran closer to the house shouting repeatedly, “Is anyone here? Hello?” The crackle of burning wood and shattering of window glass was the only reply. Beams squealed as the fire intensified, and I made my way around the house until I was convinced that no one was inside.
From a distance, I could see a flashlight shining dimly through the wooded area to the west. I approached to discover another neighbor behind a fence. He said that the fire department was having trouble getting into the property. Suddenly, the piercing sound of gunfire filled the air. I ducked behind a woodpile. Shots continued in rapid succession and then in scattered intervals, with the sound emanating from the lower level of the house. I peered toward the house to see flames bursting through lower windows. “I think it’s ammo,” said the neighbor, tucked in the darkness behind a tree. When the firecracker sounds subsided, I made my way back around the house to the gate in hopes of helping direct fire crews.
At 12:02 AM my phone rang. “This is the fire dispatcher,” a woman said. We’re having some trouble getting to the fire, what is the nearest cross street.” The tree farm has two entrances, one from my cul-de-sac by way of the aforementioned gate lined with concrete blocks, and another from the opposite side, some 20 acres away. I began jogging toward the other entrance. As I approached the other side I was met by a firefighter who said that this entrance was also lined with concrete barriers and they were struggling to find access. Assured that I had done all I could do, I walked back toward the fire. Helpless and alone in the darkness, I watched the house burn.
It was 12:38 AM when I saw the first figures appear from the woods to the west. In a matter of moments, spotlights lit the location and firefighters pulled hoses through the trees toward the house, which had collapsed into a single floor surrounding a two-story chimney that looked emaciated in its exposure. Orange smoke swirled in plumes as firefighters sprayed water from multiple directions. An outer wall, partially dissolved by fire, stood solemnly on the north side as orange smoke highlighted a doorway with an eerie glow. A glass panel shattered and wood popped as water penetrated the inner sections. “Try to get the fire out on the north side of the foundation,” a firefighter shouted to others. “We need more hose.”
Four firefighters leaned their weight into a hose and walked it backward in unison to reposition. Flame growled angrily and hissed as water poured onto its cinders. Shadowed figures appeared and disappeared as spotlights sifted through thick white smoke to light the area. A cloud of smoke and steam bellowed from the house as if the sky and earth were touching for a moment, and conversation began to turn casual as it was clear the flames had been defeated.
It was about 1:00 AM when the smoke and steam began to dissipate. Sparse small flames stood like candles on corners and edges, extinguished into scattering fireflies with a final spray. A red glow shined through an opening as sparks danced and hissed from within, before simmering into oblivion. The water stopped. The night was once again filled with silence, unusual in its contrast to the previous chaos, as the tattered remains of outer walls began to fade into darkness—a ceasing beauty of fury and form.