Fire, Fire, Everywhere

Deep Inside a Blazing, Sunless Summer

By Khaliela Wright

Abnormally hot weather last June left land across Idaho and in much of the West parched. The daytime highs were above a hundred, unusual for a month that’s typically known for rain. By the first part of July, my parents and grandparents, all of whom live in Bonner County, were talking about the fire at Bayview. Fires don’t generally start that early and it promised to be a long, hot summer.

Not long after the Bayview fire, I received a call from a frantic coworker. I had known her since she first was hired a little more than a year earlier. She had just been promoted and was now in her first month in the field working on the new census survey. “There is a fire here and all the roads are closed,” Arlene said, sounding a little frantic. “I don’t know what to do. In training, they said we were never to send in a case marked as being in a disaster area, but the whole place is burning! It’s not safe and with the roads closed and the area evacuated, I can’t get there.”

“Go to the assessor’s office and find out who owns the property and try to get a phone number,” I told her. “With any luck, it’s a vacation home with owners safe and happy in California. If you can get the interview over the phone, there’ll be no need to drive out to the property.”

As it turned out, California, Washington, and most of the other western states were burning too, which made tracking down out-of-state property owners difficult, because people don’t answer their phones after they’ve been evacuated. We kept encountering that problem all summer.

In mid-July, I received a call from my boss saying he was transferring to me all the southern cases of a colleague named Evelyn. She lives in Benewah County and a fire was threatening her home. The Forest Service had issued evacuation orders for the area. My caseload went up twenty-five percent that month, although my hour allotment did not. Thanks to budget cuts, no overtime had been allowed for months. I was irritated, but at least my home was safe, which was more than could be said of Evelyn’s.

As the summer progressed, smoke filled the air and permeated every crevice of our homes, every aspect of our lives. Fires broke out all over the state. I began to joke that I was going to take up smoking, because then at least I’d get a filter.

As highways were closed and others among my coworkers were evacuated with each new threat, I volunteered to travel and pick up as many additional cases as I could. I saw a lot of Idaho that summer, through a smoky haze that was sometimes brown, sometimes gray, and sometimes an eerily red glow. Each time I left my home, I wondered if it was for the last time. If fire broke out nearby, I wouldn’t be there to gather pets, personal items, or family heirlooms. There would be nothing I could do, because I might be halfway across the state and would have no idea of the threat.

But that wasn’t quite true. I might not know about a specific fire threatening my home if I wasn’t working in the county, but I knew very well what kind of threat a fire brought. Vivid images had seared into my mind as I made the rounds of the state. These are images that most likely will stay with me forever.

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