Twice I've left my home, my offspring safely buckled into the backseat and my most precious of belongings stuffed into every crevice of my SUV. Twice I've told myself, "It's just stuff. The important thing is we're all safe." Twice I've cried hysterical, gulping, gasping, sobs so crazy and overtaking that the person on the other end of the phone can't understand what I'm saying. Twice.
The first time was four years ago when the "Flood of 2011" caused the Mighty Missouri to deliberately and slowly march out of its banks and overtake neighborhoods. The water crept in slowly that June morning. We'd been waiting for it for a week. Friends had moved furniture, packed boxes, filled sandboxes, held me while I cried. We'd just moved into this house. I'd just thrown away my last moving box. And they told us there would be four feet of river water on our main floor.
But like the second time, the first time natural disaster hit, God proved more powerful, more capable, more trustworthy than even the wisest emergency manager or land surveyor. The water indeed came to our house. Groundwater seeped into our garage and our crawl space, but the river, though it rushed down our driveway and filled our yard to depths of three feet, it never touched our house. That was God.
Since the flood that kept us from our home for three months, I've always said, "I don't ever want to go through a flood again, but I'd never wish it away." That flood changed me. It made me see what was really important and what was just "stuff." And I don't just mean material belongings. I'd filled my life with so much "stuff" that I'd lost sight of what was important. The flood? It washed that away. It gave me perspective.
But that's not all. I remember that when Evacuation Day came, we thought we were ready. We'd already moved most of our things to my sister's house. We'd already sandbagged. We pretty much thought all that was left to do was to load the possessions we can't do a day without -- clean underwear, wallets, toothbrushes -- and get in the car and go. But we were so wrong. From the time the water slithered into our neighborhood until we pulled away, we had two hours. And for every second of that two hours we were working on getting out.
There was still so much left to do when the time came to go.
And that's what I kept thinking last Monday when the first wildfire in Burleigh County burned acres of trees and grass just three-and-a-half miles south of our house. I saw the towers of billowing smoke and watched the exodus of neighbors and knew that if the wind changed directions, we would be joining them. But the teams of firemen put out the fire and a few hours later, normal life resumed.
Still, I'd had a dream on Saturday night that the field to the west of our home had caught fire and we'd been forced to leave without anything. And that dream haunted me. So before we went to bed, I got out the box of important documents and packed our wedding album and both kids' baby books. I told my mom -- who thought I was crazy -- that I'd rather have to put them away later then leave them behind.
Tuesday afternoon, at 4:20pm, I opened my backdoor to let my dad out and we saw the undulating nebula of smoke south of our backyard and knew the fire had reignited. A few minutes later, my husband called. He was on his way home from Montana and had heard on the radio that the fire had reignited and jumped the creek that snakes its way behind our property. "Turn on the radio," he urged. "Be alert."
I went upstairs and turned on KFYR. And for some reason, I decided this was the perfect chance to move the Lego table and bookshelves in Adam's room. I needed a few minutes to process. My mom called and said that the fire was on the UMary hill, about 2 miles south of us. "Still far away," she said. I went out on the upstairs lanai and the thick smoke clouded everything past the trees of the pasture behind us. The wind was blowing steadily and strongly to the northwest, right toward us.
That's when I packed the go bags. I told the kids, as calmly and even-voiced as possible, that the fire was nearby and the wind was blowing our direction. Once the bags were packed, I put on my shoes. That's when Gracey said, "Mom, are we gonna leave?" I shrugged.
5pm. I called my husband and asked if there was anything he wanted me to be sure I packed. I piled his selections alongside mine. Laptops, safe filled with photo dvds, family movies and things like social security cards, the small jewelry box of family heirloom jewelry, our Bibles, clothes, medications.
5:30pm. I'm talking to my mom -- who is also my neighbor -- on the phone and she says, "Oh my gosh, the flames are behind the neighbor's house." I go outside and look to the southeast and can see the red-orange glow, swear I can feel the heat, and in slow motion turn to see the neighbor running with her horse away from the flames.
This thing just got real.
Back in the house, the kids are upstairs playing XBox. I call out, "Okay, guys, I think it's time to turn that off." Adam hears the catch in my voice. He knows. "Go ahead and grab your bags from upstairs and put them in the car." And that starts our loading of the cars.
5:37pm I update my Facebook status in between trips to the car:
April 14 at 5:37pm · Flames in sight. PRAY NOW!
My dad stands in our walkway, looking at the fire approaching, arguing, "they're on other side of the creek."
"Whatever, dad. It's time to go," I tell him. He goes back across the driveway. We finish loading.
Before we leave, I go to my mom's. She's frantically packing. We throw stuff into a bag. I grab her dogs and throw them into my dad's car as he goes racing by on his UTV. Towards the fire. I chase after him yelling, "It's just stuff, Dad. Leave it go. It's just a house. We have to go."
I make sure my mom is in the car and we start to go. My dad is still pulling hoses, trying to hook them to faucets. He intends to fight this fire. The kids are crying and screaming in the back seat. They're freaking out that their Pops is going to die in this stupid fire. Mama bear kicks in and as the smoke thickens around us, I know we have to go. I call Scott and tell him we're leaving. "Meet us at Wal-Mart," I say. We've never picked a meet-up place before. When the flood came, we were all home together. I didn't have to do it alone that time.
As we leave, I whisper "Thank you" to the Sheriff directing evacuees at the corner of our street. He nods solemnly. "Drive safely," he says.
I start to cry. I drive away adrenaline on high, chest tight, feeling defeated. Not knowing what will come of this. Again. Again I leave my home but this time I'm pretty sure I won't have a home to come back to when this is all over.
Yet, there's a peace. I remember God's goodness in the flood. I remember that He was with us every step of the way. And I tell myself that even in this there will be beauty. Even in this, there will be something for which we can say, "thank you." Even in this, God will use it for my good and for His glory. And even this will make me stronger. It won't defeat me. He won't let it.
To be continued...