I am terrified of fire. A lot more terrified than I let on most of the time. But I don’t think my fear of fire is unwarranted, nor do I think it’s unhealthy. I have what I am going to call a pretty healthy respect for fire, and it comes from experience. One particular experience, mainly. I don’t talk about it much, which is pretty odd for me. But I’m going to tell you about it right now.
It was 1985, I was 18 years old. I was out for a walk with my boyfriend on a crisp Saturday night in November. It was about midnight, because we’d started to watch Saturday Night Live before I suddenly got very antsy and told my boyfriend that we needed to get out of the apartment and do something. Anything. So we decided to go for a walk in the railroad district of Ashland near my apartment on 4th & B (today it’s the Illahe Gallery, but back then it was low rent for a college girl).
As we turned onto A Street, we could see a glow several blocks away. As we got closer, we realized that it wasn’t a hobo’s fire near the railroad tracks. It was a building. On fire.
I mean ON FIRE!!!!!! It was on FREAKING FIRE!!!!!!! I mean it was totally engulfed in flames on one end!
We started running towards the flames, sure that there would be fire engines and police showing up within moments, that people would be running around, freaking out, like we were, because a building was on freaking fire! OK, let’s be honest. It was on FUCKING FIRE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
But no. When we got there, it was just a building with flames shooting out of it in the middle of the night, and not a soul to be seen. Nobody running around, no lights on in the row of houses across the street, no distant fire siren. The only sound was crackling flames and the two of us, out of breath after running for 3 blocks. It was as if the only living things were me, Larry and the fire.
Except we both knew that there were people inside this building.
This was the building that housed the railroad workers I often served when I worked at my shitty part time job just across the street, waitressing the breakfast shift at the appropriately named Railroad Cafe.
When we ran around to the end of the building that was engulfed in flames, we realized that there were actually two buildings on fire. The dormitory, and the old historic railroad depot about 100 feet to the south. Then it struck me as odd that the metal frame and rubber tires of a lonely bicycle was completely in flames, but not the wooden post the bike was chained to. It was right about then that I realized this couldn’t be an accidental fire.
So there we stood, Larry and I, wild eyed, knowing people were in the building, trying to figure out what we should do, how we should react. Larry’s bravado took over. He kicked in the nearest door and the first thing I remember seeing inside was a tv set exploding. And then I pleaded, “Don’t go in! If there’s anyone in there, they’re already dead!”
He yelled back, “Go call 911!”
And then he went in. He ducked into the door he’d just kicked in, and disappeared into a dark, smoky room. I thought that would be the last time I’d see him alive.
I stood there, for just a moment, as my boyfriend disappeared into a burning building, and the world pretty much just stopped. I’ll never forget that moment. It’s the moment that I became terrified of fire, and then found out how I react in that kind of situation. It wasn’t good.
When he went in, I stood there for just a moment. I felt the heat on my cheeks, and on my arms through my wool winter coat. I could feel my hair starting to curl up and singe. I felt like I was going to burst into flames too. I felt like the whole building was going to go up in seconds, taking my boyfriend, me and that bike with it.
It was then that I freaked out. I turned and ran, hysterically wailing the whole way, across the street and started to bang on the door of the nearest house, screaming, “FIRE! FIRE! Open the door! Call 911! HELP!” But nobody answered. Nobody ever answered. I remember screaming, “What is wrong with you people?!” before I turned and ran towards my apartment, a block away, still wailing and hyperventilating, and screaming hysterically.
As I rounded the corner, I saw a light on in the kitchen of the Railroad Cafe, where Marc, a former high school classmate who was now the night janitor and dishwasher, was oblivious to the flames across the street. I ran up to the door, pounding on it. He let me in and I grabbed the phone on the wall, calling 911. I was babbling so incoherently to dispatch that she had to ask me to stop, take a breath, and start over. I thought I was being so calm, I couldn’t understand how the dispatcher couldn’t understand what I was saying. In my mind I was speaking so clearly, so concise. I don’t ever want to hear that phone call played back for me. I know I panicked. I know I was hysterical. I just don’t want it played out in front of me again. I slammed the phone down and ran back to the building, visions of my boyfriend burning alive running through my head.
I don’t really remember what happened next. Only that when I got back, my boyfriend was singed, but he had not burned up. He was alive, and he was okay. And he hadn’t come across anyone in his reckless venture into what turned out to be the rec room for the dormitory. Our next job was to make sure everyone else got out alive as well. It was then that he and I started to run down the east and west breezeways of the building, pounding on all the doors, rousting railroad workers from their slumber, screaming at these men that the building was on fire, get out NOW!
Sometime during all this, a fire engine finally arrived. I remember standing across the street, crying, as they started to fight the flames.
In the end, they all got out alive. Nobody perished, nobody got burned. But the building was a total loss, and was later demolished. Coincidentally, when a new, two story building was built on the same spot years later, the man who is now my ex-husband rented an apartment on the top floor. Meanwhile, the second fire in the historic depot turned out to be in the trash can, and the building was saved.
The next morning, detectives wanted to talk to us. I thought they just wanted to pick our brains about how we discovered the fire and saved about ten guys from a burning building. Turns out they wanted to talk to us separately. Down at the station. In fact they hooked us up to lie detectors. They asked if the thought of fires excited me. Hell yes, I said, but not the way they meant.
When I stood just a few feet away from a building that was burning in front of me, behind me and up above me, I never felt smaller. Never felt more insignificant. Never felt more perishable than that moment. And yeah, that made my heart race. Gave me all kinds of anxiety. Freaked me out and made me start wailing hysterically as I ran down the street positive that my boyfriend was a goner after he ran into a burning room with an exploding tv set. Excited? Um, yeah.
I was bewildered that they seemed to think maybe I had something to do with that fire. I did have that weird, eery anxiety at just about the moment the fire most likely started. I chalked that up to women’s intuition, or you could call it a 6th sense that we all have but haven’t developed to its full potential. I don’t think the detectives saw it the same way.
But eventually, they asked a question that made everything fall into place. I don’t even remember the question really. Maybe they asked if anything seemed odd or out of place that night when I was running around hysterically. But I remember the answer. I told them how something I saw that night did seem out of place. Besides the burning bicycle and the second fire in the old depot. It was the moment that I knocked frantically on one of the dormitory doors, and it opened up to a darkened room. In front of me stood a railroad worker with his pants and boots on. High, leather lace-up boots that take several minutes to put on. And they were tied. As if he always slept like that. Ready to go. Yeah, I thought that was weird. I heard later on through the grapevine that they pinned the fire on one of the workers, who was apparently disgruntled with the railroad over something. Might have been that guy.
I’ve been so lucky over the decades since that night, not to lose any dwelling I have lived in to fire. But it doesn’t stop me from pondering every day what I would save if fire was eminent, if I knew a fire was bearing down on my home. But again, I’ve been lucky never to be forced to put my fire evacuation plan into effect.
This week, thousands of residents right here in Shasta County weren’t so lucky. An evacuation plan was forced into action suddenly in the middle of a Monday afternoon. Some tried valiantly to save their homes, refusing to evacuate. Some managed, some didn’t. At today’s count, almost 70 homes went up in 10 square miles of flames, and at least one person perished while trying to protect his property. I can’t even begin to imagine the horror that the residents of Happy Valley and Igo went through, and I hope I never again experience anything like the hysterical terror I went through on that November evening.
But you know what? I’ve got a go-bag. Ready. At all times. My house is insured. My stuff is just stuff. If it comes down to it, I’m grabbing my bag, my daughter and my dog, maybe my laptop, and I’m outta there. Not sticking around to watch my tv set explode.
Because I’ve got a terrifying fear of healthy respect for fire.
My story is nothing compared to the stories you’re going to be hearing in the next couple of weeks from people who were just going about their business on Monday afternoon, and were suddenly faced with a wall of flames that took out more than 12 square miles of neighborhoods. Flames that took almost 70 homes in a span of about 8 hours. In my story, I was just scared and ran for help. You are going to hear and read stories about people who not only ran for their lives, afterwards they waited for 3 days to find out whether their pets, their neighbors, their belongings and their homes were gone forever. My story is simply a testament to the healthy respect one gains for fire after an experience with one. And I’m sure that’s something I do share with every one of the people that made it out alive from the Clover Fire.
Today’s accompanying playlist is from the Best Of files…from just around this time last year, when I was driving to Redding from Ashland, and couldn’t get past Mt. Shasta due to a wildfire that closed down the freeway. Readers called my attention to several songs that I should’ve included but somehow didn’t, so reviving this list from the ashes is just that much better this time around with some new additions. Feel free to add more suggestions in the comments section below.
Click the play arrow above to stream the playlist, or find it directly at Grooveshark.
- Fire – Etta James
- Fire – Ohio Players
- Fire – Pointer Sisters
- Fire – Jimi Hendrix
- Fire – Arthur Brown
- Sex On Fire – Kings of Leon
- I’m On Fire – Bruce Springsteen
- Forest Fire – Josh Wilson
- Serpentine Fire – Earth Wind & Fire
- We Didn’t Start The Fire – Billy Joel
- Burning Down The House – Talking Heads
- Skies On Fire – AC/DC
- Fire – Big Bad Voodoo Daddy
- Bob Marley – Burn One Down
- Forest Fire – The Dream Academy
- Water & Fire – Deep Forest
- Forest of Fire – Jon Anderson
- The First Fire – If These Trees Could Talk
- Fire Bomb – Rihanna
- This Fire – Franz Ferdinand
- World On Fire – Sarah McLachlan
- Man On Fire – Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros
- Burn It Down – Los Lobos
- Ring of Fire – Johnny Cash
- Setting The Woods On Fire – Hank Williams
- Light My Fire – The Doors
- Great Balls of Fire – Jerry Lee Lewis
- Paper In Fire – John Mellencamp
- Fight Fire With Fire – Metallica
- Firebird Suite – Igor Stravinsky
Valerie Ing-Miller has been the Northern California Program Coordinator for Jefferson Public Radio in Redding for nine years and can often be found serving as Mistress of Ceremonies at the Cascade Theatre. For her, ultimate satisfaction comes from a perfect segue. She’s the mother of a teenage daughter and a 7-year-old West Highland Terrier, and can’t imagine life without them or music. Valerie wakes up with a song in her head, she sings in the shower and at the top of her lungs in the car.