Wildfire forges clear view of what is most important in life

A hopeful drizzle fell as we followed the police escort up State Route 157 Saturday morning in Kyle Canyon.

Although not nearly enough to knock down the raging Carpenter Canyon fire that threatened the heart of the Spring Mountains, the precipitation helped thin the dense smoke from the burning forest enough to allow a few residents to briefly return home to gather pets, medications and personal items. When the opportunity arose, cousin Lynda Fleming and I took it.

The mountain was a hive of emergency vehicles that converged on Kyle Canyon from bases throughout the region. At sporadic intervals, the two-lane main road went from looking abandoned to being heavily traveled by rigs of all shapes and sizes.

Although first responders have a challenging and dangerous job, they know half the firefighters and police officers who die each year are killed in traffic accidents. Add a curtain of smoke from a roaring forest fire, and it was a good thing the residents were out of the neighborhoods and off that road.

Metro officer Mark Baumann, our escort, was understanding. But he also had a job to do. We were given a few minutes each to grab essential items from our homes and return to the truck.

A few minutes.

What do you take with you when there’s a chance you might lose all your material possessions?

At her house, Lynda focused on collecting her parents’ urns and family photographs. The rest, suddenly, didn’t matter.

Then it was my turn, and I couldn’t think straight. It was like a bad game show playing out in real time. This is your life. You can’t make a deal. You must beat the clock.

In one fist I carried a short list of requests from my daughter, Amelia, who was safely down the mountain and anxiously awaiting the latest news. Top of that list: retrieve our two cats, Brandon and Sunny. Family and friends had previously collected a box of snapshots and Zippy and Nifty, the terriers that perform at my place like diminutive vaudevillians.

The clock was ticking. My fingers fumbled with the front-door key. Inside, the normally bright and noisy house was shadowed and silent. I called for the cats and collected other items on my daughter’s list.

There were many things I thought I needed, or at least wanted, but those thoughts swiftly fell away. There, on the windowsill in the living room, I saw photographs of my daughter and the rest of my family. There was Amelia, bald from chemotherapy, managing a smile. There was Amelia fishing just last year. There was my late mother looking happy and youthful on the Oregon coast more than 30 years ago.

With help, in those few minutes two small suitcases were jammed with photos and Amelia’s most cherished possessions: Among them, three small stuffed animals that witnessed every day of her cancer treatment.

It was then I knew the Smiths would be OK, no matter what happened. The mood began to lift.

But I still had to find our cats: sleek and dignified Brandon, and a feline Oscar Madison named Sunny.

Brandon is comfortable in the hills. I didn’t expect to see him. But Sunny, well, Sunny is special.

Sunny is Pigpen with paws. The species is known to be clean, but Sunny didn’t get the memo. He’s the only cat I’ve ever seen that never bothers to clean himself. Not once.

I called for Sunny. Too lazy to run, he awakened from his nap in the tall grass and ambled over. In a moment, we all were back in the truck and headed down the hill.

I attempted to calm Sunny’s vehicle anxiety by holding the big orange tabby in my lap. He thanked me by urinating profusely. Laughter broke the silence in the truck. There’s nothing like an incontinent cat to lighten the mood.

As the road unwound, I was again reminded of the things that matter: Family and friends, photographs and memories. My laughing dogs. Even an ungrateful cat.

Although I hope you never have to answer the question, “what would you take with you?”

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Email him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. Follow him on Twitter @jlnevadasmith.

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