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The fire progressed steadily through the tall pines and up the long valley in the Sawtooth mountains north of Boise. All but one of the cabins had been evacuated. Fire crews were attempting to protect structures but were fighting a rearguard action in the face of the advance. I had been sent to talk the old man out of his cabin before he was cooked. “He’ll burn. Just see if you can get him out of there,” the IC had said.
I knocked on his door. He opened, squinting against the amber light and stinging smoke. “Mr. Bartlett? I’m Doc Johnson. The Incident Commander asked me to come by and talk to you.”
“Who are you?”
“Doc Johnson. I’m the fire shrink. They have me work with the firefighters, usually.”
“And old farts like me.” He smiled a little. “I’m Ted Bartlett. Glad to meet you. I don’t need to be shrunk.”
I couldn’t help smiling. Two engines went by, making hearing difficult. “Mind if I come in?”
“Suit yourself. I got water.”
We sat in the living area of the small place, decorated with stuffed deer heads, hand mounted posters from old Outdoor Life, and Field and Stream magazines. Lanterns, saws and Indian blankets hung on the walls. An oilcloth draped the small table as a gesture toward civility. We drank our water.
“So what are you supposed to say,” he inquired patiently.
“I’m supposed to ask you to leave, Mr. Bartlett, to evacuate with the rest of the cabin owners.” I looked beyond him out the window, from which I could see the approaching glow from the flames. I heard one of the engines backing up to the cabin. “There’s no way they can save this place.”
“Well, that’s kind of you, and the Incident Commander. But you shouldn’t have bothered. I’m not leaving.”
I sipped my water. “Why not, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“No, I don’t mind. I’ve had this place all my life. It was my family’s summer cabin until they passed, it’s my year-round home now.” He looked around. “It’s what I know.”
I thought about that. “You don’t have family?”
“Not here, anyway. And they don’t want me there.”
“Out of contact?”
“Pretty much,” he allowed. “We fell out a few years ago. Couldn’t seem to get it back together.”
The red glow was getting brighter, hotter. The wind was picking up, and I heard something hit the roof.
“So you’re telling me that if you left here, you’d pretty much have no place to go.”
Then something hit the window. I looked up and saw a frothy pink foam being sprayed on the outside walls. This meant the crew was about to give up on the cabin, insulate it, and move on. They’d officially thrown in the towel.
“Look, Mr. Bartlett,” I began.
“Ted…” he interrupted.
“Look, Ted. These guys outside, me, we’ve got to live for years with what you are about to do. Martial law has not been declared. We legally cannot pull you out of here. You will burn to death, and we’ll be left with that. You’ll haunt us for years. Please do not do that to us.”
He was quiet for a long time. I could hear the snapping and the groan of the approaching fire. The red was beginning to peek through the pink foam through the window. I could smell the smoke.
Ted sighed and looked around his home. “You’re right, Doc. You can’t live with that. I can’t die with it, either. I guess we’d better go.”
He got up from his chair and we headed for the door. I noticed he already had his bag packed.
Born just before the end of WWII, and raised in Claremont, CA, Kendall Johnson grew up in the lemon groves and was raised by an artist and a teacher as well as assorted coyotes and bobcats. Newly retired from clinical psychology and teaching, he paints and shoot pictures, and is the Director of Gallery 57 Underground in nearby Pomona. His collection of stories about trauma consultation in the field, Chaos and Ashes, will be released by Pelekinesis this summer. He lives in Upland, California with his photographer wife, Susan Ilsley.