“Packing up a Lifetime,” July 21, 2020

The fire started without warning, roaring like a ravenous lion through tinderbox brush in the canyon below our house. It was late afternoon, a beautiful day. Doors were open to catch the breeze blowing in from the coast. I was sitting at my computer, trying to think of something decent to fix for dinner, when my phone rang.

It was Henry, my 8-year-old grandson, who lives nearby.

“Hey, my darlin’!” I said.

“Nana!” he shouted, the way he always does when he’s got something big to tell me, “are you and Papa Mark OK? Mom and I can see a huge cloud of smoke! And it looks like it’s burning by your house!”

I took a breath and noticed a faint smell of … smoke?

“Thanks for thinking of us,” I said, “but don’t worry, it’s probably not as close as it looks. I’ll check and call you back.”

“Hurry, Nana!” he said.

When I stepped out on the patio, my heart begin to pound. At the bottom of the canyon, clouds of smoke billowed high into the sky. Then, I saw flames licking up through the trees.

My husband was in the garage.

“Fire!” I shouted, as I ran past him to the driveway to get a better look. He ran after me and for a moment we stood there together, staring at what could be the end of a home we loved and a lifetime of treasures.

“I’ll back the car out,” he said. “Go get what you want to take and let’s pack up.”

I looked down the hill and saw a neighbor, whose house was even closer to the flames than ours, loading up his truck. I waved. He waved back. Then he came up the hill to make sure we knew about the fire.

The next minutes passed in a blur. Never in my life have I been so glad to hear sirens and see tanker planes and a helicopter circling overhead.

I’ve always had great respect for those who risk their lives running toward danger so the rest of us can run to safety. But I had never felt that respect quite as deeply or as personally as I felt it at that moment.

I said a quick prayer for safety for everyone, then ran inside to pack. What do you take when there’s no time to be picky and not much room in your car?

We moved to this valley just over a year ago, knowing it was, like most of California, a high risk for wildfire. Last summer we packed “emergency bags” with clothes and necessities to keep on hand if, God forbid, we ever had to run for our lives.

Where did I put mine? Not in the closet. In the garage? No, under the bed! I dragged it out and unzipped it to add anything else that might fit. A few family photos. A book I published 20 years ago. My laptop computer and a copy of my will. Odds and ends, pieces of my life.

As I packed up all that I could take, I felt painfully aware of all that I had to leave behind: The dining room table where my kids once did their homework. Paintings and photos and keepsakes that could never be replaced. My husband’s musical instruments. And more than 30 years of yellowed newspaper clippings of my work.

I grabbed my wedding ring off the bathroom counter, slipped it on my finger and told myself, “Take what you can, leave the rest, all that matters is life.”

So I picked up my bag and walked out of my house for what I knew might be the last time.

And then, I was given a gift, a finer ending to a story that could’ve been a tragedy. While my husband and I and our neighbors were packing up our lives, the firefighters, God bless them, had fought back the blaze.

The tankers were still circling. But the flames were gone. And the smoke was slowly clearing.

Only a few things remained for us to do: Breathe a sigh of relief. Be forever thankful. Unpack the car. And tell all our loved ones (and anyone else who might care) not to worry, the fire was out and we were fine, thanks.

I called Henry first.


  1. Anne M Davis says

    OMG Sharon! So much for catching up on email. I am so glad you are both OK and that your beautiful home is alive! It’s a reminder that we all need a plan–too bad we didn’t have one for the pandemic. God Bless you both and I hope we get to see that beautiful home again some day soon. Or wait—we’ll have to get you over here, first! 🙂

  2. 30+ years in the Redding area. Countless fires, large and small. The Carr fire was unbelievably destructive to so many. And of course the horrific Camp fire. I prayed to God every day and every night to keep us safe and keep the fires away. Finally moved far away from California this month. Here it’s green and beautiful. Sharon so sorry for your scare. Been through it many times. Hope you don’t have to go through it ever again. Take care.

  3. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Sharon, for reminding us just how precious life is, and what truly is important in our lives. I am so thankful that the firefighters were able to stop the fire, and that you, Mark, and all your possessions were saved and safe. As a retired volunteer firefighter of 27 years, I saw the shock of lost personal items too many times. I know your fear and pain, but I am so happy that you did not have to go through the finality of that anguish. Blessings.

  4. Kathleen Mitchell says

    Linda Myers, I’m right there with you. I missed her too, and so blessed to be able to read and share these hopeful columns. Stay safe and strong🙏💕

    • Kathleen Mitchell says

      I’m so thankful to reconnect and share these great essays. You know my heart, Sharon.
      Stay safe and strong.😊🙏💕

  5. Praise God. We have a “faithful Father”. He is also faithful when it all goes. Really makes a person think of our priorities. God Bless you. Keep writing. What a day brightener you are.

  6. Jeanne Hobson says

    So very thankful that you are ok. God heard your prayers. I’ve often wondered what I’d do in a situation like yours. We had a tornado come through our neighborhood (in NC) 20 years ago. We were blessed but many lost everything. I save your articles in the WS Journal. You bless me.

  7. Kate Sciacca says

    Oh my goodness…. so happy to read the ending. The BIL is one who runs toward danger (LAFD Fire/paramedic/swift water rescue and helicopter) — at almost 60 I keep saying it’s time to retire… “but I love what I do!” God bless those awesome souls.

  8. Betty McNall says

    Been there too several years ago I was seeing with my 4-H daughters and this very loud noise went over the house! Ran outside to see the smoke, our neighbor plowing a fire line around his grain field, then the sheriff’s car coming down the driveway Ins blow horn telling us to leave! Kids loaded pu with item while I called family to come help move 40 head of cattle, that of course, headed for the timber! Long story short, borate planes got it stopped 1 mile from our house! Then the kids had to unpack, but happy to do!

  9. Reba Underhill says

    So glad everything turned out well

  10. Terry Brinker says

    Thanks for sharing your story. What a relief. It makes you think about what’s really important.

  11. Wow! What a scary life event. Thankful all is well. Reality checks catch us off guard. Trust in God is the only sure thing. Praise God for His mercy. God bless the firefighters. Katie Musgrave

  12. Mary Edmonds says

    I read about your near fire. I have thought once in a while what we would happen ifvour house caught on fire and God cleaned out our lives, ny daughter and I. We have 12 cats and a dog, and that would probably take our time, just rescuing as many as possible. Although I have often joked about the lovely bonfire that my journals full of life and short stories will make motor the family once I am gone. But I would really hate to lose them in case someone would read them. But our family of furries would be the most important. Getting down toward my eighties, I do not fear the future. But I long to know we are all safecwithim His hands. Thanks for your story.

  13. Sheila Upchurch says

    Oh my! Very thankful you are safe as well as your home.

  14. Cathy Followell says

    I can’t see what I am writing through my tears. This column made me ugly cry and I thank you for that. My mind has become so warped to this crazy world spinning out of control. I feel every day like I am sitting on hold on the phone while listening to horrible, strange sounding, ominous elevator music play loudly in my ear. I praise God that you and yours stayed safe to live another day and that precious Henry can breathe a sigh of relief when he gets that call from Nana. Oh Lord help us Sharon. I know where the answer is going to come from but I still have to fight myself every day when I consider my kids and my precious grands. God be with you and yours.

  15. James W Peterson says


  16. Jeannette Buck says


  17. Bev Stupek says

    Oh man, my heart is pounding! Flashing back to 2 years ago, almost exactly, and the Carr Fire in Redding. SO GLAD you and Mark — and your memory-savers—are all ok❣️

  18. Carol (Billings) Kirkman says

    I’m so happy you and your husband are safe.

  19. I really enjoy your column. Living during a pandemic in the twilight years of you life, it brings joy to my day. I always looked forward to Monday’s newspaper because that’s when our paper ran it. The paper got very expensive and very small. We decided after 35 years not to subscribe. I was so disappointed because of the loss of your column and then I found you on Facebook. What a relief!
    Keep writing.

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