Matthew Teague (thanks, Mark): Wildland fire chief Darrell Willis tore along the highway and turned on his truck’s headlights to cut the smoke. Ash and embers rained down around him.
Over the past two days, a small mountain fire had come to life, a monstrous life. He’d just learned that his team of crack firefighters had deployed their emergency shelters, thin blankets of aluminum and silica they carried as a last refuge.
Now he was careening toward the south end of the fire, down where they were. He grabbed his cellphone and called his wife. “Pray with me,” he told her.
He saw two shapes on the closed highway and stomped on his brakes. As if summoned from a dream, two horses emerged from the smoke and galloped toward him, wild with fear. Then they veered and disappeared into the blackness. Willis stepped on the gas.
He pulled into the parking lot at the Ranch House restaurant, where several dozen firefighters and refugees had gathered. Shock filled their eyes as they stared across Highway 89 at the fire.
Willis’ heart leapt when he saw Brendan McDonough, a member of his 20-man team of wildland firefighters.
But McDonough was alone. Willis’ stomach did the math before his head could. He felt a ball of nausea start to rise.
Together they watched silently as the fire advanced across the valley, leaping from house to house. Huge propane tanks exploded and sailed through the air.
A helicopter hovered over the blackened site where the team had deployed their shelters. “We’ve got 18 confirmed dead,” a paramedic radioed in.
Willis felt himself pull away from the world, as though seeing the scene through the wrong end of his binoculars.
The radio crackled again.
“No, make that 19.”