Before Deputy Tempe Crabtree saw the evidence of the forest fire, she could smell it. Smoke was heavy in the air and got thicker as she drove up the highway into the mountains. Monday was one of her days off, but when something happened in her jurisdiction she was often the first responder. Her instructions from the sheriff's sub-station in Dennison were to make sure everyone who lived in the path of the fire, which started in the higher elevations of Bear Creek canyon, had obeyed evacuation orders.
As resident deputy of the large but sparsely populated area around the mountain community of Bear Creek, Tempe's job usually consisted of making traffic stops, arresting drunk drivers, solving problems among neighbors, and looking for lost children or cattle. Along with the highway patrol, Tempe was the law in the community, located in the southern Sierra where the foothills grew into mountains.
The last estimate Tempe had heard about the fast moving fire was it covered more than 1100 acres. She was stopped at the staging area by a highway patrolman. She knew him by sight though she couldn't remember his name.
Though his uniform still had sharp creases, large circles of dampness crept from his underarms. Opaque sunglasses covered his eyes. He put both hands on the open window of her Blazer as he bent down to speak to her. "Where're you headed, Deputy?"
"My orders are to check out some of the houses in the path of the fire. Make sure everyone's out."
"Be careful you don't put yourself in danger. It's one fast-moving fire. It's in a rough area where they haven't been able to get any personnel in yet. They're doing lots of water drops. All the roads are closed from here on up."
"Thanks for the warning. I know some of the folks who may not have received the word yet."
Tempe drove by a private airstrip that had been taken over as the fire command post. Men and equipment, fire engines, water tenders and bulldozers were dispatched from there, as well as truckloads of hand crews.
Leaving her window down, Tempe drove around the traffic cones that blocked the road. She planned to stop first at the Donaldsons', but when she reached their place they were loading horses into a trailer, obviously on their way out.
The higher she drove on the winding road, the darker the sky, the thicker the smoke, and the harder it was to breathe. Gray ash showered her white Blazer. She passed fire trucks and men heading upward to fight the fire. In her heart she was thankful her son, Blair, was already back on the coast for his last year in college or he'd be on the fire lines. Fighting fire had been his first love since the age of sixteen when he began hanging around Bear Creek's fire station.
Tempe stopped at several homes hidden down winding trails or perched on hilltops, surrounded by pine, cedar trees and underbrush. Most homes were deserted, with signs of hurried evacuation.
Loaded pick-up trucks drove down the hill, some pulling horse or cattle trailers, not getting out any too soon from the looks of the black sky and the large amount of raining ash.
She had one more place to check. A beautiful home and separate studio built of sugar pine stood atop a knoll surrounded by chaparral, and a thick pine forest. Tempe had been there once on a domestic abuse call. The owner, a well-known artist, Vanessa Ainsworth, now lived alone since her boyfriend had been served a restraining order. If Vanessa wasn't gone already, Tempe hoped to help her collect her animals and paintings and carry some of them out for her.
When Tempe made the last turn before Vanessa's she halted at a horrifying sight.