Trapped in a roaring wildfire, he learned that God is always watching over us.
Posted in , Jan 24, 2020
On the plains of northwest Oklahoma, you can see for miles: nothing but prairie grass, clumps of cedar trees and rugged red-rock canyons. But even with my binoculars, I could barely make out the helicopters, one after the other, dumping water on a wildfire at the horizon. I wasn’t concerned by the small plume of smoke snaking skyward. It had to be at least 50 miles away, across the South Canadian River even.
That afternoon, my uncle Larry and cousin Tony and I had driven to this 4,000-acre ranch for a planned three days of turkey hunting. Larry had brought three horses for us to use, moseying about the ranch like real cowpokes. At age 57, I was semiretired from a career in retail management. It felt great to get away for some male bonding.
I snapped a few pictures of the bushy cedars, the canyon rims—nothing but blue skies above—and texted them to my wife, Ande, two hours away. “Nothing to worry about,” I typed. “Having a great time.” She’d seen the fire on the news and called a few minutes earlier to warn me, but we’d lost the cell connection. I didn’t want her fretting. I knew she’d be praying regardless. All that talking-to-God stuff came harder for me. It was hard to imagine him actually listening to anything I’d have to say.
The wind had picked up, blowing hard from the southwest. We left the horses in the stable by the ranch house and climbed into a Gator utility vehicle, Larry driving, to scout for places to draw out the gobblers the next day. We headed north on a small gravel road that hugged the ranch perimeter. We stopped here and there to look for signs of turkeys.
We drove for about a mile before Larry turned to head back south, toward the ranch house. As we did, my eyes went wide. A wall of flames was racing toward us, maybe three quarters of a mile away. “Get us out of here!” I screamed. Larry whipped around, bouncing hard over the gravel road. How had the fire jumped the river? To cover that kind of ground so fast would have taken tornado-like speed. The flames would be on us in no time.
“What about the horses?”
“What about our trucks?”
“How can we save ourselves?”
We weren’t expecting answers. We were just trying to keep from totally losing it. I looked back. Amazingly, we were gaining on the fire.
Until we ran out of road.
A heavy-duty barbed-wire fence blocked the way. There was no way to get the Gator past it. Larry, Tony and I jumped off and scrambled to the other side. But it hardly mattered. On foot, we were goners. I called Ande.
“We’re surrounded by fire,” I shouted over the howling wind. “Call 911! We need a helicopter to get us out of here.” The connection went dead.
I looked around. Where were Larry and Tony? The smoke was so thick, I couldn’t see more than a few feet around me. I yelled for the other guys. All I could hear were the cedars exploding. The dry grass crackling like popcorn. It was terrifying. I reached in my pocket for my cell phone again. Gone. I must have dropped it. That phone was my only contact with the outside world. But there was no time to look further.
I stumbled blindly, choking from the smoke. Flames reached out and tagged me, burning my clothes. If I didn’t get some fresh air, I was going to die of smoke inhalation. I knelt down, my face near the ground, gasping for breath.
I’d never needed God as I did now. But I never felt as if I’d done anything to deserve his help or his love. Ande was up every morning at 5:30, praying and reading the Bible. Me? I’d put nearly everything else in my life first—work, family, chores. The only times God had felt real to me were Sunday mornings. For years I’d driven two hours every other weekend to look after my mother, mow her property. Driving home, I’d turn the radio to a station out of Tulsa that played old-time gospel music, those wide-open Oklahoma skies spreading out before me. I felt as if I was in the arms of the Creator. I never got that feeling anywhere else.
I was on my own here. Through the smoke, the flames biting me every step of the way, I made it to the top of a canyon. Momentarily I was above the fire. To the west, maybe a quarter mile away, I saw a flat area the fire hadn’t reached, a place clear of cedars.
I half-ran, half-staggered there, then collapsed on the ground. I took deep breaths. After a few minutes, I tried to stand. Smoke filled my lungs. I fell back to the ground. Behind me came a roar like a freight train. I looked back. All I could see were towering flames.
I pulled myself to my feet. I went one way, then another, the blaze chasing me. Somehow I ended up in an area that had already been burned, the ground charred black. How I’d gotten there I had no idea. It was as if I’d been carried. I lay on the embers—my scalp, my back burning, blistering. I didn’t even have the strength to lift my head.
“God, please let me live,” I cried out in desperation. It was the first prayer I’d said in years. I knew I was too late to expect any favors from God. I only hoped he’d be there for Ande. “Let her know I love her,” I whispered.
Hot wind whipped dirt and ash against me. The fire would be right behind it, burning over me. I dug into my pocket and found a handkerchief; I put it over my nose and mouth. Closed my eyes tight. A peace came over me. I was ready to die. I just hoped I’d lose consciousness before the flames reached me.
A minute passed. Then two. I opened my eyes as much as I dared. The flames had burned a kind of firebreak into the ground just yards away from me. Now it was blowing away from me. A miracle.
I stood and started walking, no idea of the direction I was going. It looked like a war zone, blackened cedars littering the countryside. Was anybody searching for me? I hadn’t seen a single helicopter. In the distance I saw a windmill and a large, round stock tank on a concrete slab, a place where I could lie down, away from burning embers. It took every bit of strength I had left, but I got there just as darkness fell.
I dipped my handkerchief in the cool water I found, washing soot and ash off my face and wetting my lips. Water, even though it wasn’t the cleanest, had never tasted so good.
I collapsed onto the concrete. The air was still smoky. How much more could I breathe in before it killed me? Would I even live till morning? I wished I’d been able to tell Ande and my kids how much I loved them. In the distance, I watched as cedars burst like fireworks, the fire ravaging everything in its path. The flames had surrounded me—by any logic, the fire should have consumed me too. And yet, as if a shield protected me, I’d been spared its full fury.
I looked up. Helicopter lights zipped across the sky. But there was no second pass. No one had seen me. I stared up at the majestic starry heavens. The view went on forever, beyond what my eyes could possibly take in. The only thing I could compare it to were those drives back from my mom’s. That overwhelming sense of God’s presence. He’d been with me then. He’d shielded me from the flames today. He would be with me always. I didn’t have to do anything to earn his love. I thought of Ande’s prayers, the prayers of folks at church she had no doubt asked for. I felt their love too. There on the hard concrete, without another soul around, I felt watched over, a feeling I’d never known before.
“Thank you, Lord,” I prayed. “For never giving up on me. Thank you for Ande and the kids, for the life you’ve given me.” The words came freely, easily, as if I were talking to an old friend. I talked to him all night, about everything I could think of, making up for lost time.
At sunup, I started walking. Before long, I saw a pickup. Two men got out.
“Have you been out here all night?” one asked. “We were just going to work at the oil rig, but we’ll make sure you get help. You’re one lucky dude.”
“Do you have any water?” I was downing my third bottle when a silver SUV pulled up. My son, Jordan, and sons-in-law, Mark and Sean, and my good friend Don got out. “He’s alive!” they shouted. One of them held a phone to my ear. “Everything’s going to be okay,” Ande said. “I love you.”
The boys explained that Larry and Tony were safe. The horses had survived as well. A helicopter took me to the burn unit in Oklahoma City. As it lifted off, I took one last look at the charred landscape below. Total devastation. More than 280,000 acres would burn. But in the blackness I saw hope, the promise of a new day dawning, new growth.
I was alive because the fire had miraculously changed direction. And so had I.
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