Fire Drill (Santa Rosa, California, 2017)

Ash blaze bonfire burn


At bedtime, no hint. Sky clear.

Moon rising. House built like a boat.

Wine Country hills a lullaby of waves.


Attachments spill from small rooms—

tatami mats, heirloom glass, a seventeen-

year-old cat. Broad decks echoing parties past.


The retired couple thinks of other five-alarm nights.

Repeats this mantra—Eleven miles is so far away.

Smoke smell, no flames. No official order to get out.


When a daughter calls at 10 p.m. they pack,

then sleep, startle awake at midnight

by her second call: You must leave NOW!


Registering the red sky, siren winds, flickering

ridge, they start the car, drive fast downhill

into a wall of flames. Turn back.


At home, they place a panicked call to 9-1-1.

Dispatcher says, GET ANYWHERE SAFE! They run

to the pool next door. Balance on edge. Jump in.


Gasping through soaked shirts, watching the world

burst into flame, standing back to back, they ask,

How long does it take a house to burn down?


All night. The night they could have died.

Wind keening. Propane tanks exploding.

Timbers crackling. Air buzzing embers.


For six hours they hold each other. Shiver.

Cry. Think of their family. Say I love you. I love

you. I love you. Miraculously, survive.


Pulling themselves out of the pool, they greet

the sepia dawn. Survey their home’s charred ruins. Grab hands.

Through smoke and falling ashes, walk away. Go on.


This poem recounts how one lucky couple survived the Tubbs Fire in October 2017. The fire, which burned more than 210,000 acres, was one of the most destructive in California’s history until the damage and death toll in multiple 2018 fires eclipsed all previous records. All are examples of the unseasonably late-season, extremely destructive, climate-fueled pattern of wildfires occurring now in the western United States and around the world.


Poem by Ellen Girardeau Kempler

Ellen Girardeau Kempler’s poems have appeared in Narrative Northeast, Writers Resist, Phoenix Rising Review, Gold Man Review, Orbis International Poetry Quarterly and many other small presses and anthologies. In 2016, she won Ireland’s Blackwater International Poetry Prize and honorable mention in Winning Writers’ Tom Howard/Margaret Reid Poetry Contest. Called ‘a timely and powerful selection of climate poetics,’ her chapbook, ‘Thirty Views of a Changing World: Haiku + Photos,’ was published in December 2017 by Finishing Line Press.