The fires in Texas have been taking hold of my Twitter feed over the past few days - farm owners seeking help to evacuate their horses. After growing up in Florida, I can sympathize. Wildfires are terrifying, worse when you have horses to worry about.
Florida is famous for hurricanes, but actually wildfires are more common. The cycle of the Florida wetlands is fire and flood, and all the subdivisions and interstates in the world haven’t been able to change that. Springtime in Florida smells of smoke.
The year 1998, in particular, was a terrible fire season. Florida’s dry season lasts from November to June; the summertime is humid and loud with thunder, a delightful climate for frogs and alligators. In 1998, though, the seasons seemed to switch. It was unnaturally wet over the winter, and the controlled burns and wildfires that should have thinned the underbrush were doused by rains. In the spring, as the heat returned and the fire season began, everything seemed to go up.
We waited for June’s rains with red-rimmed eyes, brushing the ash from our cars each morning. We listened to our horses’ breathing and fretted over the damage being done to their lungs, we lost sight of the sun in the yellow-tinged skies. We stopped conditioning work and jumping because of the smoke-choked air.
June came, and then July. The rain did not. One by one, the cities cancelled their Fourth of July fireworks. In Daytona Beach, the speedway postponed the Pepsi 400. For the first time ever, the theme parks in Orlando silenced their nightly fireworks shows. It was quiet, and hot, and hard to breathe.
I worked at an orange grove stand in the evenings, listening to the radio and writing stories and eating grapefruit slices. (Evenings are not busy times for beachside orange grove stands.) It was nearly time for me to leave when news came over the radio that a fire was burning out of control on the south side of the Kennedy Space Center. My horse lived within sight of that southern fenceline. I closed the shop early and flung myself into my car.
When I drove across the causeway, I looked north, towards the space center. I could see the flames leaping into the air, ten miles away. The entire shoreline looked apocalyptic.
Night fell as I drove into the smoke, two hours before sunset. It was pitch black on the farm road; I barely saw the fireman in my path as I crept along, nose to the steering wheel.
He leaned into the car. “You can’t go any further,” he said.
“I have to get my horse out,” I told him. “He’s down the next driveway. We have a back way out, onto Tropical Trail.” Tropical Trail was a road to the south, leading away from the flames. I didn’t exactly have a road to get to it, but I knew the way.
He stepped back. “We’ll be up that driveway in half an hour. Don’t be there.”
My riding buddy was already there when I leapt out my car; both our horses were tacked up. “Do we go now, or wait?” she asked.
But I was distracted. There were six other boarders, and no sign of any of them. The horses were in the pastures. “Is no one else here?”
“Nope,” she said. “It’s just us.”
“What do we do with their horses?” There were no trailers. There were no trucks. We were two high school girls, about to ride our horses through wood trails and orange groves to get them to open space.
We couldn’t get out the other horses. This wasn’t an adventure novel, this wasn’t The Saddle Club - this was real life.
“The fireman down there said he’d open the gate,” she said. “If they end up coming down here.”
“Well.” I didn’t know what to say that. I did the only thing I knew to do in times of crisis: took my horse’s reins and swung into the saddle. We sat, mounted, as the smoke swirled and the sirens wailed, waiting.
Finally, a fire truck appeared in the barn driveway.
“This is it,” I said. I looked at my car. “Sorry, car.”
But we got a reprieve. A fireman came out of the truck and walked up to us. “We’re calling off the evacuation,” he said. “Wind’s changing and it’s contained to the space center.” He looked us over, teenagers on horseback, and shook his head. “You girls and your horses.”