Fire on Deck

Chicken Camp was complete. Well almost. I just needed to get a water tank up on the hill above the tent so I could have running water.

It was better than Ralph Lauren's 'Out of Africa' photo shoot. The view was idyllic: from the deck all you could see were the hills and the horizon, no indication of civilization at all, no houses or roads, even though there were some very close by. It was a one hour drive door to door from my house in San Francisco, stopping at Trader Joe's on the way to pick up food for the night.

I furnished the 16' X 20' tent with an iron bed that I made, a wonderful old tavern bench that doubled as a bed for one of the kids. I got some leftover carpet from the Hilton Hotel install and then a few Persian rugs that gave the place a rich maroon theme. We had hanging lanterns and lots of battery camping lights. We had kitchen island from IKEA that we used for food prep. A Coleman stove heated the water for morning tea and we had a cooler to keep cold drinks and food. Storage baskets for each of us to keep our personal things. The idea being that at any given moment, we could say let's go to Chicken Camp and we wouldn't even have to go home and pack! On a cold summer Saturday in the city, we could jump into the car with our current reading material, maybe a day pack and within 60 minutes be sitting on the deck in the Vacaville sun. We had everything we needed at Chicken Camp already: toothbrushes; change of clothes; tea & teapot (and of course a stash of my favorite Lapsang Souchong); sleeping bags; sleeping pads; playing cards; boom box.

We set up an archery range in front of the tent and got pretty good with two compound hunting bows that we bought on a trip to Pennsylvania. The kids had built a tree house in one of the oaks over the edge of the clearing and they both spent lazy afternoons reading books up there and making improvements.

Until we could get a more formal arrangement, I had set up a Luggable Loo behind some hay bales for privacy. This was basically a five gallon bucket with a toilet seat. I had a bag of sawdust next to the Loo and we threw a couple handfuls in after every use. Apparently this method is in common use in Europe.

I was planning to get a solar array to recharge my phone and ipad and teach the kids the basics on solar power. The idea was to try to be off the grid with our electronics. At night we used lanterns and flash lights. I even got a bunch of $3 solar powered lawn stakes and placed them in a 50 foot diameter circle around the flat cleared land in front of the tent. At night it looked like a UFO landing pad! I had built the deck seating to accommodate sleeping pads and some warm nights I would sleep out there looking up at the huge sky and stars. On August 11, I stayed out there and watched the Perseids meteor shower overhead until I fell asleep.

In the mornings there was a family of wild turkeys that grazed across the clearing and deer families grazed through as well. If I sat very still they would not bolt and would continue grazing, keeping a wary eye on me.

There were a few problems.

On some nights, the wind would rocket up through the valley, blowing everywhere. I would be looking forward to a sound night of sleep in the country and the tent would shake and creak like a galleon in a hurricane. No sleep for me on those nights. I would lay awake and regret ever having gotten this stupid idea of my country get away. No wonder no one ever built on this "perfect" clearing up here. Earmuffs became a necessary piece of sleeping gear. One weekend, I ordered 60 bales of hay delivered so I could build a hay wall around the tent to break the wind somewhat. An opportunity to learn new old technology as I watched the guy throw the bales around with his hay hooks. I needed a pair of those all of a sudden!

Then there was the heat of the summer. Vacaville hit 106 degrees for a few weeks in July and August. I would sit in the tent-it was too hot to be outside-and spritz myself with a water mister every three minutes, wearing nothing but shorts. Trying to keep my eyes open, it was too hot to nap even and when I did, the flies would wake me, crawling on my face. So I got a mosquito net for over the bed and also because I think they're romantic. I went to the feed store and got a galvanized water trough, filled it with water from the hose and sat in it and read my book. A redneck hot tub!

My good friend Paul came to visit SF in August and when I asked him what he wanted to do while he was in Ca, his immediate answer was "Chicken Camp!" We jumped in the car on a cold, foggy, SF Thursday afternoon and in one hour we were relaxing in the warm breeze. I gave him some guidance on bow shooting and we shot several rounds before retreating to the deck for cheese and crackers.

"It doesn't get much better than this" I remarked as we gazed out over the horizon, watching the sun go down. It was… bucolic, I think is the best word for the early evening. Nothing to do but just "be" in the late sun slanting in from the horizon, more orange that yellow. Time was standing still and that's what this place was all about.

"What's that smoke down there?" Paul asked lazily. I looked where he was pointing and there was a wide, dark plume of smoke at the end of our ridge about a quarter mile away. The breeze was blowing in our direction from the bottom of the valley. Shaking myself out of my extreme relaxed mode, I tried to think what we should be doing.

My phone rang and it was Alexis calling from the farm house down below. "Get your asses out of there NOW!!!! That fire is coming this way!" she screamed. "I just called the Fire Department! Get out of there now!"

Wow. I tried to stay calm and told Paul to grab his gear and throw it into the back of the truck. Grabbed some sleeping pads too in case we couldn't come back to the tent tonight. I looked around and thought maybe it'll just go around the tent. Everything was too big or too well stored to grab anyway. Since the bows were out on the deck I grabbed them and threw them in the truck. In three minutes we were bouncing down the hill to the lower pasture. It had been turned earlier in the summer and had no grass to burn.

We parked and watched the smoke get closer. Soon we could see the fireline moving up the ridge toward the tent site. The breeze was turning into a fierce wind as it joined the flames and the fire looked like the surface of the sun. Jets of flame shot down the hill through small game tunnels in the grass and blasted out of gopher holes ahead of the wall of fire, starting new fires. Columns of flame spiraled up into the air, thirty to forty feet. Nothing to do but watch it burn. We couldn't see Chicken Camp from where we were but gradually the fire crested the hill and it was obvious that it was passing over the camp area.

There was a chance that I had kept a big enough clearing around the tent platform that the fire would pass around it. I had gotten the "fire retardant treated fabric" tent, after all. The fire would pass and we'd go back up and everything would be fine!

The fire engines came and drove into the pasture and up the hill cautiously letting the fire have its way. They picked spots where they could back burn towards the fire so it would not have any fuel to move further toward the houses below. At some point it became obvious that we were not going to be going back up tonight.The entire hill that we could see was black and the fire had run up to the top of the ridge and gone over.

We decided to drive back to the city and come up the next morning to assess the damage.

We were back at 10 am and drove up the still smoldering hill. When we crested the road onto the flat area, all we could see was the metal tube tent frame, a few melted lanterns still hanging from it. We got out and I walked into the tent area and there was nothing left except for metal items and even they had distorted from the heat. The redwood deck had incinerated, leaving nails and metal Simpson hangers behind. Futon, sleeping pads, sleeping bags, my antique tavern bench, a wood dining table, kitchen island, folding camping chairs, books, everything gone. The 3/4 inch glass table top on the deck had melted and drooled liquid glass around the metal base. My wrought iron chairs had sagged and distorted with the heat. That meant that it had gotten to at least 2800 degrees!

The bales of hay that I had put around the tent for wind and sound break looked OK but when I touched them they fell to ashes.

So, apart from the heat, the wind and the fire, it was a pretty good weekend get-away!