Letter: When fire — and rescue — hits home

I recently had an experience I wanted to share with your readers. On Feb. 14, while others were celebrating Valentine’s Day, I was watching helplessly as a brush fire was burning a good portion of the mountain that I call home. I live on Bessie Belle Mountain, not too far from the Culpeper line in Rappahannock County, and have always considered it a blessing to live at the top of Midnight Lane, surrounded by the peace and tranquility of nature. But nature took a wicked turn as that day’s powerful winds stirred up a burn pile from weeks ago and turned it into an out-of-control fire that spread quickly and was headed for my home.

One of my biggest concerns when my husband and I decided to move here from Northern Virginia 17 years ago was, “What happens if there is an emergency in the middle of the day? Who will respond to help us?” My worst fears became a reality that day, when I got a sobering phone call from my brother at 1:30 p.m. to tell us our woods were on fire and that the fire was headed toward the house. As I left my job in Culpeper, I tried to remain calm and I did a lot of praying on that long drive.

As I crested the hill at the Griffinsburg store and saw an unbelievable amount of smoke right where my house should be, I was filled with a fear that I’ve never before experienced. Words can’t adequately describe the humbling realization that your whole world can collapse around you in the blink of an eye. I begged God for the strength to handle whatever I was going to find at home and the wisdom to know what to do once I got there.

As I headed down Scrabble Road toward our driveway, I was surprised to see emergency vehicles everywhere. Some were in neighbors’ driveways, some were driving through backyards, and most of the bigger vehicles were parked right at the bottom of my lane. Sheriff Connie Smith and several deputies were there, and Castleton Fire Chief Terry Robey was in command. There were three companies from Culpeper (1, 8 and 16) and I saw vehicles from all of the Rappahannock companies. Warren County was covering the other side of Rappahannock so that we could continue to get the help we needed. Fauquier County had started to respond, but was put back in service to handle other emergencies. The Virginia Department of Forestry was digging fire trenches and cutting trees and constantly reassessing. This went on from before noon until well after 9 that night.

It wasn’t until most of the smoke had cleared that I learned just how lucky we really were. My mom had tried to drive down the driveway when she first saw smoke and had been stopped by flames blocking her escape. Chief Robey, who lost his own house to a fire just three years ago, drove through the flames to pick her up and get her to safety.

The irony in all of this is that I had convinced my husband and brother to join the Castleton company with me back in December. Never in a million years could we have imagined that it would be our own property that would give us our first training in fighting forest fires. We were told not to sleep at the house Monday night, due to danger from a tree that was burning close to the power line, but that wasn’t really a problem since we would go on to run multiple ambulance calls and other brush fires throughout the night.

Surprisingly, it isn’t the “what ifs” I find myself dwelling on later, but the incredible generosity and dedication of all those people who came to our rescue — not just the firefighters and deputies but the people who handed out water to the crews, helped pick up children from school, checked on neighbors and delivered pizza to some tired and filthy firefighters that night. A special thanks to Joe and George, my angels from the forestry department, who took the time to answer all of my questions and who continued to check my woods for days after the initial fire. I also want to thank Andrew, a senior at Rappahannock County High School, who played a huge role in helping contain this fire.

Chief Robey had told me that I was not going to lose my house, and I believe it was a combination of his leadership, the hard work of the responders and the prayers of family and friends that allowed him to keep that promise. God granted us a miracle on Midnight Lane this Valentine’s Day, and I plan to pay it forward.

Soon many of you will be receiving information from your local fire and rescue departments asking for your support, either financially or with a gift of your time. Please remember these agencies in your charitable contributions this year, and if you’ve been thinking that you might want to join: What are you waiting for?

Kelly Bennett

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