Martha Schenk and her husband arrived at the Silver fire command post early Friday hoping they could talk their way behind the fire lines and up to what was left of their burned down home.
On Wednesday, TV cameras had captured their home, a distinctive two-story dome about a mile down Twin Pines Road, consumed by flames.
Now Schenk’s husband was on a mission to survey the damage and begin the rebuilding process.
Schenk, meanwhile, wasn’t sure she wanted to go back.
"We've done this so many times," she said. "I don't know if I want to do it again."
She and her family loved their home of nearly 20 years. The wide-open space, the quiet and the brilliant stars were all perks of their semi-rural life.
But there’s also the rattlesnakes, which bit her daughter once, and coyotes, which have claimed 10 of their cats. Fire threats are a constant worry.
"It's a commitment to live here,” Schenk said.
It’s noisier and cramped down in the valley, Schenk said, but there's also "not a 50-50 chance you're going to die every time there's a fire breaking out."
As of Friday, the Silver fire in Riverside County had seriously burned one civilian, injured at least five firefighters, and scorched 16,000 acres. One business and 26 homes had also burned.
As a mountain resident, Schenk said she’s accustomed to pausing when she sees or smells smoke, judging just how far away it is and at what point to worry.
When the vicious Esperanza fire came billowing through in 2006, they were at the tail end of the blaze.
Back then, Schenk was awakened in the early morning by the strong smell of smoke so she immediately packed her kids and their belongings into her car.
"You just know what you have to do,” she said. “It’s instinct. But we had a lot of time.”
But for the Silver fire, there was no time, no warning.
No one called as she kept her eye on what she thought was a column of orange-glowing smoke. It turned out it was a column of flames sending out embers.
As she drove down the mountain, ash rained down as flames closed in on either side of the road. When she got to the bottom of the mountain, Schenk saw fire engines parked at the head of California 243, perhaps awaiting orders.
"If someone had taken a stand there, our house would still be standing," she said.
Schenk realizes that the fire spread much faster this time but questioned why the response was so much slower than they are used to.
During the Esperanza fire, their house was spared, but the flames came practically up to the front door. The heat blew out windows and melted parts of the roof. For years, their property’s ground was bare and the wildlife gone.
"It was like living on the moon," she said.
Slowly, they replanted fruit trees and welcomed back chipmunks and bobcats. Last year, they saw the return of the deer that used to roam the property.
Now the Schenks have to decide whether they want to go back and rebuild again, this time without their prized home.
"There is no guarantee you'll get out safe, and for some reason I didn’t know that until this time," Schenk said.
Her husband disagrees.
"The world is a jungle,” he said. “In the city you have robbers and thieves. Out here, we have coyotes and bobcats and rattlesnakes...it’s a matter of what you want to fight with in the short time you're here."
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