Rhiannon descended into hell of her own free will. The Butte Lightning Complex fire had been burning for two days and reports from the CAL Fire had it stopped at the river. Once the wind shifted, the fear was that it would jump the river, and make its wild destructive dash straight through the canyon below. Before that happened, she had to get the canyon evacuated. There was one house left on her route. Just one last person to cajole, beg, threaten with certain death if they didn’t pack up their belongings and hit the road within the next two hours.
Her sigh turned into a hacking cough that tightened her lungs with pain. The smoke was thick and acrid, full of burning chemicals. It was toxic. Even with the windows rolled up it seeped through the cracks and vents in the truck. The taste was thick on her tongue. Her lungs burned and with each shallow breath she choked. Biting tears stung her eyes; tears trickled down her cheek until her vision was a red tinged blur.
She fumbled in desperation for the controls to the air conditioner, banging a fist to the top of the dash, when nothing but smoky air sputtered out, at the same time trying to keep an eye on the was one lane dirt road winding down into the canyon.
The radio crackled and she jumped. “Shoot!”
The faded voice of the dispatcher came over the line. “Probation 21, give me your location?”
Rhiannon grabbed for the radio mic, cursing under her breath when it dropped to the floor. She bent over, fingers stretching for the cord. The mic had rolled under the passenger seat. Again. Darn thing never stayed put. Always popping out of the holder and she’d have to stop to fumble around for it. Cheap ass… county vehicle…
Her eyes moved from the road… just for a minute, but it was enough. Several cars had passed her earlier. They had maneuvered safe passage through cooperation; but, the big camper that barreled towards her seemed determined to force its way past her. The jerk ignored the steep drop off on her side of the road, shoving forward with spinning wheels.
She jerked the wheel, pulling as far to the right as possible. A high pitch screech of metal filled the air as the camper’s side swiped her car, pushing it so that the back tires slid over the edge. She slammed her hand down on the horn. Her pulse boomed in her ears and her breath caught in panic at the surge again from the camper. Her foot trembled on the brake as she willed the car to stay put, for the camper to stop… but whoever was driving made no attempt to slow down.
Rhiannon threw open the car door, jerked free of the seat belt and hurled herself out of the car just as the back end of the car continued its slow downward slide in the loose gravel. The sting of rocks cutting into her hands and knees barely penetrated her terror as scrambled to try and stop her decent. She caught a branch, hand sliding down the ragged bark. Her shoulder wrenched at the sudden stop. She cried out but refused to let go. No way was she letting go. Not when the branch was the only thing between her and the edge of the cliff mere inches from her feet.
She’d landed on her knees. She watched over her shoulder in horror as the car pick up speed, rolling down the embankment. Trees splintered then a loud crash as the buick came to rest fifty feet below. It didn’t explode…thank God. She rolled onto her back staring up at smoke filled sky. To her west she could see the orange red glow of the fire painting the sky and she cursed herself for being such an idiot.
Two hours. They said there were two hours before the predicted wind shift. She had two hours to figure a way to get her ass out of the canyon. With no car… She sat up. Her body screamed in protest, literally, she screamed as the pain hit. Her shoulder, her hands, knees. Every exposed surface was covered in burns from hitting and sliding through the gravel. She tightened her grip on the branch as rocks began sliding from beneath her feet, heading for the drop off. Looking up was worse than looking down. The edge of the road was so far overhead, and there didn’t seem to be an easy way to climb back to the road. She twisted sideways, scissor-kicked her legs and inched toward the scrubbed trail just to her left. It wasn’t much more than a deer trail. It seemed to head into the canyon, but it might also dead end before hitting the bottom.
Not a whole lot of choice here, Rhia, she thought. Down or up? Down being easiest. Getting up was more difficult than crawling. Crawling would have her still on this path when the fire arrived. Again, not a lot of choices. Not if she wanted to live. And she did, want to live. Plus, down would take her to the last house on her list. If they hadn’t already headed for high ground, maybe she could catch a ride, borrow a car. Use their phone to call for help if the line was still up. The power was off in some areas. There also weren’t a lot of resources available for rescues, not with the fire burning houses across the river.
That’s why she was doing the job of a firefighter. She had volunteered, being law enforcement, she had to help. But, she didn’t have much in the way of training.