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A Story Of A Dramatic Escape From Wildfire In Oregon

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Now a dramatic wildfire escape story by a West Coast couple and their pet.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Marybeth Carden is an early riser, and that may have saved her life, the life of her husband Scott and their cat Tuku.

PFEIFFER: They live in Gates, Ore., and the smell of smoke had been their unwanted constant companion for days. So when they went to bed last week with the odor of the distant beachy Creek Fire in the air, they weren't worried.

CORNISH: But when Marybeth got up before dawn the next morning, the smoke smelled much stronger. Here's her husband Scott Johnson.

SCOTT JOHNSON: And she went out into the living room and could see orange coming through the curtains. And when she pulled them back, the entire hillside next to our vehicles was completely engaged with her, and the backyard's on fire. And she says to me, Scott, get up.

PFEIFFER: He did. He put Tuku in the cat carrier and ran. Their house was perched on a 50-foot cliff above the Santiam River. Marybeth had taken a switchback trail to the water below, but by the time Scott and Tuku got to the trail, fire had blocked the path.

JOHNSON: And so me and Tuku jumped off the cliff.

CORNISH: A branch broke their fall. Scott shimmied down the rest of the way to meet Marybeth at the water's edge. They waded out to a log jutting out from the opposite bank.

JOHNSON: We're sitting there, and we can see a wall of flames. And it's like as far up the river as we could see and as far down the river as we could see on both sides. And so it was such a weird thing to be sitting there shivering (laughter) with, like, flames in every direction. It was kind of like, well, you could get warm if you just went there.

PFEIFFER: But each bank was on fire, so soaking wet, battered by 40-mile-an-hour winds, the log became a refuge for Scott and Marybeth.

JOHNSON: And she started singing this song, and it goes - (singing) humble yourself in the sight of the fire. You got to bend down low and humble yourself in the sight of the fire.

PFEIFFER: Embers fell, and Scott had to throw water onto the log to keep it from burning. Tuku the cat, as is often the case with cats, did the opposite of what you might think he would do - he fell asleep in his carrier.

CORNISH: Then a big tree that hung above their refuge went up in flames and threatened to topple onto them. So they waded upstream, found a little bit of unburned shore and waited for the sun to rise.

PFEIFFER: When day finally broke, they realized they were directly below their house. Scott grabbed a tree root to hoist himself up, climbing until he had reached the top of the cliff.

JOHNSON: And there's our house - or not even our house. It's just a - like, a blank spot.

PFEIFFER: Scott helped Marybeth and the cat up. They stared at that spot - what they'd lost and what they'd held on to.

JOHNSON: We just looked at each other, and for the first time since we had run out of the house, it felt like - you know, I was pretty sure we were going to be alive (laughter).

CORNISH: Scott Johnson, he and his wife Marybeth Carden and - yes - Tuku made it to rescuers and are now staying with friends.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.