Throughout the past eleven months, we have had some surprising moments with RV life. We’ve seen people with bizarre behavior, have driven nail-biting mountain passes (at night), been chased off by the weather, and we left one boondocking spot in a skinny minute when it got sketchy with suspicious cars doing suspicious things. However, there is one day we will never forget.
We were staying at a Hipcamp in Beaufort, SC, and enjoying every second of this sleepy beach community. What a beautiful area, tucked between Charleston and Bluffton, and home to several small beaches and private communities. If Charleston and Mayberry had a baby, it would be Beaufort. There is so much to love about this place, and we have more to share about it soon.
This particular day was our last overnight before heading home. We were having such a great time we spontaneously extended our stay by a couple of days. The crystal-blue sky wooed us to the beach once again that morning. We drove Eddie (our RV) to Hunting Island State Park Beach and tucked ourselves into a small parking lot shaded by gorgeous trees dripping with strands of moss on their lazy branches, some resting on the ground succumb by the weight of their age.
On the beachside, we were bordered by white sand, worthy of the Caribbean, dotted with palm trees standing stoic in their glory. We watched the wild sea oats, perched on rolling dunes, blow gently in the coastal breeze, while stealing peeks of the ocean, all day out the window. What an office view!
As dinnertime approached, fellow beachgoers packed up and left. The sun slowly melted over the treetops as we wrapped up work. I made a homemade Mexican meal in Eddie’s kitchen at the beach’s edge. It was awesome! We ate with windows open, as the candlelight’s flame flickered in the breeze. After cleaning up, we decided to take one last walk on the beach.
We passed a few people who were packing up as we strolled in the direction of the lagoon. It felt like we had the beach to ourselves, and indeed within a short time, we did. The sun showed off its last rays behind the trees as Bruce, Precious and I ventured a long way from Eddie, our conversation light and easy.
Suddenly, completely out of the blue, I interrupted him and said, “I think we should turn around. Now,” I insisted. I can’t explain it other than I felt a compelling in my gut, a sixth sense if you will. It was immediate as if God put his hands on my shoulders and turned me around. “Okay,” Bruce replied and we turned back.
After only a few steps, Bruce said, “What’s that?”
“What’s what?” I asked.
“That!” he said, pointing over the trees in the distance toward Eddie.
I looked where he was pointing and saw billows of dark smoke rising from the tree line.
He said, “That looks like where Eddie is parked!”
“It does!” I exclaimed.
“Is Eddie on fire?” he asked. Both of us were stunned at what we were seeing.
“He can’t be,” I replied. “I cleaned up everything and am positive I turned off the stove. I’m positive.” However, it’s easy to second-guess oneself while watching smoke clouds grow thicker and taller by the minute. My smartwatch alerted that my heart rate, which had been around 90bpm just seconds before, spiked to over 150bpm at the mere sight of the smoke exactly where Eddie was parked.
Bruce quickly picked up Precious and we hauled butt back along the beach for what felt like an eternity. It was dusk by now, and there was, in fact, not one car or person left.
As we got closer to Eddie, I asked, “Do you hear that? What’s that weird humming sound?”
“I don’t know,” Bruce answered. “It sounds like an airplane.”
“But there aren’t any planes in the sky,” I said, perplexed.
We finally reached our parking lot and put our eyes on Eddie. He was perfectly fine. What a relief! However, our relief quickly turned to worry.
Bruce said with seriousness, “I see embers.”
“Like fire embers?” I asked as we were still hustling toward Eddie.
“Yes, right there in the tree line!” he said.
“Is this a wildfire?” I said, as stress swelled a lump in my throat.
“I’m sure it’s a controlled burn,” he said.
Again, my gut feeling felt like something was very off. If it was a controlled burn, why didn’t we see any officials? Why weren’t there signs at the park entrance notifying guests about the controlled burn? Why didn’t the park ranger say anything to us when we checked in that morning? Mostly, why in the world would officials let a forest fire get this close to us? We are a stark white, 32’ RV; it’s not like we blend. Eddie sticks out, especially in small beach parking lots. Nope. Something wasn’t right. I felt it in my bones.
“Are you sure it’s a controlled burn?” I asked as we quickly unlocked Eddie and put Precious inside as we quickly packed up.
“Yeah, I’m sure it’s fine,” he said. To his point, what truly are the odds that a wild forest fire on the beach is happening right before us?
The fire was visible directly on the other side of the trees that lined the parking lot mere feet from us.
The thundering hum was the fire and it was getting louder as it approached. It was so close now; smoke blew into our RV as I raced to close the windows. We quickly retracted the leveling jacks, pulled in the slide-out, and started the engine. Shaking with anxiety, I watched the red glow of the flames advance closer to us. I realized we were on our own. No one knew we were there, and I believed no one knew about this fire.
One tell for me were the birds. As we approached Eddie, birds were making a very noisy racket, darting out from the trees and flying away. It reminded me of the television show, Lost, when the invisible monster marched through the woods, scaring everything off in its path. The birds were frightened off and that scared me. And again, no one in an official capacity would let the fire get this close to us.
I told Bruce that if we couldn’t get out in time, our plan was to grab Precious and run to the water until someone finds us. I wasn’t keen on standing in the water after dusk when sharks feed, but a visible fire trumped the possibility of a shark.
At this point, it was dark and we didn’t know which direction the fire was spreading, how big it was, or how fast it was moving. All we knew was our only way out was through the woods. It was terrifying to think we had to drive into the woods, which were on fire, to get out of it.
Bruce drove much faster than he did that morning, launching Eddie over tree roots and rocks and taking some hard hits from potholes. It felt like we were driving in a scene from Jurassic Park with a T-Rex hot on our trail.
It all happened so fast, when I took a breath while hanging on for dear life on the root-filled road, I knew we should call someone.
Without any more discussion about it, I decided to dial 911. “Hi, we are on Hunting Island Beach and there is a forest fire. Please tell me it’s a controlled fire and there’s nothing to worry about?” I asked.
“This is dispatch, so I’ll have someone check it out,” the operator answered.
We were finally out of the park and on the way back to our Hipcamp when five fire department and first responder vehicles raced past us, one after the other.
Photo cred: Author
“You know those are all you,” Bruce said with skeptical emotion.
“I know. I don’t want to be right, but I don’t want to be wrong,” I sheepishly replied fearing I’d wasted the first responders’ time.
The next morning, we headed back to the beach one last time before hitting the highway. As we pulled up to the ranger’s station we asked, “We were here last night and there was a fire. What was that?”
The ranger replied, “Oh yes! It was a wild forest fire! We have no idea how it started, but it took more than four hours to pit it out. We lost more than three acres of our protected forest and they were only able to extinguish it by creating a fire line around it.”
Bruce and I sat wide-eyed. The reality of what happened hit us square between the eyes. It was, indeed, a wild forest fire. No one knew we were there. No help was coming, we were on our own, and it could’ve ended very differently.
We immediately thanked God we were okay and that we called 911. However, I wondered how a forest fire happens on the coast. It seems like the beachfront is too developed to let it get out of control. We toured the park’s historic lighthouse that afternoon, and sure enough, the marquee said that the original lighthouse’s residential home had been burned down in a wildfire all those years ago. Crazy!
I tried not to think of what could have happened to us and am so grateful none of it did. I’ve never been that close to a wildfire. Growing up in Florida, the threat was quite the opposite from hurricanes and flooding. I helped bail my grandparents’ home out of three floods over the years.
Hearing the guttural hum of the blaze, choking on the smoke, and being memorized by the curtain of glowing red flames felt surreal. The air was electric, and it felt like we had zero control over our destiny.
The truth is, people have very little control over the future. Anything could happen at any time, 2020 proved that. But there was a peace in my heart that we were exactly where we were supposed to be, at just the right time, to help save this beautiful beach forest. A friend of mine once said, “If there is a need, I count to three to see if anyone else is going to help. If no one responds, I’m it.”
In this case, there was no need to count because there was no one else. There was no choice but to make the call. There is a campground at the other end of the park, and if this wildfire had gone unnoticed who knows what could have resulted.
If we had not stayed those extra days in Beaufort, or lingered over our meal, or taken the long walk on the beach, we too, could have packed up and left before knowing a fire was brewing in the brush. I don’t believe in luck or coincidence. I believe God had us there to get help, and we are so grateful he kept us safe in the process.
One perspective is to see this as the worst ending to the best day, but we see the opposite. We’ve never viewed RV life as something to selfishly consume. Our heart’s desire is to use it to help others however we can. We have some ideas about what that may look like, but we never could’ve imagined this. Beaufort and its surrounding islands offer so much joy, fun, beauty, rest, and memories, it is a blessing to be connected to it even in the smallest way. When we bought Eddie almost a year ago, we dreamed about the adventures we would have with him, but none of those dreams included a personal encounter with an undetected wildfire. It was terrifying and something I don’t need to experience again. But, wow, to be able to help save the forest was pretty stinking cool. All glory to God that he worked it all out. Here’s to more adventures, with less life-threatening moments preferably. RV life is a wild ride and every moment and mile is totally worth it.