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Bruce hunkered down beside a homemade outdoor oven where he had carefully placed two sweet potatoes for his evening meal. As he stared into the fire, the darkness closed in, somewhat matching his own mood. He wasn’t supposed to be here, out in the open air, with no roof, kitchen, or house. He glanced over at the shipping container that he had turned into a makeshift bedroom. To most, it would seem crude, but it was a place to sleep. Of course, there wasn’t any heat, and it was beginning to turn cold. There weren’t any lights or cell phone service in that container either—just blackness.

He tried to count his blessings, but instead, he began counting his losses. His life had literally gone up in smoke.

“Father,” he said, lifting his eyes to the heavens, “help me find shelter before winter.”

His thoughts carried him back one year—back to the day when his life changed forever.

It was November 8, 2018, when one of the deadliest and most destructive fires in the history of California swept through his hometown of Paradise, killing 85 people and wiping out approximately 30,000 structures, including 17,000 homes. One of those homes was his.

For Bruce, it began just like any other day—preparing for work. When his helper didn’t show up on time, he phoned to see if there was a problem.

“I’m putting fires out in my yard!” the helper yelled over the phone.

Bruce and his wife, Jolene, hurried outside just in time to hear several explosions. They could see smoke in the distance. Knowing how fast wildfires can spread, the two were soon pushing two dogs, two cats, and a few emergency supplies into their Ford Escape. “Stay on my bumper,” he yelled to Jolene as he jumped in his truck. “God, please be with us,” he prayed as he gunned the truck out of the driveway.

His plan was to stick to the smaller roads and try to make it to a parking lot away from the fires, but very quickly, traffic came to a stall and just crept along. They could see mothers carrying babies and herding children along the side of the road. Bruce grabbed a box of 20 N95 masks in the back seat of the truck and handed them out to the kids and mothers. Then traffic came to a complete stop as a Paradise Police Department cruiser tried to turn around in an attempt to stop a woman who was driving on the shoulder of the road towards the fire. The officer accidentally backed the cruiser into a ditch, blocking all traffic.

Bruce jumped out of his truck to help but remembered that his tow chain was back home in the yard. In desperation, he grabbed a one-inch ratchet strap from the back of the truck, crawled under the police vehicle and attached it, and then fastened the other end to his truck. To this day, he is positive that angels were pushing that car as he pulled the police cruiser out of the ditch.

By now, the fire had surrounded them. They watched in horror as buildings, houses, and trees were licked up by greedy flames as easily as a dog licks water.

They were on the last route out of town when the back of Bruce’s truck caught fire. He could see his wife flashing her lights and hear her beeping horn. Keeping an eye on the flames in the back of the truck, he watched for a place to pull over. Finding one, he leaped out, barely managing to grab a chainsaw from the backseat and get to a safe distance before the truck exploded.

He stood there watching the flames and his life go up in smoke. Nothing would ever be the same again.

With no housing available, Jolene temporarily moved to Oklahoma to lodge with her sister. Bruce returned to Paradise in hopes of rebuilding their home. For the next few months, he stood in every line at every available agency, trying to get help. People from all over the country had donated money for the survivors to rebuild, but getting that money was a different matter.

Still staring into the makeshift oven, Bruce’s thoughts returned to the present when a movement from the darkness caught his attention. He momentarily froze until he realized that it was just a lone dog. It looked hungry. Bruce took the potatoes out of the oven and sliced them in half to cool. The dog stared intently at the food.

“Hello,” Bruce said softly. “Have you lost your home too?”

He took a bite of the potato. The dog came a little closer and sat down.

“I only have two potatoes,” Bruce informed his visitor. “Do you really think that I’m going to give one to you?”

The dog’s tail wagged. Bruce took a piece of the potato skin and tossed it toward the now drooling animal, who gobbled it in seconds.

“Yeah,” he said, “I know what hunger looks like.” He scooped out the flesh and tossed all the potato skin to the dog.

“I bet my wife would like to hear about my visitor.” He spoke out loud as he watched the animal devour the food. Bruce took out his phone and snapped a picture and sent it to Jolene with a text. She immediately replied, saying she would try to find the dog’s owner through Facebook.

Near the end of the next day, Bruce’s phone rang. After a brief introduction, the caller said, “My dog is missing. Someone posted his picture on Facebook. Can you help me?”

Bruce learned that the dog’s name was Ruger. His happy owner would send her husband after work to get him.

“Just tell him to look for a shipping container,” he said, not thinking that it was anything unusual.

She mentioned something about getting an RV. Well, he had had enough of filling out forms, answering questions, and waiting in lines. So he wasn’t going through any more handout places.

As it turned out, Ruger’s owner was the person in charge of the North Valley Community Foundation— the only person in the whole area that could do something about his dilemma! What were the chances that it was her dog that came into his camp to get leftover sweet potatoes?

She fast-tracked an application for Bruce, and he didn’t have to fill out a thing. He was told he could choose an RV valued up to $20,000. All fees paid and full of fuel. Within days, he was able to say goodbye to the shipping crate and move his things into a warm vehicle where he could live comfortably while he began the process of rebuilding.

“I know God has a thousand ways to answer prayer,” Bruce says. “I just never dreamed that he would use sweet potatoes and a dog.”

Crystal Earnhardt is a freelance writer and author of several books.

Sweet Potatoes, a Dog, and God

by Crystal Earnhardt
From the September 2023 Signs