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Jul 17, 2015

A few weeks ago, I had just answered an email from one of my listeners. "When are you going to write another podcast?" was her question. And it was a good question, as I have been absent for some time. My plan was to write one the next day. In the afternoon, however, as I drove my kids to the swimming pool, I looked to my right, across the river and up to the hills, and saw a huge column of dark smoke. "Oh, no!" I said to myself, and my heart sank(1). "Not again!" This dry, windy climate is prone to fires in the summer, and there are often more than one. I swam briefly in the swimming pool, and then sat on a lawn chair and tried to read, but I was preoccupied with the smoke. As I turned the pages of my Harry Potter, I noticed some flakes of ash(2) on my black swimming suit. "Ok kids, we're going home," I announced. I had a bad feeling; the wind was picking up(3), and that only meant one thing: a big fire. 

Within a few hours the view from our house was all smoke. Our dogs wouldn't stay outside because of the huge helicopters that thundered(4) overhead. A firefighter rang our doorbell and announced that we were on evacuation level number two: soon we would have to leave. It was the first time that we had been so close to a disaster. My in-laws' houses were right where the fire was blowing. We knew that they had left their homes, but we had no idea what would happen next. We each packed a bag, and waited. The hours ticked by slowly, and one by one we fell asleep in our chairs. 

The next morning, I woke up early to the sound of a thunder storm. I walked outside into a warm, smoky rain. The fire had stopped. Our neighborhood was safe. But as I looked up to where my in-laws' houses were, I could see that many were no longer there. The hill was black, and in some places, only chimneys were left. I couldn't believe that it was over. And as I sipped my coffee, I realized that some people no longer had a coffee machine, or a kitchen, or even a house. It was later that I found out just how big(5) the fire had been.

1. 'My heart sank' is a wonderful expression of a feeling of hopelessness or sadness. The verb 'to sink' implies that the heart is heavy like a stone.

a. When I received his letter my heart sank; I knew that the wedding was cancelled.

b. The lost hiker's heart sank as the search helicopter flew over him and disappeared.

2. 'Flakes of ash'. The word 'flake' is used in many contexts. It really means a light mass, or a thin piece. As ash is so soft and powdery, 'a flake' is a good way to describe one thin piece of it.

a. The paint on the door was coming off in flakes.

b. The snow flakes were so light and fluffy.

3. 'The wind was picking up.' In this instance, I could have said, 'the wind was beginning to blow hard'. We use 'picking up' often when talking about the wind. It is short for 'picking up speed', just as a car or a horse will also pick up speed and get faster.

a. The train picked up speed as it went downhill.

b. The runner picked up speed in the last few meters.

4. 'The helicopters thundered overhead.' 'Overhead' is a convenient way of saying 'over our heads', and it is a bit more interesting than saying 'above'. I used the word 'thundered' here to describe the noise of the helicopters. 'Thunder' is of course a noun, but it is also a verb.

a. The children thundered down the stairs like a herd of elephants!

b. When we lived in an apartment next to the motorway, the lorries would thunder right by my window.

5. '...just how big the fire had been.' The word just is quite a powerful word. It can mean 'slight' or 'only', but in this sentence, it is emphatic. Together with the word 'how', it emphasizes the adjective.

a. We had no idea just how beautiful the statue was going to be. 

b. They complained about just how rude the employees were.

c. He talked all evening about just how successful he is!

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