Title: God Inside the Fire: An Amazing True Story***
Author: Greg Stelley
Published by: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2012
Place: San Diego County, CA
Date: October, 2003
On a very windy day, two hunters set out for the day, the Santa Ana winds blowing and gusting as the Santa Anas always do. The hunters became separated; one became lost, increasingly confused, and dehydrated. After wandering for too long, he came to a clearing and dropped to the ground. He tried to use his cell phone but had no signal. Fearful he would never see family and friends again, he eventually set a small fire, despite the winds and in surroundings that were as thirsty as he, to signal an approaching search helicopter. By the time the hunter was located and rescued, the fire already was beyond control; to his list of reasons to be grateful, the hunter could add the fact that he otherwise would surely have burned to death.
That fire burned too rapidly and too hot for the efforts of firefighters and water tankers to have any noticeable effect. By midnight, some 5 acres had burned; by 3 a.m. that number was 62 acres. On that first night 12 people were killed while trying to flee the fire. In all, between October 25 and December 3, many homes and other structures were burned to the ground. Thankfully, more people made it out alive, some with only the clothes they wore.
Right in the midst of everything on the mountain that was thoroughly destroyed, one home did not burn. One piece of property, with the animals that had been left behind, remained untouched. And it is that story that Greg Stelley wants you to know.
The story of God Inside the Fire records the events prior to the fire, its progression and destruction, and its aftermath. That story is worth telling, whether the reader is a believing Christian, skeptic or searcher. Other parts of the overall story are fictionalized, as typically takes place in nonfiction writings. Some of those parts are clearly the work of a story-teller and add to, rather than detract from, the value of the bigger story of the miracle. At least one other part, which contained the identities of a young, newly-married couple (who appear unrepresented on a list of those who died in the fire--not a spoiler alert!), must have been, again, the work of a storyteller. However, that story no doubt conveys the terrible sense of desperation and stark terror that must have been true for those who died trying to drive through a wall of flame in their desperate attempts to escape.
The narrative is gripping, often heartbreaking. But there was the miracle that prompted the writing of this story: The one piece of property left untouched, belonging to friends of the author and his family. To the Stelley family, it is a miracle, period. One fire captain said only, "Strange things happen in a fire."
Given that strange things do happen in a fire, why do I persist in referring to the one story (that I know of) of untouched property as a miracle? Because I have read the book. Joni Stelley and her daughter Danielle had both prayed that God would protect the Scalari's property, home, those animals the family had to leave behind--even a big oak tree in front of the house and its tire swing. Because of the very specific nature of their prayers and the equally specific nature of the protection, I can only conclude that God answered the prayers of two people who prayed in faith, not doubting that God would answer their prayers.
I really wanted to give this book an unbridled positive review. But, the crisis past, the rest of the book began to drag, for me--the whole section titled "After Events," but especially a chapter titled "Last Pieces." Not that the contents of the section and chapter were useless; no, clear through to the end the author included details and scriptures and spiritual insights, each one helping to convince me further that a true, God-directed miracle had occurred on that one piece of property, in that fire. But the most persuasive parts were surrounded by loose writing that often made me long for an end.
I also became confused as to the purpose of the book: The writer has said that, after sharing the story with many people, he felt compelled to write it down. I understand that. I experience it. But having told the story of the fire and the miracle, his purpose seems to have shifted to evangelizing. That, from an evangelical Christian who understands evangelical zeal. But for me, the evangelizing actually bogged down the book and detracted from the story that had gripped me.
In my opinion, the main story, the real body of the book, would best have ended at the end of Chapter Nine, if not sooner. All of the further details and insights that emerged could have been contained in a tightly-written epilogue, perhaps further highlighted as items for group discussion, with scripture references.
I give the narrative of the story four stars, but for the book overall, I'm going with three.