Thoughts on the anniversary of SoCal wildfires

This past week has marked the 1-year anniversary of having to flee our home due to the SoCal wildfires.

Our house is on the left edge of one of the clusters of red dots in this photo. The following are quotes from status update emails I sent to my family at the time, and some memories and reflections.

The fires started Sunday. We recognized the signs from the fires of 2004. The sky gets a little darker, like our routine ocean fog, but brown, slightly orange. A faint scent of campfire. We were praying for those affected, but not too concerned yet.

By Monday the campfire scent was overwhelming, even while sealed up indoors. Despite knowing the source of the smell, I couldn’t suppress the memories of many happy camping trips. An odd contrast.

Between the worry and the sound of raging Santa Ana winds battering tree branches against our house, Monday night was a sleepless night. Maybe you’ve noticed, in seeing a new house being framed, just how thin and fragile walls are. It’s something we never think about in the day-to-day. But in a night spent lying awake, waiting for the phone to ring with the automated evacuation notice, I felt so betrayed by the inadequacy of the thin and fragile walls of our home.

[to: Mom&Dad] We got the automated call from the PD saying to be prepared to evacuate at 6am…. And we’d already been sleepless all night from the noise of the wind. The wildest Santa Ana winds I’ve ever seen by far. Assuming the fire never even gets close to our house, our yard will have a huge cleanup job just from the leaves and branches that were blown down. All the streets in our area are a mess with downed trees and branches….

Tuesday the kids were going nuts. Take a look again at the aerial photo, to see why they couldn’t step outside, even for a moment. We took to wearing goggles to get to the car, otherwise so many bits of ash would go in our eyes that within seconds we couldn’t see. It was nearly dark due to all the smoke and ash, and our yard had been dusted with layer of ash, like a dark gray frost. “Surreal scene” is cliche in these situations, but how else to describe what looks like a poor-quality, very low-contrast black and white photo of our yard? We’d had the TV on so we could follow the progress of the fire. There was frustratingly little useful information scattered through the same 10 dramatic video clips they played on endless loop. Despite trying to shield them, the kids would catch pieces of images on the TV. Luckily, they had been to an emergency preparedness fair (organized by the church) a couple months previously. The fair included a mock-up scene of a living room, with some fake flames on the couch and drapes. It frightened the kids. I cheerfully said, “firefighter’s going to fix it all better!” Having tried on the fire fighter’s clothes and climbed on a real truck, they readily took to the idea.

Mom, they remembered the couch on fire and that the firefighter was going to fix the couch. So they kept pointing to the tv and saying, “uh-oh, house fire, need a firefighter, firefighter coming to fix it” …although I think they could tell it was a little more out of control than just a couch…

We snatched up the occasional off-hand mentions of street names and other concrete details from the news. Shortly after we started hearing ward members’ street names, we got the order to leave.

Our car was packed and ready to go. On Sunday I’d started mentally going over the list of things to grab in an emergency. Monday we’d started making piles in our home and moving a few things to the car. With so much time to pack (there was nothing else to do to pass the time) and hours upon hours to mentally check and recheck the list, I was very certain I’d remembered everything. We had supplies for immediate needs: kids books, pull-ups, clothes, water, snacks. We had critical documents: bank accounts, passports, insurance information, marriage certificate, birth certificates, cash. We had all the valuables: a pearl necklace my mother-in-law gave me for our engagement, a diamond ring from my grandmother. We had the memories: photos, videos, a trinket from my grandfather, a painting by my grandmother. We had the cats. We had us.

R. couldn’t tear herself away from the window [with the dark, red sky] but the more she looked the more freaked out she was. So we had to drag her away. They were also very agitated because they were stuck inside and restless, and we weren’t constantly entertaining them because we were busy tracking down papers and cramming the car full of stuff. So it was just a frustrating day for them …

They’ll be ok. They thought it was really fun that the cats were in the car with us.

Having mentally checked off the list a million times, I was satisfied that we had everything I would be sad about losing. In the moment our minivan started backing out of the driveway, I thought, “hm, everything I want is in the car. ….. So what is all that other stuff for??” The house (and garage) were still full to the brim. (Now, I’m sure if we really did lose it all, that I would be weeping over many things.) But it was a very bizzare feeling, to think we had a house and garage full of stuff I really didn’t want.

News is worthless right now, there is no useful information. We can’t figure out at all what is going on, and now that we’re not at home we won’t be getting those official police auto-calls anymore, so we have no idea what is going on. No idea if we can go home tonight.

We were comfortably accommodated at a friend’s house about 30 minutes away. I called the list of girls I teach in our ward. They were all evacuated, but at the first two I got answering machines–good, the house is still there. Nothing at the next number. It’s just that the power is out, I hoped.

In the end, although about half of our ward was within the boundaries of the burn zone, and there were some very close calls, none of our ward members’ homes was lost (other wards were not as fortunate). Fear takes time to heal, though. It took almost a week before I could unpack the car.

Comments

  1. Try this Death Cab For Cutie song they wrote about the fires.

    When the wind picked up the fire spread
    And the grapevine seemed left for dead
    And the northern sky looked like the end of days
    A wakeup call to a rented room sounded like an alarm of impending doom
    To warn us its only a matter of time
    Before we all burn

    We bought some wine and some paper cups near your daughter’s school
    when we picked her up and drove to a cemetery on a hill
    Where we watched the plumes paint the sky grey as she laughed and danced
    through the field of graves
    And there u knew it would be alright
    That everything would be alright

    The news reports on the radio said it was getting worse as the ocean
    air fanned the flames
    But I couldn’t think of anywhere I would have rather been to watch it
    all burn away

    The firemen worked in double shifts with prayers for rain on their
    lips and they knew it was only a matter if time

  2. Mark Brown says:

    These are some interesting thoughts, Cynthia. Thank you for letting the rest of us know what it was like.

    You’re right, once you take a close look at how houses are constructed, you feel a lot more vulnerable in your home. There really isn’t much separating us from the elements, and fires, earthquakes, high winds, rain and ice can make us realize how fragile our sense of security is.

    In the moment our minivan started backing out of the driveway, I thought, “hm, everything I want is in the car. ….. So what is all that other stuff for??”

    A great insight.

  3. Peter LLC says:

    earthquakes

    I recall being woken up by the Northridge quake in ’94. One advantage of wood framed houses is that they roll with the punches a little better than masonry, but it is disconcerting.

  4. Leaving the building during a fire alarm once, I thought about the tyranny of the government on all levels that would make me risk my life rather than lose my drivers license, social security card, credit cards, checkbook, etc. If you ever lose that stuff you find out you’re nobody. You don’t exist. It’s a pretty creepy feeling.

    I’m glad you and your ward came through okay. It’s very strange that we build houses out of stuff that burns, isn’t it?

  5. “So what is all that other stuff for??”

    Great question (and post)! I wish I asked myself that more!

  6. I have often wondered, as I watched CA burn or shake or flood or mudslide on the news, why everyone just doesn’t conclude that CA is not fit for human habitation.

    Fascinating combination of memories, though. So glad you came out well.

  7. The reverse-911 call woke my parents up at 4:30 am that Monday. They got out of the house with two cars, the two dogs, and a small box of documents. And a few house later, that’s all they had. I’m glad neither you nor anyone in your ward lost their homes–it turns out that it’s harder to deal with than you might think (and it’s far harder than I would have thought, absent seeing my parents).

  8. Harrowing post, Cynthia.

  9. MikeInWeHo says:

    re: 6
    California is the state that everybody loves to hate.

    The fires are scary. Even the smell of smoke in the distance is very creepy. Glad everything worked out for your family, Cynthia.

  10. Researcher says:

    We were in San Diego in 2004 and it was a peculiar feeling to realize that all the major highways out of the city were closed and to realize how close we were to the canyons.

    The major impression we left with besides the color of the sky and the inability to go outdoors was that our 72 hour kit, which we had been preparing for years based on lists handed out by various wards, was almost entirely useless.

    We needed documents, photos, cash, the computer, water, diapers, a change of clothes, and some real food. We never had to evacuate, but we’ve learned to be realistic about our emergency preparations.

    Thanks for sharing your memories.

  11. #7 — “it turns out that it’s harder to deal with than you might think”

    Oh, I know. I’m very aware that it’s one thing to think you wouldn’t care if that stuff burned, and quite another to face it. I think it’s my age and place in life. We haven’t accumulated much yet. Honestly, if my parents’ house burned to the ground, I would be much sadder than if ours did. They have many more of the memories and little “treasures” that are meaningful than my own house does. So that’s a big part of it.

    One thing I realized I had forgotten, only after we returned to our house, was all the Christmas decorations and things. Not all of them, but there are many that I treasure. Those would have been awful to lose. So add that to your emergency packing list, everyone!

  12. #9–“California is the state that everybody loves to hate.”

    Indeed. I felt especially betrayed by this comment.

  13. #10–“computer”

    Haha, yep. We didn’t try to get the files off. We just put the entire box (not the monitors and stuff though) into the car.

  14. Thomas Parkin says:

    “why everyone just doesn’t conclude that CA is not fit for human habitation. ”

    I once spent a night with a friend in Bellflower. Bellflower is a measly enough place near the southern end of the LA Basin, almost to Long Beach. But we stayed in a nice house, with a garden, an orange tree and a plum tree. During the night, a rain passed through and completely cleaned out the smog, and the morning was perfectly clear. From the deck, you could see all the way to a snow capped Mount Baldy. You could smell honeysuckle all around. In the air is a touch of humidity yet with a desert sharpness that makes for an atmosphere unlike anywhere else. I thought, this is Paradise, no wonder a bazillion people moved here.

    My grandfather lived in Southern California before buying a ranch on the Central Coast in the 50s. He used to talk about how he loved Los Angeles. But that was the LA of the 30s and 40s.

    You can still get a little taste of that in Santa Barbara, and her and there and now and then – but for the most part, it’s gone gone gone.

    ~

  15. Fire season is brutal. I don’t live in an area where fires happen (Huntington Beach), but we get the smoke sometimes. The Santa Ana winds are a trip—they just suck the moisture right out of you. It’s crazy to think about what the firefighters deal with every year.

    When my kids were small, our neighbor’s house burned down. It was an old house made out of slat and plaster construction (rather than drywall). The entire thing was gone in 20 minutes. My son was traumatized by it. Fire drills at his preschool would freak him out so bad, the teacher had me keep him home the days they planned any.

  16. Hey 9 and 12! Comparing me to Glen Beck?!? So low!

    I don’t hate CA. I just don’t value it because I am not there often enough to experience the paradisiacal aspects–I just see the disasters on the news. When I can, I try to avoid disasters.

  17. lol, sorry ESO! I didn’t intend that comparison. Not at all. And I’m pretty sure Mike was mostly kidding.

  18. Forgiven–and I’ll still pray for you the next time a disaster rolls your way.

  19. Mark Brown says:

    ESO, You bring up an interesting point.

    I know lots of people in Utah whose home is within 1/4 mile of the Wasatch fault and who see reports of California fires on TV and shake their heads, wondering who whould ever live in such a place. The same thing can be observed among people from Florida and New England. In the Summer, when it is hurricane season in the Atlantic, people in Vermont wonder why anybody lives in Florida. In February when Florida is beautiful, they hear about 150 car pile-ups on any icy Interstate up North somewhere and wonder why in the world anybody would ever want to live there.

    It’s an interesting quirk of human nature.

  20. Mark–don’t worry–I wonder the same thing about FL. CA and FL seem like dangerous places to live.

  21. Great post, Cynthia. Our house in the San Gabriel Valley burned down in the 1970s, forcing us to move out of the hills and into the valley. My father decided we should evacuate well before the order was given, a prophetic moment. A treasured piece of family history is the list my mother put together of what should be put into the horse trailer. While ward members helped with the packing, my sister and I walked three goats down the road to the school, to graze on the grass while our house burned to the ground. The fact that my parents convinced us that ‘starting over’ was a grand adventure is something I still marvel at.

  22. I have often wondered, as I watched CA burn or shake or flood or mudslide on the news, why everyone just doesn’t conclude that CA is not fit for human habitation.

    I’ve noticed that there is always a flood, drought, tornado or hurricane in Texas.

  23. MikeInWeHo says:

    re: 17

    Of coures I was kidding! It’s funny how many times I’ve heard people in other areas say “I could never live in L.A.” yet the population growth continues unabated. Personally, I love being here. It’s exhilarating to live on the edge (of the abyss?).

  24. My first comment (#1) probably looked much more spammy than I intended. I really liked this post, and it straight away brought to my mind this song, which I also quite like.

  25. Not at all, BHodges. I listened to it at the link you gave, v. nice.

  26. I enjoyed your post, we sat on our roof and watched the fire burn down the hillside towards us. I had to laugh as I read your comment: “So what is all that other stuff for??”. The same thing happened to us, it amazed us at how much stuff we were willing to leave behind. I wish I would have thought to wear goggles…sure would have saved my eyes.

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