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.