While enjoying a sound sleep I was semi-awakened by the smell of smoke. My first thought was I had left a candle burning or my husband had started a fire in the fireplace after I had gone to bed. Just go back to sleep, it’ll clear out. I dived deeper under the covers, but the smell was persistent and stronger. Are the neighbors having a bonfire? What is going on? Begrudgingly I shoved the covers off and went to investigate. The house was pitch black and cold. In the bedroom across the hallway I saw a faint glow flickering on the window shade. I raised the shade to look out the window and nearly passed out by what I saw. The ridge line west of my home was ablaze. Smoke and red flames jumped up towards the sky. My street was enshrouded in thick smoke. My God! The neighborhood’s on fire! I tried calling out my husband’s name, but only a whisper came out. After the third try I managed to shout, “Paul! Wake up! There’s a fire.”
“What?” was his sleepy reply.
“Come look,” I said.
I tried the light switch by the stairs but nothing came on. “Great, we don’t have power,” I said. We padded downstairs and opened the front door. A cold blast of smoky air assaulted us. Paul slammed the door shut and we went back upstairs to the bedroom where we could see the flames better. We didn’t know what to do, but I heard fire engines in the distance so I knew others were aware of the fire. Without power we had no heat and I couldn’t tell what time it was. We figured the fire was far away and we should go back to bed where it was warm. After about thirty seconds of lying in bed Paul said, “This is wrong. This fire looks dangerous, we need to do something.” We got up, put on our robes, Paul grabbed a flashlight we kept in the nightstand drawer and together we went downstairs again. Just then the phone rang. After Paul hung up he turned to me, “That was Janice Sanchez. She said we need to get out of our house. The fire is big and it’s bad.” He grabbed the Mag-Lite we kept in the kitchen drawer and I followed him as he raced upstairs.
My heart started to race and I tried not to panic, but instead concentrated on what I needed to bring with me. I grabbed some cash out of a drawer, I jammed my wedding ring onto my finger, and snatched up a couple other pieces of jewelry that were important to me. My prescription medicine was next and a toiletry bag.
“Now isn’t the time for toiletries April,” Paul cautioned me.
“Oh yes it is,” I said. Into the bag went the cash, jewelry, moisturizers and face creams. I have my priorities.
“Get dressed,” Paul said and then he disappeared downstairs. I figured he was getting our “to-go” bag we kept under the stairs. Our church strongly cautioned us that disasters could occur anywhere and anytime. We needed to be prepared with an evacuation plan and some necessary possessions in case we had to escape quickly. Sound advice now that we were in the midst of a raging urban fire! However, what does one wear to an evacuation? Certainly not the brand new five inch platform stilettos I had recently purchased. Too bad, those would have to stay behind. I settled on a turtleneck, a cable-knit sweater, corduroy pants and my sturdy black Ugg boots.
As I headed out the door I grabbed an unopened bottle of vodka. If this house goes up I might need that later. We began to load up the car and I could see the eerie light of a flashlight beam bouncing off walls and windows in the house across the street as my neighbor was preparing to evacuate her home. Adding to the trauma of having to leave our home in the middle of the cold night was the howling winds. Leaves, bits of branches and other debris were flying around us. I looked up, ash and soot was floating down on top of us, prompting me to run back into the house and gather more belongings.
“Get important files and papers,” Paul said. I nodded in agreement, but then wondered, what is important?
“What do you want me to get? I don’t know what to do,” I said. I was starting to lose it and needed to gather myself and focus. I picked up what I thought were important files and documents, but really had no clue. I ran back out to the car and kept shoving things in. Next, I rummaged for some tote bags in the closet and started filling them with family photo albums, framed pictures and family pictures on the wall that were irreplaceable. There was still time before the threat of fire was imminent. I pondered in front of a shelf on the wall, should I bring the dog’s ashes? I might as well. I scooped up their urns and turned to leave.
Paul stopped and looked at me. “Really, you’re going to bring the dog’s ashes? That’s important?” I guessed so, because in the car they went.
The wind was shifting the fire away from us so we decided to wait and see what would happen. I guessed I had been awakened from the smoke smell around two a.m. By three a.m. our car was packed and ready to go. I was surprised at how little we packed. I was sorry to leave my library. The thought of all my books burning up in a fire was a bitter ache in my heart, but they’re only things I kept telling myself, all replaceable.
For a while it looked as if our house was out of danger. I sat down on the sofa and picked leaves out of my hair. I lay down and dozed off and on as daylight approached. The only source of information we had was from our battery powered radio turned to the local news station. I came out of a light nap when I heard the newscaster say, “The fire has jumped across Ridgeview.” Ridgeview! That was just behind my neighbor’s houses across the street. There is a creek between their homes and the sidewalk with a lot of dried overgrowth, perfect for a hungry fire. I jumped up off the couch. Just then Paul came in. He had been guarding the driveway keeping an eye out for smoke or pop-up fires. “We have to go, embers are coming down now.” I followed him out of the house, but just as quickly the wind shifted and the embers disappeared. Paul ran across the street and knocked on the neighbor’s door to let them know there was a fire behind their house. They invited us inside. They had been sleeping and had no idea how close the fire was. Looking out their back sliding door I was transfixed by the flames as the homeowners scurried about the house and made a dash for their car to evacuate. Paul and I rushed out of their house and into their back yard where we saw Charlie, another neighbor who lived down the street and around the corner from us. He was with REMSA and had been working since two a.m. when he got a call to go help a man who had had a heart attack while evacuating his home. Charlie was down in the ditch with a long garden hose tamping down the flames. Another neighbor, Cody, whose wife and little twin daughters had already evacuated, grabbed another garden hose and joined Charlie in defending those endangered homes. Charlie was the hero of our section of the block. If it wasn’t for him I’m not sure what would have happened to those homes. There were only minutes to act and those precious minutes made all the difference. Charlie yelled for Paul to get a fire engine over to our block. He said he had been trying for two hours and couldn’t get anyone to answer his call. Paul ran out to the front yard and flagged down one of the many police officers on our street. Within seconds a fire engine arrived.
I ran out to the front of the house too, and to my horror saw to the west of my house thick black smoke rising up and knew a house close to the ditch was engulfed in flames. Although I couldn’t see the house and didn’t know how close it was to the houses at the top of the street, I heard loud pops and explosions, but didn’t know what they were from. Neighbors ran back into their homes, but Paul and I stayed on the street watching the smoke build. We had been ready with our garden hoses as well, just in case a pop-up fire started, but turned off the water when we realized there was little water pressure and didn’t want to take water away from the fire engines.
We didn’t know where the next fire would start. It seemed to be random, completely at the will of where the wind blew the embers. I was dismayed to see another home high on a hill just south of my house burn to the ground. We were surrounded by the fire.
One minute we were going to leave and the next we stayed on watch duty. The police suggested we evacuate but they said they couldn’t force us to leave, so we stayed. But, many in the neighborhood did leave. For hours it went on like this. Family and friends texted or called making sure we were okay, giving us updates on the fire. I was shocked to learn that it was far from contained even after twelve hours.
I was relieved to hear in the press conference that firefighters and the police force had saved over four thousand homes, mine included. Unfortunately thirty-two homes had been destroyed by the fire and thousands were displaced in evacuation centers not knowing the fate of their homes. When all was said and done, the fire, known as the Caughlin Fire, had consumed 2000 acres. By three p.m. we still had no power and the weather forecast called for very cold temperatures that night. We decided to leave and get a hotel room. We drove down the street where we were stopped by a police cordon. We were told that if we left we wouldn’t be able to return until sometime the next day. Although we felt the threat of fire was over, we were hesitant to leave. For hours police patrolled the neighborhood ensuring the safety of the homeowners and guarding against burglary or any lookey-loo’s. This gave us an added feeling of safety.
We went back home, put a large pot of water to simmer on our gas cook-top (the humidity it creates works to keep the house warm. A trick we learned when our furnace went out during the coldest winter on record). Then, while it was still light out, I heated up some chili for our dinner. Paul gathered warm clothing and blankets. As strange as it sounds it felt wrong to light a fire in the fireplace, but our need for warmth overcame those feelings. Before long we were peaceful and cozy. We both drifted off to sleep. Around nine-thirty p.m. the power miraculously returned. Our ordeal, it seemed was over. Aside from the smell of smoke that permeated our clothes, cars and home, we had come through it with everything intact. We felt fortunate, humble and grateful.
What stood out to me during this time of trial was the community. People were concerned for the welfare of others, offered to help, checked up on older ones or those alone. Even though we were scared, there was never pandemonium. I felt calmer knowing our community was there for each other if a need arose.
A lesson to take from all this is to be prepared. Even if we are prepared that doesn’t mean we will necessarily have time to get our belongings. Some people woke to the smell of smoke and had minutes to escape with only their lives. Still, it is good to have some sort of plan in place, that way when disaster strikes we will feel more in control of our situation, have a clear head and stay calm.