Wildfire Journey, Part I

First came thunder and dry lightning. Such storms are rare in my area, due to the configuration of the mountains, but this one was extraordinary by any standards. The first storms hit early on August 16, with not dozens but thousands of lightning strikes (estimated 12,000 over 72-96 hours). 

We had watched the lightning for a few hours, flash after blinding flash, and commented that in his last years, our old German Shepherd Dog had become fearful of loud sounds like thunder and fireworks (we dealt with this by immediately getting out his all-time favorite toy and playing with him). Even though we knew of the danger of fires, somehow it didn’t connect. It should have. Over 500 wildfires sprang up in the next few hours, fanned by hot, dry winds. Soon we saw news stories of multiple fires in our county, Santa Cruz, and neighboring San Mateo, that were to merge into the #CZUAugustLightningComplex fire. 

The next day, the air was noticeably smokey, but we’d had smokey air before, from the Camp fire a couple of years ago, and others in Northern California. We kept an eye on the news but otherwise went about our business, mostly staying indoors. But as August 18 went on, the smoke thickened and the extent of the fire at Butano Park, northwest of us, expanded with terrifying rapidity, our mood went from watchful to alarmed. About dinner time, the smoke was as thick as San Francisco fog. 

“We should prepare to get out of here,” I told my family. “Just in case.” For months now, I’d been gathering materials on disaster preparedness, and had checklists and evacuation route maps in a folder on the kitchen counter. Now I got out those lists.

We each went about packing up suitcases, getting cat carriers ready, piling up our binder of important documents and insurance policies, getting out boxes of family photos. CPAPs, check. Jewelry, check. Prescription meds, check. And so forth.

The smoke got worse. The fire got closer. Big Basin State Park, that jewel of old growth coastal redwoods, was in flames. 

“We’re leaving,” I said, and called my dear friend and fellow writer in the East Bay. 

“Of course you can stay with us,” she said.

“But first,” I told my family, “we will have a good dinner.” As I’d planned, fajitas with squash from our garden. The hot, flavorful food strengthened us for what was to come.

We finished dinner, I loaded the dishwasher and set it to run, and then we loaded up the cars, locked the house, and drove off. As it was, our grown daughter and the cats had an offer of refuge south of Santa Cruz, so after some discussion, we decided to split the family. We stepped out of the house into a sea of billowing smoke.

The road into our little town was already filling up with outbound traffic. At the one and only stop sign in town, in front of the volunteer fire department, sheriffs were directing traffic south toward Santa Cruz. “Go, go, go!” the officer in the middle of the intersection shouted, waving cars through. I’d planned on going left, then along a twisty mountain road I knew well to the nearest highway, but followed the course of least trouble for everyone. It meant a somewhat longer drive for me to detour south, then east, then back north, but in the interest of keeping outgoing traffic flowing smoothly and not making more work for the folks who were trying to get us all out safely, I took it.

Shortly thereafter, while I was on the road, we all received reverse-911 texts of the mandatory evacuation orders.

My friends had set up a tent for us in the back yard, which was the best impromptu solution to social distancing they could come up with. Gratefully we settled down to as much sleep as we could grab. The following morning, we had a discussion about forming a quarantine pod, taking into account our risk tolerance and exposure. We all felt comfortable with this, since it was already clear my family wouldn’t be going back home in a few days. The fires were already roaring down the coast and south along Highway 236 toward our neighborhood.

The next few days passed by in a blur of being obsessively glued to social media, watching the fire’s hourly progress, connecting online with neighbors, remembering all the things we forgot to pack (the power supply to my CPAP), envisioning all the things we didn’t or couldn’t take with us (piano, artwork, 5,000+ volume library) burned to ashes, and so forth. The blaze crept closer and closer to our street. We all had difficulty sleeping and eating.

We’d see rumors that the fire crews had abandoned everything west of Highway 9 at our town, and that was where they’d draw the line. These proved to be just that — rumors — although the crews were stretched critically thin. It made horrific sense that they would throw all their meager resources into defending the town, for if that were lost the fire could go roaring south, consuming one small community after another toward the nearest small city. Neighbors rose to the occasion. Locals with fire-fighting experience set up a water station near our block, watchful for embers descending from the ridge. Neighbors formed a private Facebook DM group, exchanging snippets of real news. One was the spouse of a fire-fighter and was able to convey news. Another was a reporter who ventured behind the fire perimeter zone to check out houses. 

Every night I went to sleep, expecting to find out the next morning that our house and garden and orchard were gone. And day by day, they were still there. And when I first saw the footage of our fence and carport, still intact in the swirling smoke, I burst into tears. 

How our hosts put up with us, I don’t know. Despite their own problems, they were unfailingly kind, gracious, and welcoming. Between our friends and our neighbors, I got to see the best in human nature.

Then came predictions of another lightning storm, with more hot, dry winds. Fire fighters had begun to arrive from other parts of the state, from other states, and even from Australia (I learned later that this is a regular thing as our fire seasons are opposite). Inmate fire crews joined them (and since have gained the right to apply for formal fire fighter training.) The rugged terrain and heavy fuel loads combined with terrible heat to add to their burden.

We finally, finally got a break. The storm dissipated with no new lightning to spark more fires. The winds stilled. The heat wave broke. The smoke thinned enough to make air support (helicopters dumping loads of water) feasible. Our crews kept working at full pace, trying to make the most of the more favorable conditions. We even got a little rain, not enough to make any difference but enough to give us all hope. The containment went from 0% to 5 % and more.

After most of a week with our friends, we realized that we weren’t going home any time soon. I called our homeowners insurance to ask about temporary housing; because of the mandatory evacuation, this time fell under “prohibited use” and our adjuster asked where we’d like to be and what our requirements were. Unlike some others, who’d ended up in shelters or motels, we were able to say, “Three adults, four cats, separate bedrooms, one suite.” Where? the adjuster asked. I expected that all the nicer hotels near us would already be filled. My friend recommended a long-stay hotel only a few minutes drive from her place. People she’d known had stayed there and found it comfortable. Our temporary housing adjuster set us up in a suite that met our needs, plus hot “continental” breakfasts that hotels often offer now. Our daughter and the cats joined us, and we set about laying down newspaper under the litter boxes, placing scratching posts in strategic locations, and so forth. I was surprised at how quickly the cats adapted to their new surroundings, and also — although I shouldn’t have been — how much comfort they brought us.

Most of my hotel experience over the last few decades has been traveling to and from or at conventions. The glamor of staying in a new place, with those little bottles of shampoo and lotion in brands I’d never tried, not to mention eating in a restaurant, which I rarely do, had long since worn off. Now the place felt like a refuge, not just due to the relief from the smoke and having bedrooms with separate baths and a communal kitchen, dining, and living area, but because the staff soon got to know our story. True, they were doing their jobs in providing extra amenities (like detergent for the dishwasher or lending us the vacuum so we could clean around the litter boxes without having to get the cats back in their carriers) or just in passing. The wildfires touched everyone and in so many cases brought out the best in people.

 

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