Lives are changed, every day. Weddings, funerals, first-place soccer championships … these are just a few of the life events that we expect and, in some cases, anticipate. But a nearby fire was the last thing I expected on Wednesday after spending the morning at a volunteer tea at school. Instead of clear blue skies and 92 degree weather, I, along with thousands of others in my community, saw smoke; what you see above is the fire right after it started. Scary. And yet I couldn’t smell the smoke, and so somehow I figured it was far enough away to not damage our school or our home.
Still, I turned around and headed back into school. Usually I’m in my yoga pant/trainers uniform, but that day, for the tea, I was hobbling about on wedge heels and hampered by a pencil skirt without much give to speak of. A few others moms were lingering and shared that the fire started at a community park, not too far from our school, but far enough that I felt we’d be okay. But my instinct kicked in and I figured, better safe than sorry. I signed my little Gigi out of school and drove home, telling her everything was fine but we were going to get the dogs and head out for a bit.
This was the view from my driveway when we got home. What would you do? I called my husband, who had his phone off in a meeting, then called my dad, who told me what documents he thought I should grab. As Gigi packed a bag and I threw stuff into a duffle bag, I paused and thought, what do I really need?
There’s no real answer to this. Everyone “needs” different things. What I grabbed: an external hard drive with all of Gigi’s life photos on it; credit card, banking and house insurance documents; an antique pewter box from my great-great-grandmother’s trip through Egypt; a teak jewelry box my parents bought me on a trip to Hong Kong in 1979; and my jewelry. As I was packing up the dogs’s food, expecting to be away for the afternoon or even overnight, I heard Gigi come into the kitchen.
“Mom?” she asked. “Do you think Fred should come with us?”
Fred is her fish, her birthday fish, a bright blue betta who lives by the kitchen sink. I looked at her and I’m sure she must have recognized that sigh I exhale when I’m thinking of a nice way to say “no,” and then she said this:
“Mommy, we can put Fred into that little cup he came in, and then you can put him in your cup holder in the car, and he’ll be safe.”
My heart ached at the tenderness and love she showed for her pets, and the level-headedness that she possesses, the calm that I needed at that moment.
Obviously, Fred made it into the car.
What didn’t make it were things I thought of later: our wedding album (pre-digital age, the photos live on negatives…in my closet); an album with all of my mother’s family pictures, which I’m now going to spend the next week scanning and uploading and saving all over the Internet; the small pink five-year diary I started for Gigi when she was five, soon to be scanned and saved as well.
As I was packing the car, debating if I needed to leave the garage door open in case the power went out, my dogs started barking like crazy from inside the house. I immediately thought the police were here to evacuate, but it was a friend’s dog who’d gotten out. Leave it to my dogs to bark their heads off in a crisis. I got the dog home and as I was getting my dogs into the car, the recorded call came: you need to evacuate, immediately.
I headed for the freeway; so did everyone else. A drive that takes fives minutes if you hit every light took 30, but once I was on the freeway it was like nothing wrong was going on. The 5, usually packed, no matter the time, was wide open. I had one of those out of body experiences, like when you look like a slob and pass by a wedding, and you remember the excitement from your own wedding, even as you’re dressed as if you just got out of bed. I felt as if no one beyond our community knew what was going on; here were people, just doing what we all do, day in and day out: driving to work, leaving the grocery store, etc. Life going on.
I drove my kiddo and my dogs and the fish south, stopping first at a friend’s house (thank you Ross & Amy!) to figure out what to do next. I sent Gigi into another room to play on her iPad while I was glued to the television and my phone, answering texts and obsessively checking Facebook to see how others were doing. My family and friends were so supportive throughout the day, calling and texting and emailing to make sure we were okay – thank you to everyone who reached out, and thank you to my friends Liz and Jessica who offered to open their homes to us! And later, my husband found us a room at the Hotel Indigo in downtown San Diego, a pet-friendly hotel with a gracious staff that took great care of us from the second we walked in the door to even beyond when we checked out the next day, promising to hold our room until we called them back to let them know our house was safe to return to.
I can’t say enough good things about the Hotel Indigo – the bellman ran out and bought ear plugs for me (which I’d forgotten at home), the bar allowed the dogs and my kiddo to sit and eat and watch not the fires, but a basketball game. The dogs weren’t totally excited about their first hotel stay, but Gigi thought it was great fun that the dogs and the fish were all at a hotel for the first time. My husband, temporarily trapped in Orange County because the 5 was closed due to even more fires, eventually reunited with us at dinner time. As we say in our family when we’re together, “this is all we need.”
Back home, on Thursday, we talked with friends and walked the neighborhood, our hearts breaking for the three families in our neighborhood who lost their homes. We had friends over that night, once we were allowed back out of the development to go to the grocery store, and even as a food blogger I’m proud to say we all feasted well that night on frozen pizza and salad out of a bag. It’s not the food that matters, it’s being together.
Friday morning, the skies were clearing up and the powerful Santa Ana winds were dying. New fires, nearly 10 in all, were all in various stages of containment. It was hard to believe 48 hours had passed since we’d fled the house. Our family nested, organizing and playing games and just hanging out. That night, we went to another “thankful party” and learned how others had fared.
We are thankful to the first responders who defended and protected our neighborhood. Our kiddos made signs for the men and women of the fire and police departments, and the dads hung them with duct tape around the neighborhood. We’re bringing food to the fire department that was assigned to our neighborhood, later in the week. But it’s impossible to say thank you enough for the safety and peace of mind they gave us, or at least me. I pray we’ll never be evacuated from a fire again, but after a real life evacuation, I know our school and our first responders will be there to protect us, and for that I’m eternally grateful.