California Wildfire: Outracing the Flames

The first sign was smoke, then the sound of sirens as fire trucks roared by. My husband, who had business appointments later in the afternoon, had gone down the hill for a haircut. By the time he made it back up the mountain, the flames were racing down the ridge. When we turned around, we saw that they were also behind us.

My first thought was for the animals: our horse and ponies and goats wouldn’t fit into the car, where I had already jammed our dogs and cats, so I quickly hosed them down, hoping the water would protect them when we couldn’t. I grabbed our renter’s dog from their house on the same property; when I put Ziggy into the car, one of our cats jumped out and disappeared. Jeff, our renter, came flying down the driveway, grabbed Ziggy, his long-haired Dachshund, from our car, and asked me if I had gotten Rudy.  “No,” I answered.  Rudy was Jeff’s tarantula; in the confusion Rudy had not crossed my mind.  Jeff ran inside to rescue him. Next, I grabbed clothes for each of my three youngsters and for us; I also snatched important papers and my daughter’s violin, though we discovered later that the bow was not inside the case.

As the flames closed in on the back side of the house, we made our hurried escape. As we drove past the corrals, one of the ponies screamed, a sound I will never forget.  Through tears, I wished each animal well, and we drove the hell out of there.

We tried to make it down the hill to where our children were in school, though the smoke was so thick we had to turn around.  It was one of the few times I saw my husband cry. We then drove to a neighbor’s, their house now nothing but ash. Remarkably, two kittens emerged from the ruins; apparently they survived by hiding in the basement under the home. This sight alone gave me hope that our animals, too, would make it.

After the flames passed through, we returned to find our animals alive, no doubt due to the wide clearing on all sides of the corrals. Both houses, though, were gone. Returning to a home that was nothing but ashes, a still smoldering ruin, was heartbreaking. In shock, we held hands and stared at the remains. The cat who had escaped the confines of the car appeared; with a meow he welcomed us back. His whiskers were singed, though otherwise he was fine.  We surmised that he had sought refuge in the large boulders behind the house.

It was early evening by the time we were able to make it down the valley side of the hill to a local market and to a working phone. A call to the police revealed that our children were safe in the home of a neighbor’s relative. We learned later that our children, whom we thought safe at school, were in fact brought up the mountain by a neighbor who was on our emergency list.  Using a back road, she made it to her house, but as the fire raced closer, sheriff deputies piled five youngsters—her children and ours— into a squad car and hurried them down the mountain to safety while a helicopter dumped water in front of and on the police car.

We were the fortunate ones, as were our neighbors. Though are homes were gone, we had each other. We lost things, but our families, our animals, were safe.

That inferno was 39 years ago this month, though in memory, it still burns bright. I can still hear that pony scream. In two and a half hours that fire swept from the valley to the sea, setting 25,000 acres of Santa Monica Mountains ablaze. Two hundred and fifty homes were destroyed.  This week, watching Northern California ablaze, I relive through strangers the heartache, the disappointment, the impotence one feels when confronted by a wall of flame whose power overpowers yours.

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  • Bryer Keane October 20, 2017 at 6:41 pm

    A powerful tale of fear and joy. I too wept. I makes me sad how many more families now have similar stories to tell.

  • Jan Neavill Hersh October 18, 2017 at 8:59 pm

    Your essay is written so well that it turned and burned my mind and drenched my face with a release of tears.

    • Judie Rae October 19, 2017 at 6:36 pm

      Thank you, Jan, for your heartfelt response. It means a great deal that you took the time to comment.