Wild Fires, Neighbors & Friends

My eyes opened to a smoke filled room and the lights of sirens and police cars outside my window. There was a pounding on my front door and someone calling my name. I ran downstairs and opened the door as my smoke alarm went off. My neighbor told me calmly to get out as soon as I could. As is likely common in these situations I ran to my garage to get a suitcase, but when I turned on the light I was still standing in complete darkness. I had forgotten we were in the middle of a power blackout due to fire warnings. I thought I’ll go upstairs and get my flashlight, but then realized I didn’t have time for that. I pulled a garbage bag from a nearby shelf and ran upstairs.

When I got back upstairs terror and exhaustion overcame me and I crawled back into bed. It was 3 a.m. and a part of me wanted to believe all of this was simply an over reaction. I listened to the cars whizzing by on the street below and watched the flashing lights and heard the wailing sirens as the emergency vehicles went past my house toward the fire. I pulled up the news on my phone and the pictures of engulfing flames confirmed the evacuation. I could completely understand why people waited until the last moment to evacuate because contrary to all evidence this did not seem real. Yet, memories of the news coverage of the Napa and Paradise fires were still fresh in my mind.

I got up and looked out my upstairs window. A fire engine passed in one direction and a row of cars were funneling out in the other. Just then, a deer ran across the street toward my house and the creek behind it. A passing car slammed on its breaks and I watched as the deer cleared his headlights. The car behind, however, crashed into the car that had abruptly stopped to avoid the deer. The car that had been hit immediately pulled over, but the car behind him, pulled around him and sped on. I watched in disbelief as his taillights disappeared in the smokey distance. All of this happened in less then two minutes. This marked the moment when it became clear it was time to get out.

In the darkness, I pulled on sweats and a turtleneck sweater. Holding a flashlight, I filled the garbage bag with two pairs of jeans, two linen shirts, running shoes, and a tooth brush. I took the framed pictures of my daughter’s Holy First Communion off my dresser and threw them in with my clothes. I pulled samples of my clothing-line off my rack from Fashion Week stuffing them into the bag as I went. I doubled back tucking the box with the Ocean SF custom order for Velvet Hammer under my arm and headed down the stairs.

I scooped up my computers and chargers and threw them into a large market basket with my wallet and one can of dog food. On my family room shelf sits a box containing all of my favorite family photos prior to the digital photo age. I took this and my dog and put them both safely in the car and ran back into the house.

For a brief moment, I paused in the entry way asking myself what do I need to do next? Most of my paperwork sits in my safety deposit box at the bank, passports and that sort of thing are locked in a fireproof safe in my office. A decent amount of my artwork is currently on display at the Wilder Gallery in Orinda miles away. When I asked myself what else I needed to take with me I realized nothing else mattered. All of the things we think we value are meaningless in these situations. It never once occurred to me to go back upstairs in the smoke to get my Gucci loafers or my Louis Vuitton purse. Ditto for all of the signed and original art my husband had collected and the hand carved boxes my father brought back from different parts of the world, or my own collection of cards and letters, or my vintage watches with the leather bands. None of these things entered my mind.

Before I left I filled a large container with water and took the few things I packed to my car. I took one last look at my beautiful two story house and drove away. All of this took ten minutes or less.

I followed the other cars silently out of town and then called friends in Lafayette. I arrived and crawled into their spare bed in my clothes with my dog safely beside me. Trembling, I slowly steadied my breathing and heart beat, then I said my prayers. I thanked God for my wonderful neighbors, and kind friends, and the fact that I was safe and sound.

The next morning, the fire was out, but so was the power. I went home and packed a real suitcase. My house smelled like the Girl Scout Lodge I went to as a girl called Camp Whispering Winds. It smelled like a giant campfire. I spent the next night with college friends a town away who had power. That night we sat together in quiet camaraderie eating grilled salmon, drinking wine, and watching the sun go down.

Love and blessings to all.

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