When The Fire Comes For Your Home, There's Only So Much You Can Save

The vast wildfire tearing through California this month illuminates more than just the land it burns — it lights up everything we lose, or leave behind.

It took exactly a week after the fire started for us to evacuate, and by then we’d waited so long it felt like a source of pride. We watched the news as the fire crept up the spine of California, ash falling in flurries from a smoky sky. The Thomas Fire first broke out in the hills above Ventura, about an hour north of LA, but within a week had spread 26 miles, until the air was thick enough to chew.

Santa Barbara County, where I live, instructed us to stay inside as much as possible and to wear N95 particulate respirator masks to protect us from the hazardous air if we ventured out. It looked like how I imagine Mars — orange and dark even at high noon. My husband and I refreshed the news on our phones and watched as the evacuation zone crept closer to us, until it was only four blocks away.

We knew that we needed to pack up everything we wanted to save. Like sleepwalkers, we walked through our house plucking our things off shelves and out of drawers, packing them into suitcases and throwing them in our car. Then, a little over a week ago, we drove away from our home, and away from the flames that licked up the sides of the mountains nearby.

Forest fires shape the response of native Californians into something like stoicism. In her essay “Los Angeles Notebook,” Joan Didion described LA weather as “the weather of catastrophe. The wind shows us how close to the edge we are.”

The evening the fire began, my husband, Justin, first read about it as we were getting ready for bed. “It’s still 30 miles away,” he said.

“That’s terrible,” I replied absently, registering the news like any natural disaster befalling others — sad, scary, and unlikely to disrupt my day. I stuffed graded essays in my bag before the 8 a.m. class I was teaching the next day. It was the final week of fall quarter classes at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where I teach, and I was less focused on survival than on hounding students for late assignments before they all departed for Christmas break.

“It’s going to be bad,” Justin said. He named several people we knew who lived close by the fire, people I loved. That night, all of them were evacuated in the middle of the night.

The next morning I woke up to texts and social media updates from displaced people in Ventura and Ojai looking for refuge in Santa Barbara. I wrote a quick post myself, offering up our spare room to anyone looking for shelter. “Dogs welcome,” I added. The power had gone out during the night, and helicopters agitated overhead, bringing bucket after bucket of water to the front lines.

At school we didn’t have internet, so we improvised. The students who didn’t stay home arrived wearing masks. In one class, a guest speaker stood in front of the students to talk about opportunities for on-campus journalism under flickering lights, like the final standoff in a horror film. We all made a good show of caring about anything other than the fires. Outside, the day turned yellow, then orange, then gray.

Winds are capricious in California, and often hot, even at night. Fall is Santa Ana season, where the dense, cold air of the Great Basin winds blow downhill toward the warmer coastal air. According to the National Weather Service, Santa Anas "are warm and dry and can severely exacerbate brush or forest fires, especially under drought conditions."

When people imagine a forest fire, they might imagine a wall of flames rushing forward all at once. But because the forest fires in California are wind-driven, they’re more like fire raining down through the wind’s fingers, which is why one house in a neighborhood might be spared while another is scorched. On the worst nights, the Thomas Fire was driven by gusts traveling 85 miles per hour. Fall is fire season here, and fire season happens every year.

As the sundowner winds spread the fire west, thousands of firefighters traveled from across the country to help, and dozens of helicopters and airplanes flew from coast to mountains, dumping water and painting the ground red with fire retardant. Over the past few weeks, the fire has grown from the 10th-largest fire in modern California history to the second.

Great gusts pushed the fires down the sloping Santa Ynez Mountains, through Toro and Romero Canyons, burning homes and the hills where Justin loves to trail run. I sat inside for days with Justin and our pacing dog, refreshing Twitter, escaping into books to distract myself. Schools were closed first, including the university, then restaurants and small businesses. I walked three blocks to a health clinic to get more masks for my parents and younger brother, seeing only the masked mail carrier on the sidewalk, who waved to me and said, “Stay safe out here.” By the next day we couldn’t even walk our dog around the block — the air was too dense and the ash too heavy.

I read about the ways the fires were affecting the most vulnerable — school children who relied on public school breakfasts and lunches to eat. The Santa Barbara County Foodbank was donating food to feed these families, although eventually even their volunteers were sent home to protect their health, too. People were leaving bowls of water out for displaced wildlife on their front steps; I imagined weary deer and coyotes wandering down in the night to finally rinse the grit from their mouths. The local homeless population could not escape the air, instead forced to breathe the debris and remnants of people’s homes through the filter of their white masks.

We knew we were lucky, in comparison, but our cabin fever took hold. We were snappy about the dishes piling up; we whined about wanting to take a walk or a drive just to get out. Justin had the dispatcher ham radio on inside, hearing updates before they were announced via the phone alert system. Entire neighborhoods had been abandoned as we waited for evacuation orders, for rain, for something to save us. Most of the people we knew had already left town and were posting pictures of themselves at the beach up north, where the smoke was steadily trying to catch up with them.

I called my pregnant best friend, whose husband was out of town. She’d been feeling sick for days, headachy and dizzy. “I think you should leave,” I told her.

“Thank you,” she told me. “I was having a hard time deciding what to do!” Like all of us, she felt the twin tugs of paralysis and terror. As she got on the road, she told me she got an evacuation alert for her home. She had missed it by minutes, already on her way to safety. Outside, I heard the frantic helicopters, each so small in the scheme of the hungry fire.

In the middle of the night a week and a half ago, four days after the fire began, the entire county got a false evacuation alarm on our phones. Half an hour later, it updated to say Carpinteria, a few miles south of us, needed to evacuate, but the rest of us should be ready. Through the early morning hours we watched as the evacuation zone inched closer. We had already packed the most essential documents — passports, car titles, social security cards — days before.

Over that weekend I walked through the rooms of the house I’d so lovingly furnished in the past few months, evaluating everything we owned with a mixture of urgency and detachment, making terrible choices. Reckoning with the objects that make up a life is instinctual in many ways, and entirely practical in others. The shoes I saved, for example, were simply the ones I liked best, but our wedding china and Justin’s antique botanical prints might be worth something, so those went into the car. I packed my grandmother’s silver rather than her crystal bowl. The giant weaving my best friend made for us would have taken too long to take off the wall, but it was easy to grab the signed books out of the bookcase.

At the last minute, I ran back for my wedding dress, folded in muslin on the top shelf of my closet. I knew I’d never wear it again. But as I felt its lightness in my hands, I took measure, as the minutes pressed in around me, both of who I have been and what I want to save of that person.

My father famously refused to leave my parents’ house in town during a mandatory evacuation order during the 2009 Jesusita Fire, even when the rest of the family had escaped. “Once you leave you can’t come back,” he reasoned. Instead, he watered the roof and slept on the couch by the front door that night, saying he’d leave if he saw flames.

But by the time we were alerted that the fire was so close, we were sick of feeling sick about the approaching evacuation line, wondering if in 10 more minutes if we'd finally hear the alarm to GET OUT NOW. So last Monday morning, a week after the fire began, we drove to the desert. On the freeway we saw the fragmented landscape of charred trees and cracked mountains, the helicopters going to and from the coast. And finally, in a moment I wish I could bottle and keep with me, we saw the sky for the first time in a week.

As soon as we arrived in the desert, our landlord sent us a picture of the fire in the mountains above our home burning, asking us to leave. The plume buildup and collapse made the firefighters on the front lines unable to do their jobs safely. From our refuge, we checked the news less obsessively, perhaps, although I thought frequently about our home and what we had left behind. Some people never get the chance to grab anything before disaster strikes, and I wonder what it is about the hasty handfuls of our old lives that feels like we’re saving ourselves. Evacuees become their own homes, relying only on their bodies and transportation to get them to safety.

A ham radio operator said, at some point over the terrible last few weeks, that the best cure for worry is preparation. But when we escaped, the worry didn’t leave. Instead, my worry expanded, gaining its own momentum like the fire. I thought of my parents, my displaced friends, the hills I grew up hiking, now burned up. I thought of the people sleeping in shifts around the fire, the first responder prison inmates facing what the rest of us didn’t want to because they didn't have the choice to escape. About 600 fire engines are crammed in the winding streets in the hills above my home as I write this, the firefighters spraying retardant on the grass to stop the fires from devouring anything else. It’s possible that it will keep bleeding out and out, not stopping until it hits the burn scars of the last fires that got this close to us.

This fire, like all fires that rage this long and this mightily, brutally illuminates more than just the land it burns. It lights up everything we leave behind the moment we flee, as well as our responsibilities and the material possessions that form the optics of our identities. We will slowly rebuild what we lose, I suppose, over and over, throughout our lives — fires or no fires.

We left late and returned home three days later, before the voluntary evacuation warning was lifted for our neighborhood, but when things had not gotten any worse for a few days. A holding pattern is familiar to us, living where we do, so close to the edge. When we drove home, we saw the wall of smoke and my heart dropped as I realized that home, as I know it, does not exist anymore. We still can’t go outside without a mask, and they predict the air quality, now similar to developing countries without pollution control, will take months to recover. The canyons are gone too, and the total reach of the fire across the state still only half contained.

Two full weeks after the fire broke out, the wind carried a burning ember to a park within a mile of our house, and we watched as crews attacked it, saving us again and again. For a few days after we had gone and come back, we were once again placed on voluntary evacuation notice. But instead of leaving again, we acquired a neighbor’s dog whose dog sitter threatened to drop her at the county shelter if he had to leave suddenly.

Over the past weekend we were stuck inside with two dogs, then living out of a suitcase, but by Sunday we could finally see the gray-blue sky again. That night, I went to the grocery store, where two firefighters were picking up dinner. As they walked in, the store erupted in applause. The next day we saw a line of fire trucks pulling into a Courtyard Marriott, presumably to sleep in shifts between fighting. Cars honked their horns as the cavalcade passed us. I rolled down my window — to wave at them — for the first time in weeks.

Being home as the fire still rages is less terrifying now that I know what it takes to pack up and leave. We’ve done it once, so it becomes easier to imagine what can be saved, and how it feels to say goodbye. The anticipation, at least, has loosened its grip.

We’ve spent the past few evenings driving to the pier to look back up at the smoldering hills, the flames like orange Christmas lights still draped down their peaks. We are all exhausted, but especially those fighting the flames, and those rebuilding their homes. The rest of us wait — for favorable winds, for neighborhoods to become safe again, for the fire to stop its spread or change its course. We see what will be left of our lives. ●

Ellen O'Connell Whittet's writing has appeared in Lenny Letter, the Rumpus, Lit Hub, and the Ploughshares Blog, where she is a contributing writer. She is working on a memoir about ballet and the female body.

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