The day I was evacuated from my home I drove down highway 18 with my radio off. I never drove without Shakira, Gretchen Wilson or the Cure blaring from my speakers. I had just packed up my two long haired cats, 15 scrapbooks of pictures and my oh-so-so-cal True Religion jeans, piled it all into my Baja truck and gave my 3 story house in ArrowBear a quick look goodbye. Angry clouds of red smoke billowed up behind my back yard. It looked like the end of the world. It was almost the end of my world.
Fires had been engulfing Southern California for a week without end. This was nothing new for us, long time mountain residents. Our family had lived in this small rural mountain town for over 20 years. We had seen fires burn through before, watched neighbors and friends from my high school lose their homes. This fire was different; it was by far the most terrible fire storm we had ever seen.
I cruised down highway 18 towards my parent’s house in Upper Rowco, Running Springs, one of the nicest areas in our town. The pines stood tall and dense on the corner of highway 18 and Wilderness. This area hadn’t burned in 100 years and I admired these trees touching into the heavens as I came into the corner going 60 miles an hour, well over the 30 speed limit. No highway patrol was going to stop me for speeding today, might as well drift upper Rowco while I still could! I made a right on Wilderness taking a mental snap shot of these tall pine trees. I would never see them again. Little did I know, in 8 hours they would burn to the ground. As I steered my all wheel drive Subaru up the mountain road I thought of all the time growing up I had hiked the 3 miles to the creek at the bottom. I thought of the acorns we collected down there and the mountain biking we did with other mountain children. I drove by Steve’s house, then that guy who works at the post office, then Carol’s, then Amiee’s. I passed the Boy Scout camp where I used to sled; the Cloud’s where I used to pet sit.
I slowly drove past my parent’s rental house where I grew up. The vinka was running wild over where we used to build snow caves and I used to lie out in the sun with my mom, working on our tans while the snow was still melting around us in May. We called this area of the mountain the butt crack of the mountain. The trees grew so high and dense they kept out sunshine’s rays and the snow lasted to well into May. I love this area. Even after we had to take down half the trees after the bark beetle infestation in 2007 an incident that ended with a giant pine crashing into our roof. To this day Cheddar, the cat is terrified of loud noises since that happened.
I continued up our steep street that I used to walk up every morning to catch the bus a mile from my house. I passed the houses of numerous friends from church, my first grade teacher’s house sat vacant on the left. On the top of the hill was Kelly’s house, we had been friends since kindergarten, lost touch when she moved to West Virginia, then NYU. I drove by Jeff’s house, one of my many mangers at work, and the Gonzalez’s and the Shea’s, and the Wilders and the … It just goes on and on. These are my neighbors! The people I grew up with went to church with, fought with their kids with in school. This is home. This is my life. We had been evacuated so many times but this time seemed real. It seemed final.
I pulled into my parent’s driveway and there was not a sole in sight. Not even the Mayfield’s across the street or there adorable cat Rascal to great me.WTF? Was this the apocalypse? I carried all 30 pounds of howling furry cat flesh into the house and sank into one of the plush couches ready to help my mom pack. Luckily both my brothers were there and had done most everything. Sean was on the phone trying to get us reservations at a hotel that is pet friendly in Redlands where I work. Dad was working for Fed Ex as a long haul truck driver and was somewhere between Cali and Texas. So we congregated in my parent’s living room; 9 or 10 very angry cats between us trying to decide what was next. Should we head down the mountain finally? We watched ABC seven as they showed the fire on the news.
Oh shit. That log cabin going up in flames in Cedar Glen belonged to friends of the family. Suddenly we knew. It was time to go. It was time to say goodbye.
We carpooled down the packed mountain roads, driving through the thick smoke. The hotel only had one room available for the first eight hours so we crammed all the angry cats in, plus my mom and my two brothers, and let the cats to explore the room and “make friends” or entertain us. At 2 a.m. I gave up my bed when my Dad made it back from Phoenix finally. When he walked through the door he said the words I will never forget.
“Our neighborhood’s gone. Upper Rowco burned”
If I said I didn’t cry myself back to sleep I would be lying. I kept thinking of Cheddar, our cat who had escaped 10 minutes before we had to leave the house for the final time. He hated going outside. Why did he run out the door right then? Poor Cheddar. He must be terrified, I thought as I closed my eyes.
The morning brought more being attached to the T.V. We couldn’t really find out much. Every once in a while they would show a house or a neighborhood we would try to pinpoint. No one had any idea what was really going on. I left the hotel to go to work, at least I could do something to keep my mind off the burning mountain, and I could see it in the distance engulfed in smoke.
My husband and the two cats and I checked into the La Quinta in Ontario, the same hotel my parents and some friends of ours ended up staying at. You could tell all the mountain cars in the parking lot, full of memories and mementos. Were lucky we had somewhere to stay and were not stuck at the evacuation center like so many people. I ended up getting really sick from the smoke and spent a couple days just lying in bed watching horse racing and the news endlessly telling us the same thing over and over. Halloween came and went, no candy, no trick or treaters. The Halloween party we planned on attending was cancelled. We were in the hotel for two weeks before the fire was knocked down enough that we could head home to what was left.
Our family was very lucky. The fire burned all the way around our neighborhoods but our houses were safe in the end. We have friend’s two streets away that lost their home, three years later now they are still trying to deal with the insurance company to rebuild. Whole neighborhoods burned to the ground, it’s so sad. Honestly though at one point we thought the entire town was gone. I can’t imagine what we would have done, where we would have gone. The forest in back of my house mostly burned. It’s unsettling how close the flames came to our front door.