Sunday – It is amazing how little you care about stuff when you have flames licking at your heels. I flew back from a speaking engagement in New York on Sunday night and from the airplane, I could see three little fires out in the wilderness. Leaving the airport and driving to my home in Carmel Valley, the most northern tip of the city of San Diego, I felt like I had jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire. The closer I got to my neighborhood, the thicker the air. The fierce Santa Ana winds were blowing ashes all around. In the house, even with all the windows closed, there was a fine layer of soot on everything and the smell of campfire permeated our house. With hindsight it seems silly, but Sunday night we still went to bed thinking life would go on as usual.
Monday – When I woke up Monday morning and turned on the news, reality hit. This was not just going to go away. The three little fires had grown and split into larger fires, creating a virtual line of fires going north and south, east of the Interstate 15. The Santa Ana winds were blowing strong, and on the news we were told that they could not get the usual fire fighting aircraft up in the air because of the wind and smoke.
I sneaked into my daughter’s bedroom and turned off our alarm clock. There would be no school Monday. A few hours later we were told that our area was designated a ‘mandatory evacuation’ area. We were told to get out ASAP, while we could. This all felt very surreal. We are four miles from the ocean. How could brush fire come this close?
I contemplated driving up to my mom’s house in Pasadena, 100 miles to the northeast from here to stay for a few days. Ironically, she has been preparing to move out of her house to an assisted living facility a mile from my San Diego house so she could be near us. However, driving north meant driving through other areas that were being evacuated and I didn’t want to be toast on the freeway.
Time to pack. The first thought in my mind when I realized the house could burn down, was an enormous sense of relief at the thought of not having to get caught up on my filing, or cleaning out the closets or emptying the garage. The idea of a fresh start was appealing. After a few minutes of daydreaming, I realized I had to make some decisions, we had to leave. Interesting what different people want to take when it gets down to the wire.
My 15-year-old daughter, Rebecca, was instructed to pack three days worth of clothes, and whatever items she could not live without. Rebecca packed her stuffed bunny that she has had since the day she was born and is literally falling to bits although I’ve given it a new skin many times. She also took the ticket stubs to all the rock concerts she has ever been to, her computer, her cell phone, her new video iPod, one of her tennis trophies and last year’s freshman yearbook. She also took tickets to a rock concert she and I are supposed to attend at the House of Blues on Wednesday. She did not think to pack her contacts, her retainer or her school books.
My son, Jeremy, who is 18 and severely impacted by autism, needed help to get packed. He was standing in the hallway, rocking back and forth and flicking a piece of ribbon. This is his favorite self-stimulatory activity when he is stressed. Some of us drink vodka and smoke.
I asked him with his letter board what he wanted to take with him, besides his dog, Handsome. He spells out “U R NICE TO FIND MY BOOK” He wants his favorite book, an artsy black and white photography book on the metro in Paris. He was born in Paris and riding the metro in Paris is one of his favorite things to do. ‘Got it!,” Rebecca shouted down the stairs. “What else, Jeremy? You may not see or feel your things again. What can’t you live without?” I ask. “MY MUSIC, DAVE MATTHEWS’ Jeremy spelled. “I got him on my iPod, is that OK?,” “YES.”
I packed my jewelry, sentimental pieces that have not much monetary value but come from old friends and family since passed away, gifts from my husband, sisters and girlfriends. I took my favorite photo of my son and daughter — their first Halloween in California. Jeremy (seven at the time) is wearing turquoise Chinese pajamas. Rebecca is dressed as a witch. They are so cute , smiling and standing in front of the rental we lived in, before we bought the house we are now evacuating. I took pre-digital photos off the wall, photos of friends and relatives. We have paintings hanging on all our walls, a lifetime of collecting from flea markets around the world, but I didn’t give them a second thought. I took the two pieces of art nearest and dearest to my heart: my daughter’s fifth grade self-portrait that won a ribbon at the local San Diego County Fair, and a multi-media self- portrait my autistic son made with an art college student. I grabbed a few days worth of comfortable clothes and for some reason my leather jacket. I had not realized until then the importance of that jacket — it has been everywhere with me, a witness to my adventures in different places. I took my computer, and saved online once again the manuscript I am currently working on. Can’t be too careful.
My husband packed some clothes, a computer, flashlights, cat and dog food, our Very Important Papers which are always in a metal fire proof box. He packed water, food, the kids favorite snacks. I packed 2 cans of fois gras — souvenirs of a trip to France — a couple of good bottles of wine, and a bottle of champagne. Why let it all go to waste? We might as well enjoy one good meal before we get really depressed.
All the neighbors are out on the street packing up their cars. We hug and exchange cell phone numbers and the surreal became reality. We are taking our two cars, so we split up the teens, the 2 cats and the dog. We head to Imperial Beach, about 25 miles south where a niece and her husband have just moved into a tiny one bedroom apartment. When they first arrived to San Diego a month ago, they stayed with us till they found their new home. I never thought that one day, I would need to ask them to repay the favor.
Tuesday – Tuesday morning, everyone is asleep in the tiny living room. I check on the internet, looks like our house is still standing. There is little relief in knowing that, because if your house did not burn down, it just means someone else’s did, possibly someone you know. The fires haven’t stopped, they are still moving towards the coast. I get a call form my sister in New York, she tells me my brother, a cameraman based in Philly, is flying out to cover the story for Good Morning America. My brother has covered many natural disasters in the U.S., including Hurricane Katrina, other floods and fires. This time it will probably seem a bit more personal.
This blog first appeared on the Huffingtonpost.com on October 23, 2007