Before we all burn

by Ginger on October 23, 2008

in Becoming Myself

*When the wind picked up the fire spread/And the grapevines seemed left for dead/And the Northern sky looked like the end of days/The end of days

A year ago this week, my husband and I evacuated our home due to the fires in San Diego county.

I’ve been in natural disasters before–tornadoes, blizzards, earthquakes, flash floods, wind storms strong enough to kill people, and once on vacation my family “outran” a hurricane(long story)–so it’s not like I’ve never experienced the fear that nature can instill.

But this was different.

The wake-up call to a rented room/Sounded like an alarm of impending doom/To warn us it’s only a matter of time/Before we all burn

The Sunday before we evacuated, N.C. and I watched the news of the fires off in some other part of the county. For those of you who don’t know San Diego and the area, the key thing for this story is that there are several areas–east county, north county, north county coastal, San Diego proper, and I’m sure there are more. There are miles and miles and miles to this county. This means that something affecting the east county for example, in most cases, won’t be affecting the other areas.

So when we heard of the fires on Sunday night, and the evacuations that had started, N.C. and I were wary, but not concerned. “The fire would have to jump several freeways, travel about 40 miles and then jump a lake to affect us,” we said as we went to bed.

How naive we were.

Before we all burn/Before we all burn/Before we all burn

Monday morning, when we woke up the fire had jumped and traveled, and closed the freeway we take to work. My husband’s office was in direct danger of flames, so we stayed home, deciding what to do. And we were able to watch the smoke close in around us.

 And we watched the plumes paint the sky gray

Unlike in the song, the sky didn’t turn gray. Maybe for a second, in the beginning. But the sun was out, so the sky by us turned orange. Which is one of the eeriest images I’ve seen–it was somewhat…otherworldly.

We watched and debated what to do for several hours. We never really felt that our apartment was in danger, but that morning, every few minutes the reports were coming that the fire was sprinting closer and closer to our part of the world. We started hearing reports of neighborhoods on fire about 10 minutes from us. And then 5 minutes from us. And then within the city limits. And then, there was a knock on our door.

When we opened it, there was a 4 page document on evacuation procedures. No official evacuation notice, just the hows and wheres should we get to that point.

And the news reports on the radio/Said it was getting worse/As the ocean air fanned the flames

When we evacuated, it was mainly to leave the smoke and ash. But the fire was growing and traveling fast enough that we still felt we had to pack as if we weren’t coming back. Standing in our living room, looking around at all of our “stuff”, we made instant decisions on what to take and what to leave. Some of our decisions were practical, thinking about actual evacuation and beyond–important files/paperwork, bedding, toiletries, toilet paper, water, non-perishable food. Some were sentimental–photos, some of the mementos of our lives like specific Christmas ornaments, or the needlepoint my grandmother did for our wedding.  In the end, we took one hour to pack the car full of the stuff we deemed most important to us, then loaded the kitty in and drove away.

And hoped we’d come back to everything else.

And the firemen worked in double shifts/With prayers for rain on their lips/And they knew it was only a matter of time

We did come back to it all–though covered with a layer of ash–unlike so many people. We still see scorched plots of land where homes once stood. And while there is rebuilding, a year later, there are still communities who aren’t whole. So in some ways, I feel ridiculous writing about this–we weren’t affected the way so many thousands of others were.

But that week changed something in me, something that I still can’t fully articulate. Part of it was a knowledge of whats important–we had a discussion about what we would grab if we had 1 hour, 30 minutes, 10 minutes or 1 minute, and let me tell you that was illuminating. Part of it is more of a sense of the frailty of our day-to-day existence…I bitch about money and not being able to afford things, but that week thousands of people say everything they own go up in flames in an instant. Perspective is maybe the best way to describe the overall change.

A year ago, the world around me burned, and we had to face what would happen if our world burned too. I think that would change a lot of people. I know it changed me.

*Grapevine Fires by Death Cab for Cutie, with some lyrics left out. The song actually is about the fires in Southern California in 2007.

Tough Girl Kat October 23, 2008 at 4:28 pm

My parents almost had to evacuate their house last year with the brush fires that came through Los Angeles county. What they did was double insure everything… just in case.

Princess Extraordinaire October 24, 2008 at 1:59 am

I live in Orange County so I can understand the ordeal you endured. Those pics are frightening and can only convey half the terror of actually living through it…

JD October 24, 2008 at 9:42 am

AGAIN? I lived in SD a year ago and that whole thing was nuts. What is it? International fire day on October 23rd? Geez.

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