“Maggie, Bob,” Tom’s voice cracked over the cell speaker phone. “We’re under mandatory evacuation.” His voice broke. “I’m so sorry, the fires, they came so fast… there was no time…“ His words had just begun to register. “I’m so sorry,” he repeated and then there was a long pause until he added, “your house, I’m pretty sure it’s gone.”
That call marked the beginning of a detour in our lives. A detour that changed our family and my outlook towards disasters forever. It was not just our small neighborhood community that was turned upside down. By week’s end, the wildfires had taken a heavy toll, and the biggest culprit, the Witch Creek Fire, had not only destroyed our neighborhood, but had unleashed its fury over many communities. Over eleven hundred homes were destroyed, 550,000 acres burned and by the time the Witch Creek Fire was brought under control, two people had lost their lives and 39 firefighters were injured. The Witch Creek Fire was the largest of the 2007 wildfires and surpassed the 1970 Laguna Fire as the second-largest fire in California history.
Not having official news, we cut our vacation short and rescheduled our return flights for the next day. Numb, exhausted and convincing ourselves our neighbor Tom, might be wrong, we packed and headed to the airport. The news reports were sketchy and by police order, no one had been allowed back into our neighborhood. The word from friends was that the Trails, our development, had been hit hard.
As we approached San Diego, the pilot announced a change in the landing pattern at Lindbergh Field because of strong winds. Landing gear down, my purse stowed under the seat ahead, I looked out my window. What I saw shook me to my core. There was a fire ball, hundreds of feet in the air, the biggest I’d ever seen. East of that fireball was a track, a swath of embers, as far as I could see. I sank deeper into my seat. The fire towering over North County was not just some wildfire; it was a monster and had taken everything in its path.
As soon as we landed, our cell phones alerted us to messages. Cal Fire had visited fire affected neighborhoods and created a list of burned properties. Sadly, our house was one of them. Nine of the eleven homes on our side of the street had burned to their foundation and the two left standing were so badly damaged, they were uninhabitable. With our heads hanging, my husband and I walked to the baggage area to claim our only worldly goods… two small suitcases, both full of dirty beach clothes.
From that moment and until months later, the smell of ashes and burning debris permeated my nose. There's a smell to a wildfire that I will never forget. To this day even the innocuous smell of a neighbor’s barbecue brings back those anxieties of the days and months after the fire.
It took almost a week for us to be allowed into our neighborhood. There were still hot spots and the possibilities of gas leaks and live electrical lines, not to mention leaning chimneys, broken glass and other debris. But until we saw it, we still clung to a glimmer of hope our home had not burned. Plus our house was only five years old, with a fire-proof roof, a ceiling mounted sprinkler system, double glazed windows, quality construction and young vegetation. It should have survived a fire.
So we waited. It was during a run to Target to buy a few clean clothes, we realized a midst the waiting and the tears and the anxiety, we had so much to do. In that store, we saw a friend who had lost her home in the Westwood area. She mentioned there were support agencies at the Rancho Bernardo Community Center and how much they had helped her family. Hearing her words, we headed toward the Community Center. I cried the entire way to the park. In reminiscing about those tears, they weren't the tears of loss, but tears of anticipation that someone could help us.
The volunteers, staff, and agencies that manned those booths at the RB Community Center, were the catalyst, the force that helped us get our lives back. We were ushered in and greeted by a Red Cross volunteer named Mary. She told me about her brother and a friend who lost their homes and I listened to her words. I could relate to their loss, but somehow at that moment our loss seemed bigger. She directed my husband to some of the other booths that could help us begin to put normalcy in our lives. After my husband left, Mary asked me how I was doing and I faked a smile. She asked me again and the tears began. She brought over another Red Cross volunteer, Linda, who had worked with many survivors of disasters and we talked for a long time. Linda told me she was a social worker in her real life and I was glad she was there. Neither told me time would heal or that they understood. Those would have been the wrong words to say. They just listened and answered my questions. T hen the Red Cross offered us comfort kits and a debit card to buy essentials. It didn't matter if we needed them or not, they were offering and we accepted. They made us feel like somebody cared.
I credit those Red Cross volunteers our first day at the center for giving us the first nudge toward healing.
We were finally allowed into our neighborhood and got to see firsthand our house -- or what wasn't a house. All that was left of our home was pretty much two chimneys and a foundation covered by several feet of ash. Someone had come on to the property and left a couple of shovels and some sifters. Those sifters meant the world to us, like receiving the Red Cross care kit and debit card. They were proof someone cared.
I've never put much stock in things, so it wasn’t so much the sadness of losing the house and its furnishings. They could be replaced. It was the feeling of being violently assaulted by a force of nature so powerful, it didn't matter that we were good people. That fire was going to destroy everything in its path.
But in losing the house, I lost my safe place, my home -- my place to heal. I ached to see my children’s baby books, to pick up my grandfather’s scratched and worn guitar, to re-read the card my husband had given me on our wedding night. I wanted to walk into my sons’ rooms, see the sports trophies they had won during their school days, the jumble of video games with controllers wrapped around themselves like writhing snakes. Run my hands along their favorite books and collectibles, remembering the trips, the laughter, the ups and downs of life each represented. One of the worst things? As a photographer, I had lost it all. I’d promised myself I was going to scan the negatives, make digital images, store them in a safe location -- but other things got in the way, so I didn't.
It took us a while for us to get our feet under us again. Within eighteen months of the fire, we replaced all the physical items needing replacement. To furnish our new home with everything from coat hangers, to spatulas, to linens and cutlery to all the furniture and hundreds of other items -- my husband would joke we needed to create a loading dock to our front door.
Healing the emotional loss took longer for me. Adrift in the emotions of sadness and loss, crying at the strangest times, feeling afraid and so much anxiety when the winds would grow strong or the fire danger was high, I knew I needed to fix what I called “my dark place.” Thinking back on the days after the fire and being aware of the joy those helping us had gained from their simple acts of kindness, I reflected on the kindness of the Red Cross volunteers. They listened to me and truly cared. I told my husband I wanted to give back, pay it forward like others had done for us. The next day I dialed the general number for the Red Cross of San Diego/Imperial Counties.
Now, as a five year veteran volunteer of the Red Cross, I see firsthand what other survivors are experiencing during disasters. Most recently as a volunteer in the shelters during the May 2014 San Diego wildfires, I spoke to many of the evacuees and their stories touched me deeply. By listening and being interested in their stories, the evacuees relaxed and opened up to me. Not only did my listening show them I cared, I also continued to heal myself.
So, I take a deep breath and remind myself this is paying it forward. And when a group of children in one of the shelters runs up to me and shouts, “We love you Red Cross!” or an evacuee says, “you helped me,” I forget my own loss, my own pain and feel like I’m part of the wonder of humanity that holds all of us together. I lost my house in the 2007 wildfires -- but I gained a deeper joy in life. I’d say I got the better side of the deal.