Tuesday Dec. 5th. 10:30 am: A 4000-acre wildfire was burning in Sylmar. It had been named The Creek Fire.
I remembered the Sayre fire in Sylmar back in 2008. As new homeowners, Kevin and I were unfamiliar with the foothills and wildfires. So we walked up to Hillrose—one street above ours on the hillside—and took in the incredible view: Hansen Dam, the Sunland Golf Course, the Angeles National Forest and the 210 freeway that snakes through it all.
That night it looked like a comet had struck Earth and exploded as Armageddon: Mushrooming smoke and sizzling shades of orange and red lit up the night sky. Awesome and terrifying. The destruction would be devastating. An entire 600-structure trailer park would be wiped out.
On Tuesday, I wasn’t worried. Sylmar is 7.5 mi. away. Kevin was going to an audition for 1 pm, so I said,
“I’ll come with you when you leave. I want to see where the fire is. To make me feel better.” Ugh.
12:00 pm: As we drove down our driveway and around the bend, black smoke came billowing towards us.
“Ahhh…This is not good..." My husband’s voice vibrated in the way that terrifies me. Piercing my skin with a frequency that indicates he’s more than a little bit scared.
The normally quiet Hillrose Ave. was in chaos: Black smoke rolled across the sky. Cars were parked everywhere. Several helicopters zoomed overhead, dropping water in multiple locations. 30-40 neighbors were gathered at the top, most of them on their phone. The wind, the copters, the panic in my neighbors' voices battered my eardrums. This was bad. My hands shook as I tried to hold my hoodie over my head against the cacophony.
The fire had “jumped” the 210 freeway. How could it have not? The gusts were ferocious, unpredictable, nearly knocking me over several times. To my right, Little Tujunga Canyon was clearly aflame. To my left, flames were greedily consuming the dry brush of Hansen Dam, quickly spreading further to the left into Shadow Hills. Hansen Dam runs parallel with Wentworth Ave. If it jumped Wentworth, it would be at the bottom of our hill.
We looked at each other and gasped,
“We have to leave.”
Living in the foothills, you know this day might come. But it’s still a dissociative bit of information like, “Flying is so much safer than driving.” You can’t imagine actually being in a plane crash. Or like watching Mother Nature clobber Earth from an aerial shot on the evening news, never actually sustaining Her trauma live: sand in your eyes, wind howling in your ears, and smoke as far as the eye can see.
Kevin zoomed to the top of our steep driveway. My heart ricocheted against the walls of my chest. Inside my car, I spread out a blanket for Wahlter in the back seat, grabbed a bunch of recyclable bags, and threw them into the middle of the living room.
What do you take when it’s possible you might lose everything? Hands shaking, struggling to breathe, my brain moved slickly from one decision to the next: Medications. Wahlter’s medications. AA inventory and literature. Computer. Hard Drive. Zip Drive. Valuable jewelry. A few framed pictures. A box of negatives. A ceramic serenity prayer. (Kevin: Computer, camera, bagpipes, and menorah.)
Then I opened two suitcases in the middle of the living room floor.
“Should we take clothes?” Dark smoke was billowing around the corner of our patio, filling the space beneath the pergola.
“Let’s get out of here.”
We drove away in separate cars, Kevin first. As I placed the metal chain link around our gate, I looked back at our sweet cabin nestled against the darkening sky and wondered,
“Is this the last time I will see our home?”
I turned to the right down Hillrose toward Sunland Blvd. Several police cars were already parked, masked officers standing on the street ordering us to evacuate.
Fast. Everything was happening so fast. The streets looked like a mass exodus. Cars everywhere. Long waits at the light. Blackness rolling down Sunland Blvd. Sunny southern California suddenly become night.
The Creek fire had spread to 11,000 acres.
“I don’t have anything to sleep in. For my skin.”
2:00 pm: Life still goes on even if your house might be burning to the ground. Starbucks’ cravings. Wahlter’s specialty dog food. And of course that bitch, chronic pain. So we head down the street to K-Mart. While Kevin books us a hotel from the parking lot, I go inside to peruse the ladies’ sleepwear section. I rub various fabrics against my skin, testing to see if I can tolerate it with my nerve pain.
Holding Christmas-themed pajama pants in my hands, I muse, "I wonder if I can find Chanukah-themed pants?! That would put a smile on Kevin’s face!” I do not, and as I stand in line with my Rankin-Bass "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” fleece PJ’s, “IT'S THE MOST WONDERFUL TIME OF THE YEAR!” jangles from the sound system.
In that moment, I hunch over, crippled by a painful powerlessness. I am a thrift store demon, waiting in line (for 15 minutes!) to pay full-price for pajama pants I would never have purchased under any other circumstances. Skin burning, ears ringing, sick as a dog (no offense, Wahlter!), trying to find love and tolerance for the woman quibbling over her expired coupon, wondering if the flames have jumped Wentworth and if our house is still standing.
As I exit the store, I look north toward the ominous darkness and try to reassure myself. Our cabin was built in 1947. It has seen earthquakes and fires and flash floods and lightning strikes. Right?
[Please. I don’t want to lose our home.]
We call our parents. Beg for prayers on Facebook. In crisis situations, some people shine, some disappear. Others offer crappy or ill-timed jokes. Yet others whom you thought had vanished from your radar, reappear with stunning compassion. But it's all good. The two boyz waiting for me in the front seat of my dusty Ford Focus were enough.
4:00 pm: We check into our room at The Safari Inn in Burbank. (Not a plug. Definitely NOT a plug.) We hug, but it is perfunctory. I can’t feel the love of my life in my arms. I can’t feel anything. Just panic. Terror rattling my bones. Images of the wind-whipped black smoke and flames crossing the 210 freeway and into Hansen Dam flicker through my mind on a loop.
Then Wahlter hurls all over the bed. Goodbye $300 room deposit.
“We all feel the same way, bud.” I coo, holding him close to my chest. Then I turn to my husband, dreading what comes next.
“Are you ready to see if our house is still there?” One thing SoCal news knows how to do is work a “BREAKING NEWS” story.
Inside, I’m screaming, but I am not alone. In this, husband and wife are unified. Sometimes separate on our own iPhones, sometimes together on the edge of a hotel bed ready to take in the aerial copter view of our neighborhood on fire.
Other people’s dumb comments or inaction slide right off the sides of our protective bubble. We are sealed inside together. Because how can anyone else in the world possibly understand what we are feeling when it’s our world that might be burning to the ground?
Kevin turns on the TV.
4:10 pm: The camera must be mounted inside a truck. It is moving slowly up a smoke-filled street. Wait. I know exactly where they are.
“Kevin. It’s Johanna Ave.!”
Together, we cry, “That’s the house we looked at!”
The camera turns at the corner of Mary Bell and Radwin where I headed for home on my birthday jog last month. The camera is moving slowly, agonizingly slowly up Radwin. Ash snows across the lens. A gray and eerie light fills the sky. The neighborhood is getting darker. At the end of the street, fire trucks are parked, red lights flashing angrily. If you were to turn left, you would take a short stretch of Radwin to the fork at Hillrose and Wayside Drive. And then down to our house.
The camera pans upwards to a raging inferno on a hill. A structure completely engulfed in flames.
“KEVIN! IS THAT OUR HOUSE?”
My husband’s hands fly to cover his face. I fall onto the hotel room floor. My head is spinning. I can’t breathe. I can’t see. I can’t figure it out.
Marc Brown tells us it’s a structure on Hillrose. Not Wayside Drive. NOT Wayside Drive. I take a shallow breath. We get perspective, realizing the burning house is at the end of Hillrose.
10 houses away from ours.
Brown explains (in an inappropriately cheerful voice) that the fire fighters’ primary concern is the brutal Santa Ana winds. They are too high to allow the 747 “Supertanker” to fly by and dump 19,000 gallons of water or fire retardant in 6 seconds. (It flies as low as 200 ft. above ground level and can climb away at 6,000 feet per minute.) But, they must get this burning structure under control, or it will spread throughout the neighborhood.
And then they cut to the Thomas Fire in Ventura.
There was nothing more to do but wait.
Kevin had a beer, his iPhone and Coke Zero. I went to a meeting. To celebrate a sponsee taking a sobriety cake, to hear a dear friend lead, and to share my fear out loud, with people who love me. With tears rolling down my face, I confessed I was terrified we were going to lose everything. That all we had were a few bags and the clothes on our backs. By the time I had finished the sentence, my sponsee and my friend were offering me the clothes they had in their cars.
I was surrounded.
And the miracle in all this was that it had not even occurred to me to take a sip from Kevin’s open can of Bud Light when he stepped outside the hotel room.
There are miracles everywhere, always, even if you have to squint through the gray and eerie light of a wildfire to see them.
Kevin’s friend who is a fire captain had texted, “Based on the aspect and defensible space of your neighbors, it looks like you guys might just be in the clear.” I take another shallow breath.
By the time the 10 pm evening news was over, it looked like the winds had shifted in our favor. It was blowing the fire down Wentworth, the blaze licking at the hillsides, charring them black and destroying a total of 30 structures in all. No people died, but wildlife did.
Fast. It all happened so fast.
I barely slept that night, or the next, at the Safari Inn. (I’m pretty sure there was a tweaker walking overhead all. night. long. Dropping baby grands on the floor, and rearranging the furniture just because he could.) Either way, rest was impossible. I could find no peace in my heart.
When the winds died down, and the hot spots were out, the evacuation order was lifted. We could go home.
But not everyone did.
It’s true. Undeniably true. We got out with the most important things: Our lives. Each other. Wahlter. Our passions. And we got to go home. But I am struggling to find joy.
The places we live in can meet dual needs: Necessity (a roof) and Spirituality (a sanctuary). For me, in the undesired and tired role of lifelong patient, to find peace in my home is not optional. For the chronically ill, there has to be a place you can renew. Cry your eyes out, scream, toss and turn, soak until you are pruned, flex a firm middle finger directly at the sky, or fall onto your knees and beg.
If we had lost our cabin in the hills, I would have lost the heart of my health: our home. Here I find peace, renewal and release from the burden of chronic illness. I am profoundly grateful we didn’t, but joy? Not tonight.
10 houses away, our neighbor lost all of that and more. And the rest of us watched someone’s life, history, and sanctuary go up in flames.
The highest house on the block caught an ember.
The luck of the draw.
The luck of the draft.
[Thank you, LAFD. Heroes beyond words.]