My Story: Fire, Loss, and Rebuilding

On Sunday, October 8th I went to bed early. I had been waking up between 4-5 AM all week to do work for my doctoral program. We had also hosted my husband’s family for the weekend, and I was exhausted.

Normally, we go to be at 11 PM, but that evening I crawled under the covers at 9:30 PM. It was a warm and windy night. I could hear the wind whistling through the trees outside my window. It reminded me of growing up in Southern California and the hot, dry Santa Ana winds.

I woke at 11:45 PM feeling too warm. The windows were closed. The ceiling fan had stopped spinning and producing its soft hum. My husband was up. I asked why he had turned off the fan. “I didn’t. The power is out,” he responded. “These winds are crazy. I just put the battery-powered twinkle lights in the kids’ rooms in case they wake up.”

“It’s hot in here,” I complained. Despite the heat, I was soon asleep again.

At 2:15 I jolted up. I could hear a megaphone. A cop car was driving slowly up our private road making an announcement. “What’s he saying? What’s going on?” I asked my husband. He got up to crack the window so we could hear better. The smell of smoke was strong.

A voice on the megaphone announced, “There’s a large fire coming your way. You need to evacuate now.”

I lept out of bed. There’s a fire. We have to leave now. 

Most people wonder what they would grab if they had 10 minutes to leave their homes forever. The things I grabbed and the things I left will forever tug at my mind.

Without power, I was left to pack up my belongings with a dimming flashlight low on batteries. I went into my office and threw all of my books for my doctoral classes into my computer bag along with my computer and cord. I grabbed three random dresses from my closet and two pairs of shoes in case I had to teach the next day and could not get back into the house.

I travel a few times a month for speaking events and professional development jobs and rarely unpack my suitcase all of the way. I tossed my clothes, toiletries, and shoes into the bag, zipped it up, and dragged my work bag and suitcase downstairs.

My husband woke the kids as gently as possible given our urgency and fear. He instructed them to bring their blankies and their blah blah dolls.

They slipped on their shoes and with their blankets, and dolls in hands, we loaded them into the car with our German Shepherd.

The walk to the car was surreal. The air was thick with smoke, and the ash falling looked like snow. Unlike the cold crisp air during a snowfall, the hot air stung my eyes and burned my lungs.

My mind was racing. My husband and I made a couple of trips back into the house to grab random items–the kids’ backpacks for school, a bunch of bananas in case they were hungry, a big silver Nalgene full of water. There’s a fire. We have to leave now. 

At one point, my husband and I were both in the living room. I grabbed a photo album. He asked, “What are you doing? We have to leave. We don’t have time to take all of that.” There’s a fire. We have to get out of our house now. 

I called for our cat. I ran through the house with my flashlight calling, “Bandylion. Here Bandy Bandy.” No cat. I ran into the garage. I scanned the big space with the meager light from the flashlight. “Bandylion. Here kitty, kitty,” I called coaxing my cat to materialize. No cat. I ran out of the house into the front yard. “Bandylion. Here Bandy Bandy.” No cat. There’s a fire. We have to get out of our house now. 

Later, my husband and I would replay those 10 minutes out loud several times. He confessed that he never thought our home would burn down. He was thinking “What will we need for a day or two until we can return to our home?”

Luckily, I didn’t put the photo album I had grabbed back down. Instead, I carried it with me back out to the car. It was an album that his mother had made him. She passed away before we met and those photos are not online like most of the photos of our children. It is the only sentimental thing that left the house with us that night.

As we drove away from our home through the haze of smoke in my Kia Sorrento, I realized we had no place to go. My family lives in Los Angeles, and my husband’s family lives in Arcata.

I began calling hotels, while we drove south on the 101. Off to our left, the ridge of the mountains glowed red in the dark. Each hotel I called looped me into a frustrating maze of digital options. “For reservations, press 1.” “For an existing reservation, press 1. To make a new reservation, press 2. For reservations of six or more, press 3.” Every hotel was booked.

My phone dinged. A text. “Hey Catlin, this is Marika on V’s phone. We had to evacuate our house very quickly. The fire was over the ridge, and we had to gather quickly. I don’t even have my phone.”

I responded, “We evacuated too. Where did you guys go?”

“My dad’s in Petaluma. Come here.”

Grateful to have a place to go with our children and dog, we drove to Petaluma. Over the next 12 hours, we watched scenes of the city where we’ve lived for 17 years burn. Glen Ellen, Napa, Santa Rosa…fires everywhere.

At 2 PM on Monday, our friend, Zack, called us on FaceTime. He was on his motorcycle driving through our neighborhood with his camera propped on his handlebar to show us what he was seeing. The devastation was so complete, I could not figure out exactly where he was. He showed us the street signs and my husband directed him up the hill to our home. We watched on Facetime as he drove up our long driveway.

At the top of our driveway, instead of our beautiful home was a pile of debris and brick. Our home was gone.

My first thought, “How are we going to tell the kids?” My heart broke for them. How can I tell my 8 and 10-year-old children that their home and everything they loved inside it are gone? Being a parent in life’s most challenging moments is tough. I had to be strong for my kids even though all I wanted to do was breakdown.

In the two weeks since we lost our home, I’ve been moved to tears by the love, support, and generosity we’ve received from our friends, family, and community.

The sadness and loss come in waves. Every few minutes I remember something that I’ll never see again…our photo albums, my yearbooks, baby clothes meticulously wrapped and labeled, the wedding garter I saved for my daughter, pieces of furniture handed down from my husband’s family, artwork, blankets knit by my grandmother who is gone, my wedding dress, family jewelry, the children’s books signed with notes, favorite pieces of clothing, our wedding album, passports, trinkets picked up from our travels around the globe, and bottles of wine saved for special occasions. These are just the items I think about. I cannot imagine all of the lost little treasures my children think of each day.

The process of rebuilding our home and our lives will take time. I want to thank all of the educators who have donated to the GoFundMe campaign that was created for us or have bought items off of our Amazon Wishlist. Your outpouring of love and generosity fill me with gratitude. You are helping to make this tough situation manageable and demonstrating the power of a strong community. Thank you.

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43 Responses to My Story: Fire, Loss, and Rebuilding

  1. What Now? says:

    I’m so sorry — what a terrible loss.

  2. Daniela Kent says:

    Thank you for sharing. I can’t even imagine what you’re going through, but know we all support you and your family from afar. Wishing you all the very best in the road to rebuilding.

    • Thank you, Daniela. It was cathartic to write about it. Each time I think of an item I’ll miss, I am tempted to write a short vignette to capture my thoughts on it.

      I appreciate your note and support!

      Catlin

  3. Linda Scheele says:

    Catlin, I still remember when you began teaching at Windsor High School. Such a dedicated and talented young teacher. You shared your Romeo and Juliet project with me and it forever changed how I thought about teaching our beloved Shakespeare. A few years ago you came to Petaluma City Schools and did a presentation about how you used technology even though you had little technology in your classroom. I was then, and remain impressed at how innovative your teaching strategies are. I am so very sorry to hear about how your family experienced this horrific fire. I know there are a number of my former colleagues from Windsor who lost their homes, as well as several PCS colleagues who lost theirs as well. I know you all have the resilience to survive this tragedy, but know that there are many people out here who are thinking of you.

    • Thank you, Linda. It’s wonderful to hear from you.

      I cannot believe how many people have been affected by this fire. As tough as it’s been, I’m so grateful to have such a strong community around me to love and support us.

      Catlin

  4. Jen says:

    Thank you for sharing your story. It truly brought tears to my eyes. I can’t even begin to imagine the terror you must have felt. We are here for you.

  5. You have given so much to me through your blog and books. I am glad to give back. You continue to be an inspiration. My thoughts are with you, your family, and all who lost their homes in the devasting fires.

  6. Sara says:

    So sorry for you all. Cannot imagine losing all our mementos, the children losing what they cherish, things that used to belong to people I have lost.

    Nothing I can say that you have not heard or thought of yourself. Just wanted to say I feel for you because, though we’ll never meet, what you write helps me in my day to day at work and I think it’s so generous and forward-thinking for you to share openly with all of us.

    I hope you are getting it paid back from somewhere, now that you need help. I believe this is true, it’s how it happens.

    Much strength and courage.

    • Thank you for the kind words, Sara.

      I have been repaid with so much love, support, and generosity during this hard time. As sad as I am to lose treasured items, it is the generosity of those around me that makes me most emotional. I’m so grateful to be surrounded by such an incredible family, group of friends, and community.

      Catlin

  7. Catlin,
    I’m so sorry for your loss; the devastation is hard to believe. I know the pictures don’t do justice to the acres and acres of burned land and homes. My thoughts are with you and your family. Cathryn

  8. Mary Alice D. says:

    What a heart stopping account! I’m breathless just reading it! You do know you write just like your Mom, don’t you? I send you and your sweet family so very much love and wishes for your continued courage. You do know that I have a house jam packed with things that will be needing a new home as I continue deeper into old age. I’ll stay in touch with your folks and they will let me know what you need. Love, Mary Alice

    • Thank you, Mary Alice, both for the comparison to my mother (who I am a big fan of) and for the offer of homey things. I’ve spent the last week getting the rental we found equipped with the basics. As soon as I know what concrete needs we have beyond the basics, I’ll let you know.

      My parents really enjoyed their visit with you!

      Sending you lots of love,
      Catlin

  9. Janet says:

    Beautifully written Catlin. My 💜Is heavy thinking of you and so many others left homeless and yet…. safe. Love you

  10. Rusul says:

    I am so sorry Catlin. I read this with tears. You are so strong, I will keep you in my thoughts and prayers and hope that slowly you’ll have your new home again with all your loved ones. My heart truly breaks for you, please hang in there.

    Much love,

    Rusul

  11. Tamah says:

    25 years ago my mom and I lost our home to fire. I was 16 and thought the world was a good place… A place I could be sure of… Fire takes away that trust and confidence that all is well with the world. It was a surreal experience and with all the fires recently and the ones in the past few years, watching friends and family and complete strangers go through what we went through, it still feels surreal. When everything is taken from you like that it’s as if the ground beneath you isn’t there anymore. I have a feeling you know what I’m talking about.

    I’m so glad you were able to get out with your family safely. We lost our pet rabbit. I’m so sorry to hear about Bandylion. Please know that if you or your family need anything we are here. I know you have a wonderful support network, but if you just need to vent to someone who’s lived through it I’m here.

    Take care of yourself. Be kind to yourself. Let yourself grieve when you are ready. Being a parent means we have to protect our kids, but showing them how to take care of ourselves is one of the most important lessons we can share. Life has a way of forcing us to slow down. That being said, there’s something to the beauty of distraction. It took me years to process my fire and one piece of advice I’d give myself would be to have dealt with it sooner. It affected me in ways I’m still trying to understand.

    Sending you and your family love and light and hopes for some peace. Sorry this is so long! 😀

    • Don’t apologize, Tamah.

      It is helpful hearing other people’s stories and knowing we are not alone. I worry about the long-term impact on my own children. Right now, I’m trying to make sure they feel loved and safe. The one bright light in this situation is how much I am reminded of the value of family, friends, and community. I know we will get through this one day at a time.

      Catlin

  12. Suzy Hertfelder says:

    Dear Catlin,
    There are no words for what you and your family have gone through. It’s absolutely devastating.
    Please know my thoughts and prayers are with you.
    With a heavy heart,
    Suzy (your Aunt Adrienne’s Disneyland pal)

  13. Kari McWhirter says:

    My gosh, Catlin…I’m doing some research on “station rotation” for a couple teachers in my district, and stumbled upon your post quite by accident! I’m so sorry for your loss! Yes, “they are only possessions” and of course “we are thankful for our lives and loves” but still, I can’t imagine having to deal with such monumental loss in one fell swoop. Sending positive, healing thoughts and comfort your way.

    PS. I met you in Long Beach a couple years ago. I know the strength of your spirit and the determination that I so appreciated that day will see you through.

    Take care,
    Kari

    • Thank you, Kari.

      I am determined to get through this and be stronger for it. The road to rebuilding will be a lengthy one given all of the damage done to the city of Santa Rosa, but I know our family will be okay.

      Catlin

  14. Barbara Anna says:

    I am so sorry,Catlin. I am glad that you and your family are safe!
    Please stay strong for your kids.
    Sending you lots of hugs!
    Love,
    Barbara

  15. Erin Rice says:

    I want to take every chance I have to tell you that I love you, and you are constantly on my mind. You are such a strong woman, and I am so lucky I get to follow in your footsteps. Thank you for sharing your story. I know you lost a lot, but your words remind me of Grandpa Ken and mom, so I’m glad you get to keep your ability to write and share stories. I love you more than you will ever know.

    • Thank you, Erin.

      Your support has been incredible through all this. I know I’ve said it before, but you are the best gift our parents gave me. I’m so grateful to have you for my sister.

      Love you.
      Cat

  16. Hey, Catlin!

    On October 8th, I went to bet at 8:30-9:00, my usual time. Around 1 in the morning, I heard honking and my neighbors yelling “wake up,” which, in my neighborhood doesn’t really mean anything.

    But, I could smell smoke – being in Lake County, having watched my community go through 3 devastating fires in as many years – so I was concerned right away. I went to my bathroom window where I could hear my neighbor on the phone with 9-1-1. I heard “No! It’s on the hill!”

    I woke my David, my husband. “Get your med, I’ll get the dogs, we have to go NOW.”

    I threw on a robe (not to share too much, but I don’t always wear jammies in warmer weather…TMI?) and ran outside to see the fire on the hill, about 2-3 miles from my house.

    During the Rocky Fire, that sucker doubled overnight – so when I saw (not smoke, not “glow,”) FLAMES, I ran back into the house, grabbed the leashes, and called the dogs down. I ran into the garage and realized that the electric garage door opener wasn’t going to work.

    My brain wasn’t working, I totally forgot about the little red pull-y thing. Luckily, David didn’t.

    It’s a scary thing to be evacuated, and a heartbreaking thing to lose a home. I have many friends who have faced replacing their homes.

    If you ever want to talk to someone who has been through it, tips on construction, tips for talking to the insurance company, and all of the little pits they fell into, let me know.

    I’m thinking of you and your family.

  17. Adam Pizzi says:

    Catlin:
    Can’t say enough how sorry I am to read about your experience. I was literally just coming over to your blog (as I so often do) to read up on your post about saving time while grading papers via Google Docs. No words…

    My thoughts and prayers are with you and your family.
    p.s. the fact that you thought to grab three dresses just in case you had to teach the next day speaks volumes about you and your character and shows that you will get through this.

    My best,
    Adam

    • Thank you for the kind note, Adam.

      I’m heading back into the classroom this week after a tumultuous two weeks. Hoping to have the mental and emotional energy my students need.

      Catlin

  18. aimee says:

    catlin, i am so sorry for your family’s devastating loss and for all the heartache you all have endured. i am also grateful that you all got out and are physically safe. we’ve never met, but i am the niece of your aunt adrienne’s good friend leslie 🙂 i also live in the bay area and have been following your story. just want you to know that we have some gently used family momentos (books, stuffed animals, art supplies, etc) we could pass along to your family as you feel like our extended family in a way…if you’d like, and whenever the time feels right. also, wanted to let you know of this workbook to help guide kids who have been through a fire:
    http://www.childrenspsychologicalhealthcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/9_My%20Fire%20Story.pdf sending much love and tlc to you all.

  19. Leslie Hastings says:

    I came across you via Teach 100 and chose you based on your topic. This post was devastating to read. I am down in North Tustin where the relatively small fire occurred at the same time. We all talked about Northern Ca as we burned. May you find continued strength during this difficult time.

    Did you ever find your cat?

    Peace to you,
    Leslie

    • No, I have not found Bandylion, Leslie.

      At this point, I’m just hoping he warms up to someone in the area and they let the animal shelter know they’ve found him. I’m checking the website where they post photos of cats every day.

      Catlin

  20. Sheri Handel says:

    So sorry for the loss of your home, comfort, and for the concerns over your girls. This was beautifully told, and I do hope it contributes to your personal rebuilding.

    I don’t know where to begin to connect: Fire, EdTech, writing . . .

    Although nothing in comparison to the devastation of the entire region, I experienced a large-scale fire as a young girl while on vacation with my family in upstate New York. I was alone in the ranch hotel room when the fire broke out, and my brother broke through barricades to come get me. There was a lot of chaos, horses to be saved, and that surreality that comes with fire. We all escaped with the clothes on our back, slept in a local high school gym with other families that night, had relatives drive up with clothing the next day, etc. I only share this story to tell you that my young self was not scarred by that, and that the love and resilience of family can go a long way. Never be afraid to get professional help if needed, but know that people do come out of such experiences and can move on, each in their own time and way.

    There’s more that I can share about the power of EdTech and the power of words, words which you have used so well here, but I’m going to close for now with the hope that we may connect again at some point.

    All the best to you and your family.

  21. Natsya says:

    I am so sorry that is so devastating. Hope that you and your family stay safe and get all the care and help you need to get your house back.

  22. Diane Pfister says:

    I too was moved to tears reading your words about that horrible night. But I know you and your husband have a wonderful, strong, loving and special partnership and will move ahead with your exceptional kids in this “new beginning” as we now call it. Not seeing any “housing needs” FB post leads me to think all went OK last Thursday? Sending lots of love and hugs!

    • Thank you, Diane.

      I’m so grateful for my relationship with Darian. During this tumultuous time, we’ve managed to stay positive and patient with each other. We are both so focused on what is best for the kids. We make a great team!

      We filled out the application and have not heard back yet. I’ll send you a note when I know.

      Catlin

  23. Ethan Sleeman says:

    As bad as it sounds you are blessed to have had 10 minutes to think and gather. I too have been through this and it was not the same. My wife was home with our two week old baby boy. I got a call from school one day that the house was on fire.Luckily they both made it out unharmed. I have learned that things are only things and can be replaced. I’m glad you and your family are safe. I wish you the best as you pick up the pieces of your home and put it all back together. I have been lucky to be able to re build and give our two children the best that we can. Hang in there it will get better day by day.

    Ethan

  24. Bill says:

    I somehow feel moved to comment, though I only met you briefly when you presented in my KC suburban high school two years ago. I cannot imagine your loss, and would never be able to find words to comfort you.
    But.
    A graduate student of mine in my (new) adjunct position presented Blended Learning as his personal read — at my prodding– and sent our night class through four perfectly executed stations only a few weeks ago. He nailed it. I only mention that in order to tell you that, in spite of the pain you must feel upon losing the physical reminders of “you”, I wanted you to know that you have given some of the greatest educational gifts to not only me and my classroom, but to my teachers-as-students; these are gifts that transcend the “things” that I think I hold dear, but could probably (painfully) manage to live through. All of this is to say that I’m unbelievably sorry and unbelievably thankful at the same time – your work and dedication will last longer in our profession than anything physical I can think of. And if you’re ever in KC again, you’ve got a fan club that will gofundyou a glass of wine anytime.

    • Thank you for the kind note, Bill.

      It’s been a crazy 6 weeks, but I am so grateful that my family is safe and that we’ve found a place to live while we go through the long process of rebuilding.

      Catlin

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