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.