Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Notes from Ground Zero

Sitting down to write about this experience is hard for me to do. I just want to wander around outside and seek out my neighbors, watch the helicopters and planes flying overhead, and see the fire trucks that pass by our house by the dozens. I know they won’t be here for long, and right now it’s a comfort to have them here.

When we came back on Friday we were accosted by news crews wanting to know about our experience. They quoted me a couple times, but that, of course, didn’t really cover it.

The fire came within 500 feet of our property, but we were miraculously saved from any damage. We learned later that a bulldozer was prepared to doze a line around our house, like they did to many others, to save it from the fire, but at the very last minute the fire switched directions and they decided to leave our land intact. The six years of fire protection work we’ve done paid off. This time.

The following stories may be a little rough and disjointed, but that would describe me right now, so I guess it's appropriate, considering...


The Day of the Fire

Tuesday night this area experienced extremely high winds, and we both had trouble sleeping. Having already survived a tornado in his youth, wind always sets Andrew on edge. He woke up a jumble of nerves, and was unable to even eat breakfast.

To calm himself he pulled out the styrofoam box in the closet that contains writing from his father, who died, along with Peter, Andrew’s brother, in the tornado in 1965. His father, Addison, was a literature professor and talented writer. Andrew spent the whole morning reading through his notebooks and manuscripts, something he rarely does, finding pages he’d never had a chance to read before.

He went outside occasionally to work, but was agitated and distracted, and came back in to read more. It was a red flag fire day, again hot and windy.

He pulled out a pile of Santa Cruz Strawberries, which is a newsletter he and his friend John wrote when they were kids. He was showing me a story in one, and we noticed that also on the page there was a recipe for Broiled Duck. We thought that was kind of funny, considering we have a pet duck, and that just seems like an odd dish for a kid’s newsletter. Like what kid is going to broil a duck?

Soon after that Andrew looked up and said, “I smell smoke.”

I realized I had been smelling it too. We went outside and saw a puff of white smoke that could have been steam or fog, rising up above the Ecological Reserve, which is a short walk up the road above our house.

We immediately mobilized.

Andrew began pulling any wood furniture or flammable material away from our house. He moved my car and the truck to the top driveway, aiming them out with the keys in the ignition, and opened the gate. He shut off the fuel tanks, and moved anything that contained fuel, his Kubota, the lawnmower, the gas cans, down into the meadow away from the houses. He herded the geeks into their coop, and we closed the windows in the house. We checked the cat was secure, so that when it was time, we’d be able to find her.

I went to the phone and called everyone nearby I could think of, especially people up the hill from us. I left messages at Mike and Jen’s and Pat and Karl’s. I called the Sohl’s house and talked to Angela.

"Yes," she said in her lilting Russian accent, “The reserve is on fire.”

I called Val and caught her inside, and she wasn’t aware of it yet. I called Gary and Peggy and let them know.

(An unexpected side-effect, now I keep remembering people I should have called, and have deep regrets about missing people. Need to plan this part out better for future.)

Minutes later the phone rang and it was Mike, calling from the Westside. He had seen the smoke.

“What’s going on?”

“Get up here. There’s a fire and it looks bad.”

The whole time I was calling people I felt torn because I knew I should be racing to pack the car with valuables. I had no idea how much time we had.

I finally worked up the nerve to call Hank and Lana across the street, and Lana, who I’d never actually met, answered the phone. She told me they knew about it, and said it appeared to be coming toward them.

Hearing her say this calmly threw me. How could she be calm? What did it mean? Was it as bad as it sounds? “

“Yes,” she answered.

“What are you doing!??” I shrieked.

“Take a deep breath,” she said, and waited. That seemed impossible right then, so I took two shallow ones instead.

“Get everything you need in your car. Be ready to evacuate. Don’t use any water because they’re going to need it.”

I went into packing-the-car mode after that. I grabbed as many important files as I could find, my computer, back-up disks, one suitcase with some clothes for both of us, toiletries (two rolls of toilet paper, toothbrushes, toothpaste, dental floss, etc.), and one photo album.

I didn’t even think to take heirlooms or artwork. Andrew grabbed a couple garden sculptures from his mom, but I just didn’t. At the time I was thinking of only things we absolutely needed to go on with our lives should we lose our house, and anything else seemed like it was just “stuff.”

I was also thinking about the goose and duck, and trying to figure out how we were going to deal with them during and after evacuation. We had just been thinking about that the other day before this happened, and I was kicking myself for not making a plan then. Now faced with the reality, setting them free in a lake somewhere was not an acceptable solution. We got the pet carriers out, and loaded all the pets’ food and bedding into the truck.

The cat seemed unfazed, and remained stretched out sleeping on the rug in the living room.

It was about then that Andrew’s sister Jesse called and said she could see the smoke from her house in Scotts Valley. She offered us a place to stay if we needed it. I told her we’d probably be there soon.

The next call we received was a reverse 911 call ordering us to evacuate. I went into hyperspeed, and began loading things more quickly. As I ran from car to house and back again, I looked up and was horrified to see the smoke cloud getting much bigger every second, and closer. It was filling up the whole sky. It was truly apocalpytic.

I couldn’t see actual flames, but the underside of the smoke was glowing yellow and orange. It appeared to be heading straight for our house, but then the wind would push it east. I tried not to think about our neighbors and their houses up there where the smoke was coming from. It seemed impossible to think they weren’t burning.

A sheriff pulled into the driveway and told me we had to get out immediately. He said the fire had overtaken the fire station, and was right behind him coming our way. The adrenaline surged through me, and despite trying to remain calm, it started to seem only logical that one might panic at least a little bit in this kind of situation.

After the sheriff left I couldn’t even find Andrew for a few terrifying minutes. I finally realized he was down in the meadow pulling all the fuel into one area, and talking to the sheriff. He made sure that our fire hydrant was noted, and ran back up to the house.

The last line of business for me was loading up the duck and goose. We hadn’t used the pet carriers in a long time, and the cage doors were off and stored in a different location. I searched around and found them. I grabbed the duck first and shoved him in the carrier, and was trying to attach the door while he kept squeezing his head out. At the same time the goose was panicking and trying to get at his precious duck, honking in full alarm right behind my head.

I finally got the door attached and closed, and grabbed the goose, shoving him in his cage. As I tried to attach his door, the duck managed to push his way out of the other cage, because apparently in my state of alarm, I hadn’t attached the door well enough.

I shoved the two cages with the openings together and told myself, “You have to do this. I don’t care what it takes. Get these doors on. All our lives are depending on you doing this.” I tried as hard as I could, and got the doors on.

Then I carried them out, squawking and quacking, and loaded them into the back of the truck.

Mooka was no problem. She had been parked in the back of the car for about an hour. I’d had to move the car into the shade because she refused to get out. She knew very well that we needed to be leaving, and it was well past time for it to happen in her opinion.

All the pet carriers we had were taken up with goose and duck, so Frieda had to ride loose in the car with me and Mooka. She did really well on the drive, making herself flat on top of a pile of bedding.

I finally felt like I’d gotten everything that was absolutely necessary, and it was time to leave. We got in the cars and headed down the mountain, leaving the gates open wide behind us.

We had prearranged to meet in Davenport, but I got stopped at Smith Grade at a traffic jam. Horse trailers and trucks were all arriving, and backing up and pulling forward and turning around. Cars were backed-up down the hill with all of the people from town coming up wanting to get to their houses.

After some confusion I was able to get through. We went to Davenport, and parked our cars under some eucalyptus trees in the lee of the cement plant. We stood there for a few minutes and watched the smoke up on the mountain. It wasn't getting any better, so we decided to go straight to Jesse's house. From there we could unload all the animals, and the birds were more than comfortable on their lush green lawn. The only thing I felt like I was missing was I hadn’t brought anything for them to swim in.

Maybe that’s frivolous to most people, but by now I’m attached to this darn duck, and I hate to see a duck without water to swim and bathe in. Ducks need that. We had a bucket for water, so he could get his head wet, but they were both stressed and dirty from being crammed in pet carriers. We hosed them off and Andrew assured me they would be okay.

The next day I contacted the "Duck Lovers", which seems to be primarily one woman who deals with pet waterfowl rescues. She located a family in Watsonville who has lots of waterfowl, and who had room to put up Jacques and Enzo. That was a huge relief to find them a place where they would be safe.

Jesse and Neal’s house was a haven. They had recently finished remodeling, including the guest bathroom, so just taking a shower felt like heaven. Jesse cooked us a really nice dinner. I got to cuddle with our 3-month old niece Julia a lot for the first time, and hang out with our adorable nephew Miles. There really couldn't have been a better place to be right then. Thank you Jesse and Neal!

From their deck we could see the fire. I couldn’t sleep at all, and in the middle of the night it was warm enough to stand out there and watch. It glowed and pulsated in my murky nighttime vision, burning the houses and the forest away.

Over the next few days the sky was thick with ash. Our cars became speckled. The sun was blurry and hung overhead in the sky shrouded by smoke.

We watched the news and obsessively checked internet news sites, getting different stories every time, some conflicting. We learned about our heroic neighbors. For awhile it was one house burned, then 20, then it settled at 10.

They saved 42, which is not an easy job. Medals of courage and heroism were earned in this fire.

The Aftermath

We came home for good on Friday, and were amazed to find the power was even on. The phone lines are still down though. Apparently because they’re lower the fire melted them.

I think the most surprising thing I found upon returning was that so many of our neighbors did not evacuate, but stayed and fought the fire.

We finally ran into Hank and Lana last night up at Ground Zero, and heard some of the details.

Hank, who has lived on Martin Rd. for 50 years, and his sons Haskell and Justin, basically led a team of firefighters to hold the fire back from their house. They were able to stop the fire about 120 feet from their house.

Their incredibly hard work, and knowledge of the terrain and equipment proved invaluable. According to the fire captain in charge of our area, they were heros that night.

Mike, who lives in the big house above us, stayed and fought until around 8 pm. He said that at one point he almost ran, and was well aware of the bikes we had poised around the end of our driveway for people who need to evacuate. We think his presence probably was one of the other reasons the fire was stopped where it did, and also why our land was not bulldozed.

Right now the sky is still filled with helicopters and planes, and the sounds of chainsaws buzz continuously from up toward the fire. Dead trees and widow-makers are being removed. The firefighters are decommissioning and leaving the area, though trucks still pass by frequently.

Last night we drove through the burn area.

On top of being really sad that the reserve is so completely decimated, it hits you how enormous the fire must have been. Everyone has been telling me that seeing it the first time is like that. It is frightening.

It becomes all the more of a miracle to me that they were able to stop it before it reached us. Yet how can you call 2 air tankers, 20 helicopters, and 1000 firefighters a miracle? There was a lot of luck for us, no doubt, but it was hard-earned luck.

The burned area is vast, and I could hardly take it all in just driving through at twilight. You can see much farther into the landscape than ever before. The ground and trees, everything, is blackened. Any low-lying brush is gone. It looked like everything was in silhouette, even though it was not.

When I close my eyes, images of the blackened trees against black ground are seared into the undersides of my eyelids, all I can see. Yet I’m one of the lucky ones. I never actually saw the area on fire. I can only imagine the images some of my neighbors must be seeing when they close their eyes.

We stopped along the side of the road to pick up a charred pile of Comic News papers, which looked like they blew out of a delivery truck before the fire. Another truck pulled over and the people thanked us, took our picture for the Battle Mtn. News, and called out, “You people are going to heaven!”

We stood under a dwarf Ponderosa pine near some mailboxes sticking out of the ground at odd angles, and bats swooped around over our heads, coming closer to us than I was accustomed.

We still have no phone or internet, so I'm posting this from a cafe. I'm sure I'll remember more details and will post photos soon. Thanks everyone for sending your messages of love and concern.


  1. Dori and Andrew,

    What an awful experience. So glad you didn't lose your place, it would have been heartbreaking.

    Your post was so well written, I could feel your anxiety, pain and then the sweet relief when you were able to return and find you ranch intact.

    You guys take care.

  2. Anonymous9:17 AM

    Hi, D&A. Nicely written!!
    We're so thankful you guys & your pets are fine & that your house(s) survived!! We were so worried about you & not being able to talk to you guys even made it worse! I spent some time looking at all the pictures I took at your ranch all the while praying I would be able to see it in person again!!
    Love to you guys ... T&C

  3. Thanks for sharing the story. It's a wake up call for all of us who live out in the woods. (It's definitely not a DoriStory!) I didn't know you had so little time to get out. Keeping your heads in that situation couldn't have been easy--I love that you left the bicycles out. Love to you both.

  4. Anonymous8:33 PM

    Beautifully written -- you took me right through the experience.
    What a nightmare. Just thrilled you came through it okay. Wishing you both a pretty quick emotional recovery. Kudos for the way you guys handled this crisis.
    Linda and Bruce Steinbaum

  5. Dori,

    Amazing that you were able to sit down and just write it all out. I'm sure that in years to come you'll be very glad that you did. What an amazing story. Glad you came through OK.