Finally, the kids are staying in bed.
Finally, the dishes are washed and put away.
Finally, the tired adults go down the hall. Stan takes off his glasses. Mary sets her alarm and puts the phone down.
The night is quiet.
First one cell phone buzzes, then the other. Mary silences her phone. Stan’s phone keeps buzzing and he knocks it off the nightstand in the dark.
On the floor it is much louder and he groggily picks it up.
“Hello?… Phil? What’s going on? …Yes, we’re all fine here… What? No, I don’t think that’s near us… Geez, Phil, it’s three in the A.M., man. Listen, thanks for the call… I’ll take a look around. Alright.”
Mr. Stan Turley is the proud owner of a normal house in a normal neighborhood. He happily keeps the neat square of front lawn cut just so. Waking up at three in the A.M. is not on his usual list of things to do. He grumpily gets up and stumps around the dim room, locating and then putting on his pants. Normally, he wouldn’t wake his wife up to share the misery. He considers not. But normally he isn’t awakened in the middle of the night by a phone call from a college friend he hasn’t heard from in six years.
“Mary, hon? That was Phil. Phil Danby. He said they’re saying something about wildfires on the news… Yeah I know, haven’t heard from the guy in years and he calls at three in the morning… I’m just gonna look around, hon.”
He steps out on the cool cement of the patio. The sky is deep blue, dark and serene and full of stars. There is indeed a faint tang of smoke in the wind. Reminds him of summer camp.
Fully awake now, he walks out past the pool and turns around. Better just walk around the house.
Just past the front door, he pauses and looks up.
Southern California is full of hills that are full of boulders. When the sun rises, he can see the outlines of the hills and canyons.
He squints. He shouldn’t be able to see the hills while the sky is still so dark. Across the small valley, the outline of the hills looks red. Stan goes inside to get his glasses.
Ten minutes later, every light in the house is on. The toddler is screaming. Mary is pulling family pictures off the walls and throwing them in the van on top of the frilly wedding album. Stan and his nine year old daughter run next door and ring the doorbell frantically until the disgruntled neighbor is made to come to the door and understand the situation.
Ten minutes after that, the Turley family minivan tears out of the neighborhood. It’s all the time they have. The sky is still dark, and only half of it shows stars.
The red outline of the hills, now clearly visible, reveals itself as flames waving wildly in the wind. Flames taller than the houses and trees.
Fifteen people perished in the Cedar Fire in 2003. At the time, the event was unprecedented. Since then, there have been improvements in firefighting forces’ communication and coordination, as well as community awareness and the reverse 911 system that warns people to evacuate.
Household safety measures only go so far. Fire extinguishers and smoke alarms are essential.
In a house fire, smoke inhalation is often the biggest threat. Smoke rises. Stay low. Close doors and windows and turn off AC.
If you are in a car trying to evacuate, run the AC (on the “recirculate” setting) and weigh route options carefully.
When my family fled from the Cedar Fire, we had little warning. The old friend who called out of the blue at an impolite early hour, (six A.M., not three), saved our lives.
At the time, we lived in a fairly rural part of Southern California. We’d had minor wildfires in the past and the fire trucks couldn’t always find our neighborhood right away.
I remember standing outside with a garden hose, watering down the bougainvillea bushes on the side of the house and watching a small wildfire creep up the canyon towards us. I remember my dad standing twenty feet over and doing the same thing, while on the phone with a 911 operator, explaining that the fire crew that had been dispatched must have taken the wrong exit. The firefighters always saved the day. But I learned that even the best heroes can’t be everywhere at once.
When the next major fire came through, we were paying more attention to the reporting and had a slightly better plan in place.