It’s All Gone, But I’m Still Here-Surviving Wildfire — Nicole Sallak Anderson
There’s a place inside of me where words are born. Since the early hours of 8/19, this part of me has been silent. The last time I heard the words of my muse, it was to wake me from a fitful sleep at 1:30 am. It was hot, so hot, and all day the smoke had been building. When I’d gone to bed at 10 pm, the fires on the mountain were far away, but it was raining ash-small flakes, a dusting really, like the simple snows we sometimes get. It was 98 degrees in my house and the windows were shut. Fortunately, we had power, so as I awoke to the sound of the voice inside my head, I felt the light fan breeze across my overheated flesh.
“Get up. Check your messages.”
I was tired, hot, and grumpy. For two days fires had been building on the mountain, but everyone had said we were safe. They were miles and miles from my house. Yet I listened to the words inside of me. I practically sleepwalked into the kitchen and checked the phone. There was a message left at 12:08 am, telling us to evacuate.
Two days later, I found out my home was gone. The main house. The cabin. The garage. The goat barn-with my goats still in it.
All of it’s gone, but I’m still here.
Life has been strange since then. Surreal. Two weeks of fleeing, then drifting, and now…settling.
Fleeing There’s so much I did wrong that evening. Realizing the call to evacuate had come in almost an hour and a half earlier, I began to panic. I had only one goal-get my 19 y.o. son out. He was busy gaming with friends from Philly and hadn’t heard the phone ring. My husband was in Portland dropping the eldest son off at college. I was supposed to be in Portland with them, the younger son left behind to take care of the house and animals. But when they left on Monday, we still didn’t have power and I decided to stay behind. For just this reason-to get him out. I’ve been evacuated before and both times we returned to our house within a few days. The logical part of me assumed this to be the case. So I grabbed nothing of importance, packed a few days of clothes and a swimsuit since the hotel had a pool. I filled up the goats and chickens with three days of water. I searched for the cat carrier and couldn’t find it. By this point, thick black, burnt leaves were falling from the sky. The smoke was so thick I couldn’t see across the yard. It was hot, so hot, hotter than anything I’d ever experienced. All this time the other voice-the one where words, ideas, inspiration, and intuition are born-kept screaming, “Get your son out.”
So I stopped looking for the cat carrier. Instead I filled up his food and water for a few days. I went into my son’s room and said it was time to leave. He carted every bit of tech he owned into his car as I nagged him to go faster. Just as we left, the cat came home. In hindsight, there’s so much I could have done to save him, but without a carrier I was worried I’d lose him in the street, in the hotel, etc. etc. I left him there with one window open. The last thing I remember is him laying on the carpet, lounging in the heat, and me telling him I’d be back tomorrow with a carrier.
I called for the dogs and they got in the car. Then we drove down the dark, smoky mountain into town.
Drifting I arrived at a friend’s house around 2:30 am. The hotel was full that night because they were still at 50% capacity due to covid restrictions. My dogs and I were grateful for the bed, but I couldn’t sleep. I reached out to a friend at equine rescue to tell her my goats were still up there. They were busy at 3:00 am evacuating horses. The next day, I called them again, only to be told that they weren’t evacuating at my address because it was unsafe. I called the SPCA and they said the same about rescuing my cat. No one was going to that part of the mountain.
It, and everything on it, was left to burn.
I got a cat carrier from a friend, but was paralyzed. Some people from my neighborhood got up there early that morning to rescue their pets and items. But I couldn’t move. My husband was still on his way back from Portland, and I feared going up the mountain into fire and leaving my son alone in town without any parent. If the SPCA wasn’t going to my address, should I? I had no choice but to wait until the next day when my husband returned.
In the meantime, the hotels were ordered to open to full capacity and in poured the evacuees. I got us set up in the hotel room and my son went to work, of all things. I bought a bottle of wine at the front desk. At 5:00 pm, I received two messages; one, our neighborhood was in flames, and two, my husband was stuck in traffic just outside of Vacaville, the location of yet another terrible fire.
The flames there had jumped I-80 and he’d been forced off the freeway into a neighborhood. Using Google maps to try and find a new route, he ended up on a street where residents were evacuating the oncoming flames. Visions of Paradise flooded my mind. My husband was going to burn. I recall little of those moments, just the words from somewhere far away, yet very clear, telling me to reach out to my friends. One of them called me and I told her my husband was stuck in a different fire while fire was raging around my home. She told me I had to guide him out, to find someone who knew the area to call him and give him a new route. I remembered our best friend, Jeff, knew the area well and connected the two men.
An hour later, he was heading southeast, away from that fire, trying to get home to the fire that was burning up our mountain. Finally, at 11:30 pm, we were together, shaking and afraid, but together. The next day I moved about in a daze. My husband and son wanted to get up to the mountain to save the cat. Moreover, they needed to see. They piled into a truck with our friend Sam and his son, and headed up the mountain, hoping for the best. I stayed behind because again, I figured if the worst happened and they got caught in fire, my eldest son, who was safe in Portland, should have at least one living parent.
I shopped for the things evacuees need; shampoo, cleaning supplies for the hotel room, dog poop bags, etc. As I came back to the hotel, the two were sitting on the porch outside of the door. The worst had happened. Not only had fire destroyed every structure, it had taken the goats and cat as well.
It was all gone.
I fell to the floor in agony. My legs gave out. The sobs seemed to come from some other world. I was utterly bereft. One of our neighbors was also staying at the same hotel. My son delivered the news to them-their home also gone. And my friend Sam and his house? Also gone. But our chicken coop and the four birds in it survived. In the end I would learn that at least 12 other families that I know intimately lost their homes. Moreover every single house on my street but one was lost. Total count right now is over 500 houses. It’s a war zone up there.
As the fire continued to jump all over the mountain, evacuees flooded the town. The hotels were full. My dogs were tired of the small room. Dear friends offered their place, but as the fire stretched toward UCSC, they too were evacuated. The blaze reached down toward Felton. It ate up Big Basin in a heartbeat. Ash fluttered on our cars parked next to diggers and other heavy equipment some mountain man had saved from the fire. I was grateful we were already in masks because the air hurt to breathe. Covid restrictions felt like a cruel joke-all anyone wanted was a hug. We were willing to die for one actually.
We sat in a cabana by the pool and had dinner that night with our friends who also suffered complete loss. Being near them was the gift of a lifetime and one I will never forget.
I shopped for clothes the next day but don’t remember much. When I opened the bag later I was surprised at what I picked out. I applied for a post office box and for some reason that act woke up the part of me that does things. Shaking off the daze of grief and loss, I began the process of finding shelter in a housing market already tight and now trying to home at least 1000 displaced families. I contacted dozens of rentals that weekend, but only the ones in Los Gatos, over the hill from Santa Cruz, returned my call. I found the perfect rental and began the process of getting it approved by insurance as well as convincing the landlords that my dogs were welcome and that there was nothing money can’t fix when it comes to pets.
On Tuesday, a week after fleeing, CalFire finally had some control of the disaster and we drifted into our friends’ home. Our hosts invited two other couples who had lost their homes over for a barbecue. Together we began to face the reality-we are homeless-but we are homeless together.
It’s a strange thing to be a drifter. To sleep in someone else’s bed. To make sure your pets aren’t too annoying. To cook in someone’s kitchen. Everyone was so kind and welcoming, yet it added to my horror to impose like that. Fortunately, I was blessed and the lease came together quickly, insurance approved in a heartbeat, and by the end of the week, we had a place to call home-for now.
Settling The first night in our new “home” was painful. This is not our house. This is not our stuff. The furniture we’re renting looks like a hotel. There’s nothing personal. Each of us wanted to curl up into a ball and sleep the nightmare away. It sucked. But having dinner together there was also soothing. We were safe.
The first morning in the house, my husband and I walked down the street to the downtown area. This is one of the perks of town living and we made the best of it, sipping our lattes and eating breakfast in the charming outside café. It wasn’t so bad. Over the weekend we added some decorating. We put in a fence for the dogs. I ordered patio furniture. I cleaned and for some reason that made me connect with the home. It’s an older home in one of the most charming neighborhoods I’ve ever seen. Los Gatos, (“the cats,” ironic since I lost mine) is a gem. As we drove along the tree-lined streets, my son said, “We don’t belong here.” I asked why not and he replied, “Because we’re country bumkins.”
Settling into town is different. The houses are so close. I can hear my neighbors as they move about. I have to pull the shades when I undress and at night when we sit in the front room. The boys can’t pee off the side porch (yes, we Dooners do that). There’s a constant drone of noise.
And yet, I think I can settle here, for now. Today my dog, Evelyn, and I are going shopping right down the street. Time to buy my husband some new clothes and this is a dog loving town. We walked to a fabulous dinner the other night. There are trees and quiet little spaces along each street. Each time I venture out, I find a part of me lives here as well. I’m a country bumpkin, but I’m also a city girl, having lived in Chicago during my young adult days. The convenience is a luxury I haven’t known in a long time.
The old house we’re in wants to care for us. Built before the invention of cars, it has seen it’s share of loss and grief. It has housed many families through pandemics, war, deaths, and rebuilding. This house with it’s bright red door says, “Come, I will hold you.” It’s not our house, but it’s a house of integrity and service. I’m so grateful.
This morning, a white cat with grass-colored eyes was on my front steps. As I felt the soft cat fur upon the skin of my palm, my heart at first seared with pain, then relaxed into familiarity. I lost my house and my cat. I found a house in the town of cats.
Originally published at https://nicolesallakanderson.com on September 1, 2020.