DECEMBER 5: THE CREEK FIRE TWO YEAR ANNIVERSARY
11 PM - December 4, 2017: Los Angeles Channel 7: “Breaking News: Severe wind warning for the Santa Clarita/San Fernando Valleys.” I know the drill. Roll up the patio blinds. Close the windows. All four cats follow me. Weird. Usually one or two cats follow me, not all four.
Midnight: I slip between the covers. A “Severe Wind” warning tape runs across the bottom of the TV screen. As soon as I close my eyes, the first blast of wind hits. It’s like someone flipped a switch and turned the wind on. Gust after gust slams the house. My oldest cat, Gracee, burrows under the bed covers, Sophee wraps her paws around my ankles, Spirit curls by my hip and Inkee-Bear jumps with each sound.
2 AM - December 5: Can’t sleep. Windows rattle, eaves moan.
3 AM: Sleep, sweet, blissful sleep. Finally.
4 AM: What? What am I hearing? Chop, chop, chop. Helicopters? Flying over my house! Not one, not two, not three – a stream of helicopters. Could it really mean? No, I don’t want to go there. I’m wide awake. I throw back the covers. The cats scatter. I pull open the shutters. The sky above the mountains two blocks behind my house. It’s bright orange. It’s topped by a thick gray cloud. Firefly-looking objects with blinking lights disappear into the gray. Those are helicopters! That orange is no sunrise. That’s fire! Adrenalin surges from my toes to my brain. I run downstairs. Outside my front door, I’m pelted with chunks of hot debris. I jump in my car and drive three blocks to the nearby canyon. Flames flood down the canyon. Cars, families fleeing. Parents trying to calm their children. We need to evacuate!
4:15 AM: I speed the few blocks home, I call friends and neighbors as I toss things in a pile. My friend Rika volunteers to help us evacuate. Thank you, Rika. I hurry to the kitchen. I stuff the worn ‘THINGS TO EVACUATE” list in my pocket. It should be laminated. Stay calm. Cats like calm, they like consistency. I always feed them first thing in the morning. I’m not aware of what I’m doing but my hands are opening their cans of wet food and putting their bowls on the floor. While they’re eating, I yank their carriers from the cupboards and grab their emergency bag of wet and dry food, supplements, and toys.
5 AM: Rika arrives. She volunteers her home for us. She scoops up hard-to-catch Gracee. The other cats are easy to catch. We’re pelted with hot embers as we duck out the front door and slide their SleepyPod carriers, litter boxes and litter in the back of my CRV. My cats’ eyes ask: “What, why?” I squint at my list of things to take. I run upstairs to gather iPad, iPhone, tax receipts, meds, clothes. My new knee replacement hurts. OMG! What are you thinking? The embers!! The embers could burn the cats! Worse yet, they could set the inside of the car on fire and burn my babies. I race down the stairs back outside. I slam the rear trunk door shut. Spirit, my youngest cat makes eye contact with me. He ‘talks’ to me. He’s worried. So am I. This is my third evacuation since 2008. This is the worst. My friend scurries with my iMac to her car parked at the curb. She disappears in the thick smoke. My eyes are burning and I’m coughing as I pull the grill with the propane tank in the backyard away from the house. I set the burglar alarm and lock the front door. I’m panting, exhausted. The wind whips and blows embers as I duck into my car. Between the wind and the embers, my house is a goner. I know it. I accept it.
7 AM: We pop out of the thick smoke. It’s daylight! Who knew? All streets in and out of my neighborhood are closed off. Police direct us to the only way out – the on-ramp to the 210 Freeway. It’s rush hour. Drivers are slowing to look at the “interesting” smoke and flames. It’s surreal. They’re driving past MY neighborhood, through MY world. They don’t have to worry. They aren’t exhausted from loading their cars. Their animals are safe at their homes. We’re fleeing our home. The cats know that this isn’t the usual trip to the vet. They usually talk and complain but today they’re quiet, no yowls, not even a meow. We settle the cats into Rika’s extra bedroom. Spirit paces. The other three crouch like statues in and near their carriers.
Noon: I need to go back to my house. I forgot my ring. Can I get into the neighborhood? There are police barricades. The 210 Freeway is totally closed now. The fire jumped the Freeway! I wait in a long police line on Foothill Blvd. Horses stream out of the canyons. Police can’t let people pulling horse trailers into the canyons to help rescue the horses. The winds and the flames are too dangerous. Horse trailers with frustrated drivers park along the streets. There are horses with blindfolds, horses led by people wearing masks, masked people riding horses, horses trotting in a line tethered together with ropes and led by reins held through an open car or truck window. A normally empty corral along Foothill Blvd. is holding--I don’t even know how many--horses. Sixty? Eighty? They stand looking over the corral’s top rail watching the chaos. I video the unending stream of horses crossing Foothill Blvd and clip-clopping towards the corral. They’re scared. My car radio reports that thirty horses were trapped in the flames in the mountains behind my home. They all died. I feel sick. A tear runs down my cheek -- too much emotion in too few hours. A fire truck pulls up. It needs to get on Foothill Blvd. The fireman blasts the truck’s horn. A brown, muscular horse too near the truck rears straight up in the air kicking and lifting the humans holding his halter. The firetruck pulls onto Foothill Blvd. The brown horse comes down on all fours and, tossing his head up and down, lets the humans guide him as he sidesteps across Foothill Blvd towards the corral.
1:30 PM: The Policeman tells me: “Be quick.” A gray cloud envelops my deserted, ghostly neighborhood. Is that a little black and white dog? I call to him. He stops, looks at me and disappears into the smoke. He’s terrified. I’m too tired to chase him. He probably wouldn’t let me catch him anyway. I offer a quick prayer for his safety. One positive -- the wind has abated. I’m not being pelted by hot embers. I get my ring and hurry back to my cats at my friend’s house.
December 6: The next day, my friend Rika has to evacuate. I load my car again. My cats are probably thinking they’re going home. They’ve never spent a night away from home before. My friend, Sharon, invites me to stay with her and finds a place to board my cats. Most shelters are full.
December 9: Two more days pass. We can go home! I pull into our driveway. Thick, black, stinky, sticky soot covers the driveway, sidewalks, exterior of the house. I unwind the front lawn hose and wash the soot from the walkway to my house. I open the front door. A dusting of soot covers the entrance floor. I vacuum and mop the soot from the downstairs floors. Finally, I lift my cats’ carriers into the house. Normally they jump out but today they don’t move. At last, they creep out of their SleepyPod carriers. They begin a big-eyed, low-to-the floor-sniffing-at-a-prowl investigation through the entire downstairs - then upstairs. They move together – like a little herd. There’s no running, no meowing, no “I’m glad to be home.” Not yet anyway. Two refuse to eat for two days and the ones that do eat, throw up.
By December 15: The cleaning is almost done; the smoke-smell in the house is dissipating. It took my four cats five days before they would nap, eat, race through our house and get in trouble. We’re lucky. Others weren’t. The fire fighters made an immediate, aggressive response. I’m always in awe of all the firefighting pilots but those helicopter pilots--wearing night goggles, flying into thick smoke in powerful buffeting winds, turning on their sides to dump their loads of water. Those brave, skilled men and women are our heroes. We’re eternally grateful to them. The cats say: “Know what’s purr-fect? Having a home to come home to.”
TWO YEARS LATER: There have been more fires in California since the Creek Fire. The loss of animal and human life, structures, personal property – feels overwhelming and so very unfair. The emotional toll is incalculable. There are natural disasters in other states, in other countries – floods, tornadoes, snowstorms, avalanches, earthquakes, volcanoes – that play out on our TV’s in our living rooms. I always send prayers and healing purrs to the victims – human and animal.
(Dorene West is a retired Los Angeles County Employee who wrote grants and worked with people for 39 years. She now loves writing about and working with cats. She hopes that her cats’ web/blog at www.catauthors.com will both entertain and inform other cat caretakers.)