Monday, November 17, 2008

Anatomy of an Evacuation

The conditions were perfect. It hadn't rained in months and one of the docs I work for had called our office just before we all left at 5:30pm to say be careful driving home as he'd just cycled to the top of the mountain and there were 70mph winds up there. We thought nothing of it (particularly as downtown was dead calm) and headed home.

I had just made Anna her dinner and we were in the middle of 'Wow Wow Wubbzy' (a true horror of a kids TV show) when the phone rang.

My friend R. asked if I'd any idea what was going on behind our house. She told me to turn the TV on. Not wanting to risk a preschooler meltdown by changing channels I dragged my bulk upstairs and switched on channel 3. Fire on the Riviera. I walked to the back of the house, opened the curtains and. just. about. died.

This BBC report is a different fire - and in daylight, but this footage is precisely what I saw - and how close - when I opened our bedroom curtains. It was about 6 o'clock, fifteen minutes after the fire is predicted to have started. The sun was already long gone from the sky, and all I could see was a giant plume of orange smoke, flames shooting nearly a hundred feet in the air, and the full moon a terrifying blood-orange colour. Within minutes the moon was completely obscured by the smoke, and it began raining ash.

I raced for the suitcases and starting throwing things in as fast as possible. Birth certificates, passports, clothes, shoes, desperately trying to formulate 'outfits' in my head as I pulled open drawers and grabbed stuff. I was frantically trying to remember this list from a previous fire post. What had I decided I needed to pack? I was unplugging the hard drive (which because of the battery back-up was refusing to die rather like an electronic headless chicken), and ruing the flippancy of my previous thoughts on fires.

I will never forget the sheer terror of opening those curtains and seeing flames roaring within blocks of our house.

I was desperately calling LK at work, but he wasn't answering his cell. I finally got through to his receptionist, practically sobbing at her to find him as I could already see the traffic pouring off the Riviera and I knew that if he didn't leave work now he would not be able to get to us. She said 'what fire?'. It suddenly occurred to me that if my friend had not phoned I would still be oblivious myself.

LK finally called me back and promised to get home as fast as possible. I kept remembering things I should pack. In an absurd parody of the 'Generation Game', I would keep repeating the same thing twice 'cuddly toy!' and forgot the critical stuff, like our insurance policy.

In the end we did come away with three cuddly toys.

The entire time I was racing around upstairs Anna was happily oblivious downstairs. I was having contraction after contraction - nothing serious, just warnings that I was overdoing it (lugging a 30lb hard drive down the stairs then racing back upstairs to collect another cuddly toy and check on the fire's progress). Yet every time I would sit down and try and gather my thoughts I'd remember something else I should pack, and race off again.

I was so happy to see LK walk through the door, until he announced his intention to drive up the Riviera to the house of some good friends who were out of town. He'd called them to see if they wanted anything rescuing as their house was even closer to the inferno. They were understandably a little taken aback by the urgency of his tone. Imagine sitting by the pool in the Bahamas and answering a phone-call from someone screaming 'your house is going to burn down what do you want me to grab'. It would take a little time to collect your thoughts. In the end LK raced up the hill to rescue their passports, and a split second after he left the power went out.

Now I have previously patted myself on the back for keeping all my candles and matches in one easily accessible (except to a child) place. It's no joke trying to locate that place in the pitch black however. Plus, Anna was not at all happy to have Wow Wow Wubbzy disappear from her life. I tried manfully to remain cheery as I blundered through the dark across a minefield of legos and plastic animals to fish out the candles, the entire time answering a barrage of questions about why there weren't any lights, why she couldn't go and watch TV upstairs, what electricity was, why we couldn't go and buy some, why she couldn't watch her DVD instead..... I went around the living room lighting candles, trying to explain why she couldn't blow them out, trying to keep her from playing with them, knowing I couldn't race upstairs to get the old telephone from under the bed as our cordless phones were now dead, as I couldn't leave Anna alone downstairs with 15 candles. It was certainly eerie to be plunged in to darkness, the only sounds being the screaming and honking of sirens from outside and the endless, endless suggestions from Anna as to how I could restore her TV program. I would have killed for a battery powered radio, I felt so isolated not knowing what was going on, sitting in the dark with my daughter waiting for the police or LK to come to our door.

I thought I was doing well, not scaring her unduly, not once mentioning the raging inferno outside our windows, but apparently I mustn't have maintained the composure I was trying so hard for in front of her, because when LK finally returned, passports in hand, the first thing Anna said to him was:

"FUCK! The lights"

LK looked at her and said 'what did you say?'

and she said "FUCK! THE LIGHTS!"

"Yes, that's what I thought you said" he laughed and raised his eyebrows at me.


In the end we all piled in to the car, LK having remembered our guinea pig as we were pulling out of the driveway. The traffic was diabolical, not just because all the traffic lights were out, but because people were just standing in the streets watching the fire. There were fender benders galore, and our friend reported seeing someone trying to cross a major junction with two horses in tow. We made it to our good friends house, a little further from the fire but still ironically within the evacuation warning zone - happy to find they at least had power - and we all sat glued to the (appalling) TV coverage which played and replayed the same footage whilst feeding misinformation about other fires being reported only blocks from where we were sitting. One minute we'd be slowly relaxing thinking the worst was over, then a couple of seconds later they'd report a burning house blocks from ours and the panic would grip us all over again.

I can't believe I managed to fall asleep, but the exhaustion and no doubt the baby took over. The last thing I remember is curling up next to Anna, trying not to think about all the things I hadn't packed, listening to the same reporter repeat the same information on the TV while helicopters thrummed incessantly overhead.

It seems amazing now that more homes weren't destroyed, that the 70 mph winds managed to subside before the fire tore a path straight through our town. Even more amazing that life could spring back to normal so quickly for the majority of the city after we were so close to losing everything. It's easy to be flippant about the housing market, and a house burning down being a gift from God if you have a mortgage from hell. When I think that we had the luxury of an hour to evacuate, compared to the people who just had to grab their kids and run, that we have the chance to return to our home and our lovely shitty furniture and equally shitty mortgage. That all those Christmas presents and things for the baby are still sitting in my wardrobe where I left them. I am just tremendously thankful for our good fortune, and so very sorry for those who did lose everything as I feel that now I got the smallest taste of what that must feel like.


american mum said...

That is definitely some perspective. I'm glad you were safe!

ExpatKat said...


Sarah D said...

wow is right!

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