Caughlin Fire: First-Hand Account of an Emergency Evacuation

Originally this article was submitted to Yahoo!Contributor, now off the Web, but it was my personal first-hand account of our evacuation from our home after a fire cut a swath through my neighborhood in the early morning hours of a cold and windy November. One man died of a cardiac arrest and at least 30 homes were destroyed.

I’ve been inspired to re-share my story ever since hearing about the fires that rampaged through California this past month, specifically the King Fire, which began September 13, and damaged thousands of acres, destroyed homes, and disrupted thousands of lives. The King Fire created unhealthy air conditions in Reno, NV, and ruined our otherwise beautiful crystal blue skies with a smoky, brownish haze.

I’ve lived through this type of devastation before, strangely enough. In 1997 our home was flooded. Not only did we have to evacuate in the early morning hours (why is it always in the middle of the night and in the winter time?) but our home was destroyed and had to be re-built from the sub-floor up and the ceiling down. It was awful and Paul and I both suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, something we’ve taken years to recover from, but may never fully go away. 

Recently I’ve discovered this particular piece was hijacked. I’m undecided if this is compliment or not, but since I don’t know what I can do about it anyway, I figure I should post it here on my blog and claim the article as officially mine. I feel quite free to bring it out of the shadows and to post for the readers. 

Caughlin Fire

While enjoying a sound sleep I was semi-awakened by the smell of smoke. My first thought was that I had left a candle burning, my second was my husband had started a fire in the fireplace after I had gone to bed. Just go back to sleep, it’ll clear out. I dived deeper under the covers, but the smell became persistently stronger. Are the neighbors having a bonfire? What is going on? Begrudgingly, I shoved back the covers and went to investigate. The house was pitch black and I shivered in the cold. In the bedroom across the hallway I saw a faint glow flickering behind the window shade. I raised the shade and nearly passed out by what I saw. The ridge line west of my home was ablaze. Smoke and red flames licked the sky. My street was enshrouded in a veil of thick smoke. My God! The neighborhood is on fire! I opened my mouth to call out my husband’s name, but only a whisper croaked forth. After the third attempt I succeeded a shout: “Paul, wake up. There’s a fire!”

“W-h-a-a-a-t?” was his sleepy reply.

Come look,” I said and directed his attention at the view through the window. This had the same affect on him as it had on me: instant alert mode.

I tried the light switch by the stairs but it didn’t work. “Great, we don’t have power,” I said. We padded downstairs and opened the front door. We were assaulted by a cold blast of smoky air that smelled foul with chemicals, housing materials, cars, and trees. Paul slammed the front door and we scrambled upstairs to the bedroom where we had a better view of the flames. We sat stunned and befuddled. What do we do? The wail of sirens from the fire trucks could be heard in the distance, getting closer to our neighborhood with every second. We knew others were aware of the fire storm at least. 

Without power I couldn’t tell what time it was and we had no heat. We figured the fire was far away and we should just go back to bed where we could get warm. After a minute lying in in bed Paul said: “This is wrong. We need to do something!” He fumbled for his flashlight in the nightstand drawer, we put on our robes, and together we crept downstairs. Just then the phone rang. Paul answered it. After a series of “Really’s?”  “Uh huh’s,” and “Okay’s,” Paul turned to me. “That was Janice. She said we need to get out of our house. The fire is big and it’s bad.” He reached for the Mag-Lite we kept in the kitchen drawer and handed it to me. I followed as he raced upstairs.

My head started to swim and I tried not to panic, but instead, concentrated on what I needed to bring with me. You’ve been through this before April, stay calm, concentrate! I grabbed some cash we kept in the drawer, my wedding ring, and a couple other pieces of jewelry that were important to me. Prescription medicine was next, and a toiletry bag. 

“Now isn’t the time for cosmetics, April,” Paul said.

“Oh yes it is,” and tossed the cash, jewelry, moisturizes, and face creams into my bag. I have my priorities.

“Get dressed,” Paul said, and then he disappeared downstairs. I figured he was retrieving our “to-go” bag we kept in a closet under the stairs. Our church strongly cautioned us that disasters could occur anywhere and anytime. We needed to be prepared with an evacuation  plan and some necessary provisions in case we had to escape quickly. Sound advice now that we were in the midst of a raging suburban fire. However, I was faced with the challenge choosing the proper evacuation attire. What does one wear to an evacuation? Certainly not the 5-inch platform stilettos I just purchased. They’re so cute, especially the black lace ones. Oh well, too bad I have to leave them behind. I pulled on a pair of jeans, my Ugg boots (they were my warmest and most comfortable), several layers of shirts, and then topped it with a reversible fleece jacket.

As I headed for the door I grabbed an unopened bottle of vodka from the pantry. If this house goes up in flames I might need this later.

As Paul and I loaded up the car I could see a flashlight beam bouncing off walls and windows in the house across the street. It gave off an eerie light as Megan, my neighbor, was preparing to evacuate her home with her two young children. Her husband was working a night shift so she was responsible for getting everyone out of the house. Adding to the trauma of having to leave our home in the early hours of a cold November morning was the howling winds. Leaves and bits of branches, and other debris were flying all around. I looked up into the sky and soot and ash were floating down on top of us.

“April, get important files and papers,” Paul said. I nodded, but then wondered, what’s important?

“I don’t know what to do. What do you want me to get?” I could tell I was starting to lose my mind. Focus. I ran into our home office and pulled open file cabinet drawers and grasped at files and documents I thought might be important, but really had no clue. Along with the files I gathered a stack of neatly folded afghans my mom had lovingly knitted. These were heirlooms, irreplaceable, I couldn’t possible leave these. Then I remembered the gloves, scarves and hats, and grabbed those too. I ran back out to the car with my bundle and kept shoving things in. Next, I  found tote bags and began filling those with family photo albums, framed pictures and the like that were irreplaceable. I took a breath, and looked around, there was still time before the threat of fire was imminent. I ran back inside to see what else I could fit in the car. I pondered in front of a shelf on the wall, should I bring the dog’s ashes? Might as well. I scooped up their urns and turned to leave. Too late.

Paul came in stopping me in my tracks. “Really. You’re going to bring the dog’s ashes? That is important?” Paul said.

I guessed so, because I didn’t even stop to answer, and in the car they went. It’s remarkable how much you can actually fit in a car when paring down the paramount items of your life.

The wind shifted the fire away from us so we decided to wait a little longer to see what would happen before evacuating. I waved sad good-byes as each of the neighbors departed from their homes and drove off seeking shelter somewhere. I estimated I had been awakened from the smoke smell around 2 a.m. By 3 a.m. our car was sufficiently packed and ready. I was surprised at how little I took with me. I didn’t even bring any of my beloved hard cover books (or select paperbacks, for that matter). I was sorry to leave my library. The thought of all my books burning up in an inferno was a bitter ache in my heart. But, they’re only things, all replaceable.

For a little while it looked as if our house was out of danger. The sun had come up–finally, although a pale, watery, hazy imitation of itself. I amused myself by picking leaves from my sticky and stiff hair. The toll of the early morning hours made me sleepy, I lay down on the sofa and dozed off and on, while the radio station broadcast updates on the fire.  I came out of a light nap when the newscaster said: “The fire has jumped across Ridgeview.” Ridgeview was just behind the neighbor’s house across the street. A creek runs between their home and the sidewalk. There is also a lot of dried overgrowth, perfect for a hungry fire. I jumped off the couch. Just then Paul came in. He had been guarding the driveway, keeping an eye out for smoke of pop-up fires.

“We have to go, embers are coming down now,” he said. 

I followed him out onto the street, but just as quickly the wind shifted and the embers disappeared. Paul ran across the street and knocked on John and Kathleen’s door to let them know the fire was now behind their home. They invited us inside. They had been sleeping and had no idea how close the fire was. Looking out their back slider door I was transfixed by the flames, while behind me John and Kathleen scurried about the house and made a dash for their car to evacuate. Paul and I rushed out to  their back yard where we saw Charlie, another neighbor who lived down the street, and around the corner from us. He was with REMSA and had been working since 2 a.m. when he got a call to help a man who had suffered a heart attack while evacuating his home. Charlie was down in the ditch with a long garden hose tamping down the flames. Another neighbor, Cody, whose wife and twin daughters had already evacuated, grabbed another garden hose and joined Charlie in defending the endangered homes. Charlie was the hero of our section of the block. If it wasn’t for him I’m not sure what would have happened to thoes homes. There were only minutes to act, and those precious minutes made all the difference. Charlie yelled for Paul to wave down a fire truck and get it over to our block. He said he had been trying for two hours and couldn’t get anyone. Paul ran out to the front yard and flagged down one of the many police officers roaming up and down our street, ensuring that everyone was evacuating. Within seconds a fire engine arrived on the scene.

I ran out to the front of the house too, and to my horror saw to the west of my house thick, black smoke rising up, and knew a house close to the ditch was on fire. Although I couldn’t see the house, and didn’t know how close it was to the houses at the top of the street, or know what they were from, I heard loud pops and explosions. Neighbors ran back into their homes, but Paul and I stayed on the street watching the smoke build. We had been ready with our garden hoses as well, just in case a small pop-up fire started, but turned off the water when we realized there was little water pressure, and didn’t want to take water away from the fire hoses.

We didn’t know where the next fire would start. It seemed random, completely at the will of where the wind blew the embers, like little fire bombs falling from the sky. I was dismayed to see another home, high on a hill south of my house, burn to the ground. We were surrounded by the fire.

One minute we were planning on evacuating and the next we stayed on watch duty. We were back and forth in our decision, anxious to be away from danger, but concerned about our homes and those of our neighbors. Many in the neighborhood did leave. It went on like like this for hours. Family and friends sent texts, or called, making sure we were okay, giving us updates on the fire. I was shocked to learn that it was far from contained even after twelve hours.

One bit of good news gave me relief. In the press conference it was said that firefighters and the police force had saved over four thousand homes, mine included. Unfortunately thirty-two homes had been destroyed by the fire and thousands were displaced in evacuation centers, not knowing the fate of their homes. When all was said and done, the fire, known as the Caughlin Fire, had consumed 2000 acres.

By 3 p.m. we still had no power and the weather forecast called for cold temperatures that night. We decided to leave and get a hotel room. We drove down the street where we were stopped by a police cordon. We were told that if we left we wouldn’t be able to return until sometime the next day. Even though we felt the threat from fire was over, we were hesitant to leave. For hours police patrolled the neighborhood ensuring the safety of the homeowners, and guarding against burglary, or lookey-loo’s. This gave us an added sense of security. We turned the car around and headed home.

Paul put a large pot of water to simmer on our gas cook top (the humidity it creates works to keep the house warm. A trick we learned when our furnace broke during the coldest winter on record). Then, while it was still light out, I heated some chili for our dinner. Paul gathered warm clothing and blankets. As strange as it sounds, it felt wrong to light a fire int he fireplace that night, but our need for warmth overcame those feelings. We ended the night with a game of Monopoly by kerosene lamplight. Before long we were peaceful, cozy, and sleepy.

Around 9:30 p.m. the power miraculously came to life. Our ordeal was over. Aside from the smell of smoke that permeated our clothes, cars an home, we had come through the threat with everything intact. We felt fortunate, humble, and grateful.

The community spirit stood out the most to me during this time of trial. People were concerned for the welfare of others, offered help, checked up on older ones, or those alone. Although we were scared, there was never pandemonium. I felt calmer knowing our community was there for each other if a need arose.

A lesson to take from this story is: be prepared. Even if we are prepared that doesn’t mean we will necessarily have time to get our belongings. Some people woke to the smell of smoke and had mere minutes to escape with only their lives. Still, it is good to have some sort of a plan in place, that way when disaster strikes we will feel more in control of our situation, have a clear head, and stay calm.

The end.


Related links:

Photo Gallery of Caughlin Fire