Wednesday, July 15, 2015

"And then this happened . . . ." (July Fourth, 2015)

It was the Fourth of July.  We were at the house.  We had spent the early afternoon at the “Old-time Fourth of July Celebration” at the Mendocino County Fairgrounds.  Flynn was taking his nap, Margot was crying from her pack-n-play protesting the idea that she should take a nap, and Coco was playing with her trains not even feigning an attempt to take a nap.  Ken was upstairs napping or looking at Facebook or checking email or something.  I was in the kitchen facing my usual dilemma:  Do I work or do I take a nap? 

But I was distracted by the recurring thought that I could smell smoke. 

It was just a whiff.  It was faint enough that I thought I must have been imagining it or mistaking some dusty-dry-grass smell for smoke.  It was really hot after all, so it could just be a dusty-dry-grass smell, right?  And everyone knows that I worry too much.  It just couldn’t be smoke.  But there it was again. 

I stepped outside to look to see if there was anything to see.  Was that smoke over and across the trees in the distance?  It was white so it couldn’t be smoke.  It must be a cloud.  But something about it looked not-quite-right with the other clouds.  The shape of it wasn’t the same shape as the other clouds . . . and it seemed low, like it was coming up from somewhere. 

I stepped inside and on my phone I Googled “fire near ukiah california july 4th”.  The results didn’t include anything that suggested there was a fire in the area. 

Outside a helicopter flew by in the distance, and then an airplane.  Standing in the kitchen I texted Ken who was in the bedroom above my head.  (When the kids are napping and we’re in different parts of the house, we text each other.)  “I think there may be a fire somewhere.  I was smelling smoke and now the aircraft.”  It was 3:45 p.m.

Then I heard a helicopter coming.  It was coming close.  And it was coming low.  Like, really, really low.  It was coming from the east.  I stepped outside onto the deck and looked to the east and then it came over the trees, paused and hovered.  Maybe a 100 yards from the house at most.  Fifty feet off the ground?  I could see someone in a helicopter jumpsuit (I guess that’s what they’re called?) and a helmet and visor looking out the side door of the helicopter.  He was very clearly looking at me.  From a helicopter.  Hovering.  One hundred yards from the house. 

It’s a strange feeling to have a helicopter hovering above your house with a guy hanging out the door looking at you.  It’s clear that whoever is in that helicopter is interested in you but you don’t know why they’re interested in you.  I remember thinking, “They’re looking for someone.  I wonder if someone is lost.  Are they searching for someone?” 

The helicopter moved away from the house, moving slowly away across the front yard and then over the orchard.  It’s nose was pointed downward, like it was looking for something.  And then I realized it was looking for a place to land.  It was moving toward a flat area on top of the ridge about a quarter mile from the house.  It was an old man-made clearing, cleared probably for some logging activity several decades ago.  Now it was the ideal helicopter landing pad.  Or at least the only useable one in the vicinity. 

As I watched the helicopter landing I saw the fire truck coming up the driveway.  The fire.  “Shoot!”  (Yeah, right, like that’s the word I used.)  I had forgotten about the smoke and my thoughts of fire.  “There’s a fire.  It’s here.  It’s somewhere here.” 

I texted Ken. “Come down.”  Yes, I realize now it was odd to text Ken from the deck when he was in the bedroom just behind me and there was a helicopter landing and a fire truck coming.  As if he was still upstairs napping or looking at Facebook or checking email or something.  Of course he had been standing on the deck upstairs watching the scene unfold just as I had been watching it.  Now he was walking out the door as I was texting him.

As an aside, we later learned that the firefighters in the helicopter and in the fire truck did not know we were there when they came up the hill to see about a fire.  They were a bit surprised to come upon a house and a barn and two men standing outside the house watching them from a yard littered with wagons and tricycles and such. 

The firetruck pulled up in front of the house.  Out of it came several firemen who clearly had things to do.  They immediately started walking around the house.  “Can we go into your backyard?” one asked.  “Uh, yes, of course.”  (Thanks for asking?)  One of them walked over to talk to Ken and me.  He told us that there was a fire and it was close.  It was less than half a mile from the house, to the northeast, down the hill toward the highway.  It was entirely on our place.  The only other parts of the conversation I recall are, “You don’t need to evacuate yet,” “You better get your hoses ready,” and “We’ll do our best to save your house.”  Six more firefighters arrived from the helicopter. 
If you look closely, you can see Coco
standing on the steps, watching.

I was thinking, “Uh, okay.  Thanks.  We don’t have any water.  And we’ll be evacuating now.” 

By that time Cornelia was on the deck in front of the house.  From her room upstairs in the front of the house, playing with her trains, she had had a bird’s-eye view of the helicopter landing and the fire truck coming.  I walked over to her.  “What’s happening?!  What’s happening?!” she asked with some urgency.  Alarmed but not yet scared.  I explained to her that there was a fire and that the firemen had come to put out the fire and to make sure we were safe.  She seemed satisfied with the answer. 

Off to fight the fire.
After a few more minutes the helicopter left -- I don’t remember which direction it went -- and the firetruck and the fireman all left, going north along the driveway towards the fire.  Ken and started packing.  We were going to a barbecue that evening so we weren’t homeless (not yet, at least).  We would simply go to the barbecue and wait it out.  We just didn’t know when we would be coming back and, when we came back, if there would be a house. 

Before we left the house Ken and I walked through it together to be sure we weren’t forgetting anything valuable.  (All three kids – the most valuable of anything – were already in the car.)  It was a little strange to walk through the house wondering if this would be the last time you would see your stuff.  And a little hard to believe you were even contemplating the question.

Fortunately, there wasn’t much to take.  We just packed up the kids, the groceries and a few mementos and left.  By that time, the smoke was very clearly in the air.

As we drove down the driveway and approached the last 100 yards at the bottom of the hill before the gate, we could see the entire scene.  The hillside in front of us, about a quarter mile away, was on fire.  The entire hillside was shrouded in smoke and there were glimpses of flames.  A few trees on fire.  There were a fire truck and a state patrol car on the highway below the fire and there were two more fire trucks on the ridge above the fire.  As we watched a helicopter flew over and dumped a load of water – or water and whatever else they dump – on the fire and then raced away to refill.  Then another helicopter.  And then a plane flew over and dropped a cloud of red powder.  And then another helicopter.  (We have video of the helicopters and planes but I can't get it from my phone to the blog!)

The entire scene as we saw if from our driveway. 
 As the firemen had left the house earlier, after saying “we’ll try to save your house,” I had thought, “I hope they try hard to put this thing out.  I know we’re only one house but I hope they try hard to save it.”  As we watched the operation happening in front of us I realized they were going to do everything possible to put this fire out as quickly as possible.  Otherwise, in an area that was already parched from the summer heat and a multi-year drought, this small fire could become a massive fire burning hundreds and hundreds of acres or more.  It’s not about our stupid little house.  We later learned that the fire departments from Anderson Valley, Ukiah, Hopland and Willits all responded to this fire.  Essentially, the entire Mendocino County fire department had turned out for this.

“We need to go,” I said.

We drove out our gate.  Ken wanted to see whatever we could see and try to get an update from the firemen, so we turned left out of our gate toward the fire rather than going right to Boonville and to our barbecue.  The highway wasn’t closed yet.  We stopped at the firetrucks along the highway below the fire.  Ken found a fireman who, once he understood that it was our land that was burning, was willing to pause and talk to us.  He was pretty optimistic about the situation.  He said they were feeling pretty confident that they would get the fire contained and under control.  He said about 30 acres were burning.  We gave him our number and asked him to call us if there was news and to let us know if we could come back to the house that night. We left for the barbecue.  It was 4:30 p.m.

As we were driving away we saw at the side of the road below the fire, a motorcycle that was entirely burned.  We knew at that point the source of the fire.  (We learned later that the motorcycle was stolen and the person who had stolen it was high on some controlled substance and had fled the scene.  He was later arrested.)   

At about 8:00 p.m. that night, the fire department called and said the fire was contained and that it was safe to return to the house.  There would be personnel on site all night long and through the following day watching the fire and mopping up, as they say. 

We did go back to the house that night.  As we came around the bend in the highway and reached our gate we could see the entire hillside – and it was glowing.  An orange glow from the embers left from the fire.  We didn’t expect that.  We could also see two firetrucks still on the ridge above the fire, with their headlights on.  The personnel staying all night to watch the fire.  We paused at the gate and decided we would go up to the house to see what we could see and then decide if we would stay.  We could drive back to San Francisco that night if we didn’t feel comfortable staying at the house. 

As we drove up the driveway we could see the headlights of a firetruck parked on the driveway.  More personnel.  We could also see that the fire had reached the driveway. 

We stopped at the truck and talked with one of the fireman.

“Is it safe to stay at the house?” we asked
“Oh sure, it’s fine,” he said.
“Are you sure?  What would you do?”
“I would totally stay at the house.  And we’ll be here all night.”
“There are three kids in the back of this car.”
“It’s fine.”

So we drove up to the house, put the kids to bed, and went to bed ourselves.  And about every hour or so through the night we heard a firetruck drive past the house.

The morning after.  The fire reached the driveway.

The pink residue from the fire retardant the plane dropped.

The burned hillside.  23 acres in total.