“Between a Rock and a Hard Place” is the continuing story of the loss of our home in the San Diego Witch Fire 2007. To read earlier chapters in this series, click on the chapter links below:
Prologue – Any Way the Wind Blows
Chapter One – The Valley That Time Forgot
Chapter Two – Eye of the Storm
Chapter Three – In the Blink of an Eye
Chapter Three.One – Too Far From Home (Tiffany’s story)
Shell shocked from learning that our home was now gone, we sat in my husband’s SUV deciding our next step. At that moment, we thought everything we owned was now in this car. I had left my car behind in my sister’s neighborhood and since that neighborhood was under evacuation orders, we didn’t attempt to retrieve it. It was still morning, before noon, and even though we had a hotel reservation, we couldn’t check in until after 3:00 p.m. But, we drove back to the hotel anyway. I walked into the lobby to the front desk and booked our room for another week. I never bothered to ask them if they were “pet friendly”. I don’t think it would have mattered one way or the other because I believe all hotels in the area became “pet friendly” as the enormity of this disaster took shape.
Back outside, we called our insurance agent and reported the loss, then called my employer and asked for vacation time off. Now homeless, I didn’t want to go back to work until I had a better idea of our next steps. Then, we started to call family.
Family members, who lived in our area, were under their own stress, dealing with evacuations, etc. Our family, in other parts of the country, was glad to hear we were safe and, of course, distressed to hear the news. After repeating our story over-and-over-and-over again, I thought I would just collapse from the stress. We found another fast food restaurant open for lunch and ate in the car (we didn’t want to leave Coco alone in a carrying case in the car). Throughout, we continued to listen to the news about the fire. For the first time in more than 36 hours we felt safe because we were together and we were blocks from the ocean. If all else failed, we would just walk into the ocean and stay there until the firestorm passed. I have mentioned in the earlier stories, that I can be a little melodramatic, but my thought process wasn’t that extreme considering the circumstances.
There are now nine separate fires burning in our County (17 burning throughout Southern California). There wasn’t an area in San Diego County that was not impacted. 500,000 people were now under evacuation (this number would grow to around 1,000,000 people within the next two days). Everyone was told to stay off the major freeways. The fires had burned to the freeways and in some instances, jumped the freeways, creating traffic chaos for those in the area as this drama unfolded. Although we knew from news reports that an evacuation center had been established in San Diego at the stadium, it was 30+ miles away from us and only accessible via freeway. So, we were on our own.
While we wait for 3:00 p.m. to roll around, we go to a drug store to buy a few necessities for Charlie (socks and underwear) and then to a grocery store to get a few supplies. Finally, 3:00 arrives and we check into the hotel, exhausted. We let Coco out of his carrying case and he explored his new surroundings yowling pitifully on occasion (a sign of more traumatizing times for Coco ahead). We shower; turn on the TV and in that semi-comatose state of exhaustion, neither of us can sleep. We watch TV for hours, riveted by the unfolding stories of the on-going disaster. Eventually, mercifully, we fall asleep.
The next morning, now Tuesday, October 23rd, we get up, have cereal in our room and watch the news. We decide to go to a nearby coastal mall to buy Charlie some clothes. As a big man, his choices are limited plus, on top of that, he prefers the Big Dog brand (he’s a simple man – shorts, t-shirts, socks and tennis shoes). The mall is closed due to the crisis, so we are out-of-luck. Coincidentally, my brother from New York calls to check in. I explain our clothing dilemma and he says, “We have a Big Dog store. I’ll go buy him clothes and overnight mail them to you;” our first random act of kindness. This presented a new obstacle – where to send the clothes! Since our house no longer existed, would we still get mail? Mom and Dad are still under evacuation orders, as is my sister and niece; plus, we didn’t know whether or not their homes had survived. So, we decide our next step, at this point, was to establish a new mailing address.
Prior to leaving for our town’s local post office, 30 miles away, Charlie and I discuss what to do with our belongings in our hotel room. Taking Coco with us everywhere was a “no brainer”. I pointed out that everything we owned in the world was now in that hotel room. I was unwilling to leave our possessions behind because the fires around our county were still raging with no containment in sight. What if the fires made it to some of the coastal towns and we were not able to get back to our hotel? My fears were not unwarranted. By the time the Witch Fire was contained on October 31st, it had approached the outskirts of several coastal towns.
So, we packed up our car putting everything we owned back into it. This became a pattern in our life for the next several days. Every time we left the hotel, we packed our car. Every time we arrived at our hotel, we unpacked our car (I was also fearful that someone would break into our car, if we left anything in it, stealing the rest of our meager belongings).
Even though fires were raging all around our town, the incorporated area was well protected and we were able to reach our town’s local post office. The branch manager of that post office was most gracious, helpful and sympathetic. He gave us a PO Box for free for six months (we didn’t ask; he insisted). This was the second of many unsolicited gestures of kindness extended to us by family and complete strangers.
Then, we went to a local restaurant for lunch – the first non-fast food or hotel room meal from purchased groceries in two days. We left Coco in the car with the windows cracked; while we may be criticized for doing this, we felt it would be less stressful for him then being dragged into a restaurant in a carrying case with strangers all around and noises that he’s never heard before. While waiting for our meal to be served, we talked quietly to ourselves about what to do next. Either our waitress or another employee overheard part of our conversation, because when our waitress delivered our meal, she said it was on-the-house! Another unsolicited gesture of kindness. We are overwhelmed and thank her for their kindness. After lunch, we attempt to return home to our valley, but are turned away by the authorities at a roadblock. We then head back to the coast, to our hotel, 30 miles west. We unload the car completely and settle in for the night, watching news and talking to family and friends on the phone.
The next morning, Wednesday, October 24th, we eat breakfast again in our room, pack up Coco and the car and head out. We go to the post office in our town and check our new post office box for mail. We head to our valley and again, are turned away by authorities. Coco has been crying; a loud pitiful yowling wail, throughout the day. Several times, we remove him from his carrying case and try to snuggle and comfort him. He is not reassured. We call our veterinarian to see if they are open; they are, so off we go. After examining Coco, the vet recommends Valium to calm Coco. Concerned about getting pills down a cat fully loaded with teeth and claws and extremely stressed, the vet recommends Pill Pockets, so after settling our bill, we drive to the local pet store, also open for business. Coco loves the Pill Pockets and gobbles them right up! We think we have found the solution and that life for Coco, will be calmer. We spend the rest of the day listening to news of the continuing fires from our car, stopping to eat at various places and return to our hotel for the evening.
Thursday, October 25th, same routine: breakfast in hotel room, packing up Coco and the car and heading out. I’ve been receiving emails all along, from friends and co-workers, via my wireless connection and my laptop. My sister-in-law, Lisa, emails us photos of our destroyed home. Somehow, her husband Jerome (Charlie’s brother) was able to sneak past the roadblocks and get to our property. We now have visual confirmation of our loss and we are devastated.
Below is one of the “boot-legged” pictures taken by my husband’s brother. He was able to sneak onto our property somehow and take this picture and the next 3 pictures. This was the first glimpse and confirmation that our home was gone. We are so shocked by these pictures that we don’t even notice our dining room chairs sitting on the left not the Madame Zelda talking-head Crystal Ball!
View facing east of the remains of our house and the 2-story chimney.
Also, I receive an email from a former boss, Michael, who tells me his aunt has a condo for rent in the middle of downtown San Diego. While I work downtown and this would be ideal for me, I thank him and tell him we want to find something closer to our original home.
Several friends and relatives kept telling us to go to a nearby community center, where all the various services had set-up booths, effectively making it “one stop shopping” for fire victims. So, we head over to this joint vendor resource center to check it out. The first stop is to report into FEMA. They are very efficient and this takes about a half hour, as they complete the paperwork on-line while asking you questions. We now have a FEMA number and while we do not get any federal benefits from the government for having this number, because our house is insured adequately, this number will come in handy in the future. While at this resource center, we are able to talk to our local gas and electric company ending services at our destroyed home, we are able to talk to our county property tax assessor and get our property taxes modified and we are able to talk to our phone company and get our services shut down. In addition, we talk to our county’s building permits department and learn that they will “fast track” building permits for fire victims. We also learn about demolition requirements and other issues regarding our property. We are overwhelmed with paperwork and leave with a bag full of flyers, brochures, applications, booklets, etc. to read, review, complete, etc. Our work is just beginning!
Prior to leaving the area to return to our hotel, we attempt to reach our property. Once again, we are turned away by authorities and faced with continued road closures because of the still burning fires.
This series continues tomorrow with Chapter Five – “In a Blue Funk.”
Until Next Time,