Through Hell and Back: A Retrospective.

Posted by Dreamented On 11:21 AM 0 comments


Two months.

Is that all?

Yes, this past Wednesday officially marked two months since the fires took our home last November 14th. Hard to believe. Seems like its been a year at least.

Honestly, it's been a very hard thing for me to talk about since that night of raining embers and 70+ mile per hour wind gusts, and even today my heartbeat skips when I hear a helicopter overhead, or the wind blows a little heavier than normal. But writing about it seems to be - and has been - a lot easier, and Twitter became not only a life-line to our friends and family through the ordeal, but also therapy for me ever since I began tweeting as the flames approached our neighborhood.

So I thought this would be a good time to organize my thoughts and get the whole thing down on paper as best I can.

Yes, in October we had a scare with fires that came literally right up to our back door from the east (see "Happy Hellish Monday" below) - and no, this is not that same story retold. Its a second tale, spun only a few weeks later, where a new series of fires approached from the west. And this time, as if coming back to finish what it had started, these fires would not be denied.

Yes, we lost the house. Burned to the ground, despite my best efforts. But my wife, her mom (who was visiting from Nigeria at the time), our German Shepherd Zulu and I are all fine, healthy, and for that we are forever grateful.

Although I now have some memories that will forever be burned into my mind - pun intended.

A little of the story for you, if you weren't one of the many who were following our harrowing experience back in November through my Twittering...

November 14th was an uncharacteristically windy day. Gusts up to 70 mph had been hammering our area of Sylmar, even tearing a piece of our neighbor's roof off of his car-port and sending it flying into our driveway. But we'd had windy days before, so aside from the noise it caused as the evening went on, we really thought nothing of it.

Around 10:30pm we received a call from my brother (living in Irvine) that he had seen on television that there were fires raging in our area of Sylmar, and that he wanted to make sure we were OK. My wife and I hadn't been watching TV, and so we looked outside to find that, yes, flames were stretched across the tops of the mountains behind our neighborhood, but were apparently moving in a westwardly direction and away from our home. We'd been through this drill a month earlier (see earlier post), so while we began getting our things in order for an evacuation, we never really believed we'd be gone for more than a day should we be forced to leave the area. And so, while my wife gathered up only the most critical things we'd need to take with us, I spent much of my time outside, videotaping the fires, chatting with the neighbors, and watching the fire trucks all head to a Park that was threatened about a mile from our home.

I have to admit that I have still not been able to bring myself to watch that videotape, and wonder when the day will come that I can gather myself together in order to relive those hours. Because somewhere around 2am, the winds suddenly shifted dramatically, and sent the fires raging back up and over the tops of the mountains towards our little cul de sac and our home with the 270-degree view of the mountains. I kid you not when I say that it was a matter of 15 minutes between the fires being almost a mile away and when they were nearly on top of us. 70 mph winds will do that, apparently.

As the fires began to get dangerously close, my wife, her mother and I stood in our driveway, watching and waiting for the moment when we knew it was time for us to go. Helicopters were roaring overhead, the wind was gusting all around us, the two cars were packed with the bare essentials, and we were just waiting for that moment.

It came in a hailstorm of embers, the size of pine cones, flying horizontally at us at 70mph. I felt as though we were in a disaster movie, as it was literally raining fire down upon us. From that moment on, we were moving, and moving quickly. Final things were thrown into the cars, and Zulu - who had been in his crate for much of the time - was grabbed and ushered into the backseat of my wife's car in what must have been a total time lapse of 2 minutes. And with the embers still falling all around us, I jumped in my SUV and followed my wife (in her car), her mom and Zulu down our driveway, out of our cul de sac and away from the neighborhood. There was smoke all around and falling ash (thank goodness for my wife's foresight of having bought paper ventilator masks after the prior fire we went through), not to mention people scrambling everywhere to get away from the approaching fire. In truth though, it was organized chaos, as people filed into the exodus of automobiles with a semblance of calm and respect for others. Everyone just wanted to get away, but no one did it at any other's expense. Which was reassuring in a lot of ways.

We drove about 1/2 mile away, down our hill and back up the side of the next (our home backs up against a dry riverbed), so that we could still see our home and neighborhood from the heights of the neighboring hill. We parked our cars (along with what must have been hundreds of others) on the side of the road, and while my wife tried to calm both her mother and Zulu, I stood among the displaced crowds and watched the flames creep closer and closer to our home. But the smoke was growing thicker and the distance began to make it very hard to see what was really going on back at the house...

There was no way I could stand there and do nothing.

My wife, her mom and Zulu were safe, so I told them to stay put (so that we didn't get separated) and I retuned to the house. I remember driving back into the neighborhood and into walls of black smoke, as police cars shone beams of light at me to make me stop and turn around - but my heart was racing and the adrenaline was pumping more than ever - and they were going to have to run me off the road to get me to stop.

I remember thinking to myself as I sped through their pseudo blockades, "Sue me."

Our cul de sac was for the most part deserted as I blasted my truck up our driveway. And as I pulled up to the house, I saw little fires everywhere. Plants and bushes had become tiki torches in their pots, and little piles of embers lay scattered around the property - in the driveway, in the yard, in the garden - so that it seemed like I'd driven into a satanic ritual of sorts. The home itself seemed fine and unscathed, but the embers were still raining down whenever a gust of wind kicked up, so I turned the SUV around in the driveway - pointing away from the home (for a quick getaway if needed) - jumped out and went straight for the garden hoses.

We actually had three hoses stationed around the house, and I still find it hard to believe that I'd actually had the foresight (prior to things getting out of hand earlier in the night) to uncoil them from their racks and stretch them all out along the ground. Looking back on it, I'm not sure why I did it - but as I raced to turn the water on full blast, it was an unbelievably welcomed sight to see the hoses all ready-to-go.

I spent the next 20 minutes or so dousing little fires everywhere, even spending a solid 2 minutes (at that time, 2 minutes seemed like an eternity) dousing the lower section of a pine tree that had caught fire between our home and our neighbors. I remember thinking how bad I'd feel if this fire hit their home as I shot water through our bushes onto their tree - kind of a funny thought now that I look back on it. But every 20 seconds or so, the wind would gust and I'd find myself diving behind the house to shield myself from the flying balls of flame, and new fires would spring up almost as quickly as I could put them out. Eventually I had to keep moving around the house, shifting from hose to hose, chasing the little fires one by one, and trying to stay ahead of them as best as possible.

I remember, through all of this, that I kept glancing at the house and feeling a huge sense of optimism that all was going to be fine, as there wasn't a single mark on the home. Our house is surrounded by gravel (we have a grass-free lot) so there was really not a lot to burn (aside from the potted plants scattered around the property, the garden and the hedges). So from my perspective, as long as I could keep the flames from the house, all would be fine. Smokey, but fine.

By this time it was likely around 3am (I'd lost sense of time), and the sky was ablaze in red and black hues. Smoke was everywhere and the whipping wind on top of roaring helicopters was all you could hear, drowning out any sirens that were certainly wailing in the distance. The fire had shifted so quickly that the fire department still hadn't been able to move from their position up at the local Park, and there was no one anywhere that I could see. Not that I was really looking. I was so focused, moving methodically around the house, and trying not to let the situation throw me off my game. I knew that as long as I kept my cool and remained determined, that at the very least, I could hold this off until the fire trucks arrived. I had my system down. I'd douse whatever flames I could. I'd hear the wind begin to blow. I'd duck quickly around the side of the house. The embers would fly by at breakneck speed, landing in plants and bushes and trees. And then I'd jump back out and start putting out whatever flames I could.

Nothing was getting by me, and I was slowly getting ahead of the new fires - having put out more fires than were starting up. Before I knew it, I was running from new fire to new fire - dousing, dodging, dousing, dodging - and oddly, I began to feel a little giddy - as if this was kind of fun - since I'd clearly had this under control. Don't get me wrong, I always had a huge sense of fear and worry - as if at any moment the delicate balance could shift on me - but I distinctly recall feeling as though I'd made it past the hard part and that all I needed to do was to hold the fort until the cavalry arrived.

(Cue the foreboding music)

I had worked my way round to the fire-side of the house (making it a little harder to dodge the embers that were now coming directly at me) and happened to glance up at the roof to make sure no embers or flying debris had settled up on top of the house.

And it was then that I saw the flicker.

Above the whipping wind, helicopter fly-bys and distant wailing sirens, you could have heard the sound of my heart hitting the ground at that moment. Because there in the dark, through the small ventilation slats of the tiny attic window above me, came the distinctive sight of flickering light coming from within. It started very subtly - so subtle that I nearly missed it when I first caught sight of it. But there was no doubt after I looked closer that there was fire inside the small attic area of our home.

If I hadn't already been filled with adreneline, then it was at that moment that the gauge went through the roof. Knowing the ladder was in the garage, I dropped the hose I'd been holding and broke into a sprint around the house to the front door as we'd lost power earlier in the night and there was no way I could get the garage door open from outside. Fumbling for my house keys in the dark was when I literally had to stop and take a deep breath as to not lose any precious moments - then after finding the right key and blindly opening the door, I was greeted by a dark house filled with thick smoke. I never even blinked, racing through the house and into the garage, fumbling for the ladder, finding it, and then running with it through the kitchen towards the sliding glass doors that open onto our back porch.

I admit it - for a split second I almost didn't even stop to open the sliding doors, knowing I had a battering ram in my hands. But a cooler head prevailed as I stopped, slid the door open, and raced out and around to the ventilated window side of the house.

Getting the ladder from the garage probably took me all of 90 seconds, but by the time I got it up and in place and began to scale it with trusty hose in hand, I could see the flicker had grown in size. I distinctly remember my arm outstretched in front of me, shooting water into the window as I climbed the ladder, knowing every drop would count. And as I got my face up close to the vents to look inside, it became suddenly clear that this was no flicker. At least not any more. The heat coming from within said plenty.

The fire had spread across the entire floor of the small attic, and was crawling up the walls. I jammed the hose as far in through the slats as I could to get as much water onto the flames as possible, but the heat that the fire was putting out would only allow me to reach so far in - and my small little stream of water suddenly didn't look so powerful against the rapidly growing flames. The flames rolled across the floor and up the walls like liquid sheets in the wind, and I remember wondering if I was helping or hurting the fire with the water I was pouring onto it. Because it kept growing, right before my eyes. But believe it or not, for a few moments there, I still believed I could handle it. I recall thinking to myself that this was going to be a challenge, but nothing I couldn't get back under control.

My hand with the hose was wedged and stretched through the slats of the tiny window, but I was having trouble getting water around to the corners - so I began to think about how I was going to kick in the window to give myself better access.

I think it was when the flames engulfed the ceiling of the attic and a puff of flames spit at me through the window slats that my spirit finally broke. There would be no kicking in any window, as it really wouldn't be necessary. I felt my shoulders drop and my will fail me as the heat suddenly intensified and forced me to recoil from the window. I couldn't believe how hot the fire was, and it was only then that I began to think of my safety, perched on the edge of the roof by the ventilated window that was now coughing out flames as if it was choking on the smoke that had engulfed the night.

Somehow I fell off the ladder trying to scramble back down to the ground, although I landed relatively softly on my back in the gravel, and remember hoping that no one had been watching that boneheaded tumble. Funny, the things we think of during such hectic moments.

It's really impossible to put into words the sense of failure and defeat that I felt as I stood there looking up at that little window of our attic, realizing that even if the fire trucks were to roll up the driveway right then, that it was still too late. Anyone could have seen that, especially when the flames began to break through the roof and lick at the sky.

The flames kept belching out of the window, so I slowly moved back around to the driveway side of the house to make sure I didn't get caught by any stray flames, let alone embers that were still flying through the air (even though I'd been completely oblivious to them since things went south.) And I kept waiting for some gas line to blow, or glass to explode outwards, or something dramatic to happen. But nothing did. The fire was eerily quiet, and the only real noise came from the wind & helicopters as I watched the house begin to die.

I had a moment of realization when I knew it was over, and I remember bending over with my hands on my knees and saying expletives over and over to myself. I think I was trying to convince myself that it was time to leave and get back to my wife, but I found myself frozen - knowing that the moment I got back in my truck and drove off, I was conceding defeat. I think that was my worst moment through it all, knowing that I was going to have to tell the woman who I love more than anything in the world that I'd failed to save her home.

Ironically, it was then that a figure dressed in yellow fire-fighting gear came up the driveway towards me. I thought he was with the fire department, but he ended up being with the Associated Press, and lovingly captured my worst moment on film for me to forever remember. We chatted a bit and he told me that he'd seen a lot of these fires in his line of work, and that while he knew I didn't want to hear it, this one was a lost cause. I'd already realized it, but it actually helped to have someone else confirm it for me. Looking back on it now, it was pretty funny when he asked me for my card as I was gathering up my strength to turn and finally leave. There we were, as our house was burning down behind me, and I'm swapping business cards.

OK, maybe funny isn't the right word. All of the photos that were taken by the AP that night are here:

http://www.myfoxshots.com/gallery/v/news/sylmar-fire/20081115-Sayre-Fire-009.jpg.html

It was clearly time to go, as much as I didn't want to throw in the towel. But I took one last deep breath and got into my SUV. The last thing I remember is looking back at the flames stretching through the roof and into the sky as I drove back down the driveway. The fire trucks had finally arrived in our cul de sac and were blocking the street, so I had to drive over a neighbor's front lawn to get out of there. It was very sobering to know that I wouldn't be coming back there for a long, long while.

And as I headed back to my wife, the only thing I could think about was the fact that I'd left both the front door and the sliding glass door in back - wide open. And I actually thought - if just for a brief moment - of going back to close and lock them.

Yeah, I know.

As I said before, the hardest part for me throughout the entire ordeal was going back to my wife and having to tell her that I'd lost the house. Fortunately (I think) she knew before I said a word. And she was the strong one from that moment onward, and set about figuring out what we were to do next with a step-by-step plan. Within minutes we were back in our cars and heading away from the crowds and fires and toward a hotel room where we could rest, regroup, and clean ourselves up before figuring out our next steps. I don't really remember much from the moment we all left the hillside and began to head towards a hotel, as I think I fell into a slight state of shock.

My wife's mother - god bless her soul - was beside herself through all of this, and I'm so sorry that she had to go through it with us. But my wife kept by her side at all times, and by the time we got to a Best Western in Van Nuys somewhere around 4:30am, I think she had begun to relax a bit.

We got an hour or so of sleep, surprisingly. Although as we had to sneak Zulu into the hotel, his occasional bark as we were "sleeping" would send us scampering to clamp his mouth shut ;-)

Around 7am, we were watching the news and as reporters were walking around destroyed homes from the fires, we clearly saw the remnants of our home in the footage - and any last rays of hope of there still being something there left were gone. But I do believe it was a blessing, as it's much better that we knew our home's fate, rather than have been hoping and wondering for days until finally getting back up there to see for ourselves.

We moved into the Bonaventure Hotel in downtown Los Angeles for the next three weeks, as they surprisingly accept dogs, and began the slow process of piecing our lives back together. It was a few days later, well after the fires had died and been brought under control that we went back to the site to survey the damage ourselves, despite knowing what we were to find.

Yes, "down to the ground" is the term that best describes it.

So as of this past Wednesday, it's been officially 2 months since it rained fire upon our home and our lives. And I think we're OK. We currently rent a nice little home in Shadow Hills and are in the process of finding an architect to help us rebuild. Our insurance company has been terrific, and has been more helpful and caring than we ever could have imagined. We are healthy and happy and have much to be thankful for, despite everything we went through. My wife and I still get a little anxious at night when the wind whips up a little too loudly (and I find myself glancing out towards the mountains to make sure they remain dark and quiet), and Zulu now has a thing for helicopters flying overhead, but that's about it. And in the end, I think we've become better people because of it all. We appreciate the little things more than we ever did before and don't seem to be stressing about unnecessary things. And the stuff that we lost... well, it was just stuff. This didn't break us, or make us feel any sense of "why me?" - but instead, made us stronger and brought us even closer together than we already were. We refuse to be beaten by this, and have pledged to ourselves that we will rise from the ashes like the phoenix - reborn from, yet forged by the fire.

And so there you have it - the events laid out in just a little more detail than I was able to give during my Tweets and scattered cell phone photos during that crazy, crazy night. I swore to myself I'd write it all down one day, and I'm glad I was finally able to do so, as I'm hoping that someday soon all of this will begin to fade in my mind. And with a little luck, while I'll always remember that night, maybe I'll forget about some of the details. Because those are the things that still keep me up at night.

In a way, I suppose it was a cleansing. We didn't ask for it, but we got it - a stripping away of everything that ultimately doesn't matter in our lives, leaving us only with that which we can not live without: Hope. Friendship. Trust. And Love.

I'll take that over "stuff" any day.