The Brush Fire We Stayed For

Why didn't my parents evacuate a California fire that might have killed us?

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When I first learned of the fires decimating Northern California, my stomach clenched and my pulse quickened, even though I was 3,000 miles away in New England. Everyone on the East Coast went about their normal days — buying groceries, going to work — barely aware or interested in what was happening out West. I couldn't stop thinking about the people I know in Northern California and those I don't, the exhausted firefighters who saw no containment in sight, the people who were able to outrun the flames and those who were consumed by them.

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When I was seven years old, my parents had refused to evacuate for a massive brush fire.

***

I grew up in Malibu, an epicenter of Southern California's brush fires, before Malibu was "Malibu." Back then, the area was an eclectic mix of reclusive celebrities, generations of surfers, and many regular, non-glitzy folks like my parents. Malibu is split by the Pacific Coast Highway into a beach side and a mountain side. The beach side was where the wealthy people lived, and the mountain side was where we lived.

My dad repaired television sets, and my mom was a secretary. After they were married, still renting an apartment in Los Angeles, they had hoped to buy their first home and build a family. When they couldn't afford anything in the city, they resigned themselves to what was considered the boondocks, up the coast, and bought a small, single-story tract house for $40,000 in a canyon in Malibu.

Our home was simple and uniquely ours, with Spanish tile floors, sheepskin-covered driftwood furniture, spider plants dangling from ceilings, quirky cheap antiques from flea markets, many broken TVs, loads of leftist political books, and piles of classical records. The house was my parents' everything. Their entire savings, their self-expression, their metaphorical safety. Something they would ultimately decide to stay and fight for when the brush fire struck, risking their lives, and mine.

***

School was canceled, abruptly, midday. Seven years old, I stood in the pickup area with my classmates. We didn't know what was going on. Hot, dry Santa Ana winds whipped my long hair into a frenzy, and empty swings on the playground swung as if occupied. The sky was still blue, but gray was creeping in at the edges. Already, we caught a faint whiff of burning.

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With a twitchy smile, my mom pulled up in her Kermit the Frog–colored Honda. Distracted, she buckled me in fast, kissed my forehead — "Good day?"— and accelerated onto the road. She kneaded the knob of the stick shift and kept turning the volume down even though the radio was off. Police were setting up a barricade on the highway. They checked IDs to ensure only residents, not looky-loos, got through. As soon as we got home, Mom knelt down and, grasping for calm, said, "Go grab your favorite things. Just a few. Be quick."

While she rushed around the house gathering photo albums and birth certificates, I stood in my room, looking at my things. I didn't understand the weight of her ask: If you're about to lose everything, what do you save? Feeling the crush of pressure and little time, I grabbed my stuffed bunny, Gumdrop, and a tin box of quarters I hid in the closet.

Soon my dad screeched up with a dented fender. Police had stopped letting even residents past the barricade, but he drove his truck right through. He was energized, focused. I greeted him in front of the house. The howling smoky wind, already peppered with ash, made me cough. Dad carefully tied a handkerchief over my mouth: "Breathe slowly." It was hard to hear him. The sirens. Helicopters. Radios blaring from every house in the neighborhood.

Bucking evacuation orders for a natural disaster seems ridiculous, unfathomable. I understand the defiance, though.

Things went into overdrive. My mom put me in her parked car with our cat, dog, and boxes of things. Alone, through the car window, I watched my dad climb precariously onto our shingled roof with the garden hose to put out embers so the house wouldn't catch fire. Neighbors with hoses were on their roofs, too, and the roofs of those who'd evacuated. We'd already lost power. My mom rushed to fill trash cans with water before we lost that as well.

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Sheriffs sped down the street, shouting through bullhorns: "You must leave! Now!"

Our dog and cat leaped frantically around the car, barking and yowling, as 60-foot walls of flames roared down the canyon behind our house. The world turned inferno. Helicopters uselessly dropped fire retardant like monstrous red confetti. The sky was so full of smoke it blocked out the sun. I was terrified all the way to my bones.

The wind blew hard down the canyon, and the houses were so close together. If one caught fire, everything between that house and the ocean would have burned. Firefighters wouldn't have been able to stop it. Despite the sheriffs' demands, my parents refused to leave.

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***

The next morning, after the flames exhausted themselves at the sea, we drove around our tract-house neighborhood. Miraculously, not one home had gone up in flames. But nearby, there were pockets of apocalypse. Ashen rubble with only defiant brick chimneys remaining. People standing in what had been a bedroom. Children calling for missing pets. Coyotes in the street seeking sanctuary from the scorched hills.

Although I was grateful our house hadn't burned down and felt proud of my parents' bravery, I frequently wondered about their decision not to evacuate. It was an enormous risk. The fire was so close. The terror of being trapped in that car stayed with me. For years afterward, whenever I heard a siren, I got nauseous, my mouth dry and my heart racing — stress and panic before I understood those emotions. I never told my parents when my body's sense memory reared. I never asked my parents if, that day, they had thought we might die.

Now, seeing the heart-crushing devastation in Northern California — 42 dead and counting, many still missing, thousands of homes destroyed — I can't help but ponder my parents' decision. Faced with a natural disaster, both choices — stay or leave — are horrible. Both choices are impossible. I trust that if my parents genuinely thought our lives were in danger, we would have evacuated. Adrenaline complicates logical thought, though. And it can be hard to see bravery in leaving.

My parents both passed away when I was in my mid-20s. So there will always be lingering questions I can now never ask them: If they had eventually decided to evacuate, would it have been too late? Could we have gotten out? Might I have watched our house burn down with my father standing on top of it holding a hose?

When a natural disaster strikes, some people don't have the financial means or physical ability to evacuate — some don't even have time. Then there are people who have both the means and time yet choose to stay. When Hurricane Irma barreled toward Florida, people who refused to evacuate were condemned with phrases like "stupidly stubborn," "selfish thrill-seekers," and "They deserve what they get." And there were refusers in Northern California, too, including one guy who broadcast live on Facebook from Berryessa Highlands. Bucking evacuation orders for a natural disaster seems ridiculous, unfathomable. I understand the defiance, though.

My parents' refusal was fueled by a complex mix of fear, desperation, an attempt to actually protect me, a conviction we'd be OK, and a profoundly human desire to not lose the physical manifestation of one's life — a home, its contents, everything you've worked so hard for. The decision to risk everything, in order to, hopefully, save it.

Kelli Auerbach is an essayist and fiction writer based in Los Angeles.

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