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November 17, 2008

My Family's Wildfire Evacuation Adventure

Charred trees in O'Melveny Park; result of Sayre FireThe smell of smoke woke us up at 4:00 a.m. on Saturday. While we quickly established that it wasn't originating from our own house, we realized that a fire had broken out somewhere CLOSE BY, because the cloud of ash raining down on us was pretty thick.

The TV news informed us that the fire had started around 10:00 p.m. in Sylmar, but had just jumped the freeway and was now endangering our community.

"I think we should pack some things in case we need to leave," my husband said.

The news flashed the locations of two mandatory evacuation zones, one of which extended down to a couple of blocks north of us. We could hear police on bullhorns up the street, telling folks to leave - but they stopped short of our house.

I quickly wrote a post about it here and here, and spent the rest of the morning glued to the television - and the web. And as the hours crept by, we kept thinking of more things to add to the pile of stuff we might want to take with us in an evacuation.

We were both amused when we heard the sound of clanging metal coming from our daughter's room: The first thing she packed was the collection of medals she has won in four years of gymnastic competition.

Then she grabbed her teddy bears before turning to her clothes.

As the morning wore on, the phone started to ring from friends asking if we were OK and offering to let us stay with them.

"We're not in the mandatory evacuation zone," I told them calmly. "But we may take you up on that if we need to."

The conversation in our house for the rest of the morning were like that old song by the Clash: "Should I Stay or Should I Go?"

Around 10:00, the TV news reported that everyone north of the street we live on was ordered to evacuate.

"That's NORTH of our street," my husband pointed out. "They didn't say ON our street."

I went to the LA Fire Department website and saw a map that showed a much wider mandatory zone than the TV news was reporting -- and on this map, our house was clearly within it.

"I think we should leave," I told my husband.

"I don't think that's right," he said. "If it was mandatory, the police would be here telling us to go."

My many friends on Twitter - some of whom were veterans of last year's raging fires in San Diego County - were advising me to leave. "You need to play it safe - if it comes, you won't have time."

"I think we should leave," I told my husband.

He shook his head. "I don't see any of our neighbors going anywhere. I think we're just voluntary right now." (Note: I don't think he saw anyone going anywhere because they had all left before dawn...)

An hour later, we learned that all the streets leading into our neighborhood had been closed to northbound traffic.

"I think we should leave," I told my husband.

"I'm hungry," he said. I had not done my grocery shopping (did not want to leave when we might have to evacuate at the drop of a hat). He went to Subway, and reported with some amazement that aside from some police officers getting their lunch, the place was empty. In fact, the entire shopping center was deserted.

At this point, the TV news reported an update to the evacuation zone that corresponded with the map on the LA Fire Department website. Now, my husband finally believed me: we were in the mandatory evacuation zone. We finished our lunch and prepared to leave.

Fortunately, we'd packed both our cars with almost everything we needed to take or save: computers, photos, clothing, grooming items, those gymnastics medals, etc. But it still took us about 20 minutes to get out of there...

...because we could not leave without our cats. And wrangling them into carriers for the trip was not an easy process.

"Don't you think we could leave Biscuit here?" my husband asked - only half-kidding.

He adores one of the cats: a big fluffball of a feline who loves to play in water (we suspect he's part Maine coon). Smokey (an unfortunate name, considering the situation) was fairly easy to crate.

But Biscuit is another matter. He's huge. And skittish. And has a real love-hate (mostly hate) relationship with my husband. We eventually got him into his carrier, but not before the terrified animal peed on our velvet slipcovered couch.

So our first stop on our way out of the evacuation zone was the dry cleaner. And since I had some things to pick up, I did that, too (because after all, if we had to stay away for any length of time, we might NEED them).

Our second stop was a pet store for new supplies. Because in our haste to finally get out of there, that was one of the things we did forget.

In the meantime, we needed to figure out where to go. We weren't too keen on visiting the evacuation centers that had been set up at three local high schools. We're not really shelter people, and there were other options.

Several friends (and people I barely knew) had offered us a place to stay, and we would have taken them up on that...

...if it was just US. But we had those cats, and we didn't expect they would be appreciated by our friends - especially if they knew that one of them gets incontinent when he's upset.

So I called the Marriott in Warner Center, which I knew to be a "pet-friendly" hotel. They had availability and gave us a weekend rate. So we headed south toward Ventura Boulevard.

The streets were eerily deserted, and aside from occasional police cars and fire engines heading back north, the driving was easy -- until my husband decided to get on the 101 West, which was jammed with overflow from the 5, 405 and 210 (all had all been closed to the north, so this was one of the few ways to get out of the Valley). I directed him back to Victory Blvd, where traffic was flowing freely.

Checking in to the hotel was a process. I went alone to the front desk while the rest of the family stayed behind with the cats. We brought our necessary things up to the room in shifts. We set some food and water and the litter box we'd just purchased - and THEN we brought up and let out the cats, who spent most of the rest of the night cowering next to the toilet. I could tell how upset they were by the way their fur stuck up straight, indicating they were not happy campers.

It's no wonder people take their dogs everywhere but don't often travel with cats.

Then, just as we'd settled into our evacuation surroundings we got word that the order for our neighborhood had been lifted. We were free to come home.

Considering all we had been through to get there, the traumatization of our pets -- and the fact that we were already on the hook for one night at the Marriott -- we decided to stay put until morning.

So that's what we did, repeating the process to get everything and everyone BACK into the car.

We arrived home a little before noon on Sunday, none the worse for wear and began the process of un-packing all that stuff (including the gymnastics medals).

All is well now, except for that couch... hoping the dry cleaning results are good.

Original post for Los Angeles Moms Blog by Donna Schwartz Mills, cross-posted at 50-Something Moms Blog. When not obsessing about her cats, Donna writes about raising kids in Southern California at her personal blog, SoCal Mom.

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