Liz Kellar: First-hand account of what not to do in case of fire | TheUnion.com

Liz Kellar: First-hand account of what not to do in case of fire

It's every Californian's worst nightmare. With wildfires becoming the norm rather than the exception, living in this state becomes more of a gamble every year.

And last night, I became one of those sad statistics, one of the victims of the McCourtney Road fire.

The weather was predicted to be a high fire risk Sunday night and by 9 p.m., a few small fires already had broken out in the area. Somehow I convinced myself everything would be fine and went to bed around 11 p.m.

The wind kept whipping around our house, though, keeping us poised on the edge of sleep. The power went out. Then we started hearing honking, Lots of honking.

Since we knew fire was a very real possibility, we should have created an evacuation plan, and used it.

We immediately knew what it meant. Fire, somewhere.

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Then lights flashed across our driveway and someone was banging on our door.

The fire wasn't somewhere. It was right here, right outside our door.

In the dark I grabbed a sweatshirt, my flip-flops, my glasses. As I looked outside I realized the fire was too close for comfort, a wall of flame just across the NID ditch poised to sweep our way with the next wind gust. We jumped in the car and took off – my husband, Tom, and son, Spencer, with no shoes and no shirts.

We stopped at the next corner — Polaris Drive — to discuss our options. I realized the folks at the corner had not been awakened and ran to pound out a warning on their door. We initially decided to try to make it out via Indian Springs Road, but turned back when we saw a different fire on the horizon. A good thing, it turned out, because the road was blocked by a downed tree.

We retraced our steps as the smoke seemed to grow ever thicker. As we drove back past Polaris, the wind shifted and it seemed we had a narrow opportunity to retrieve a few more belongings. Against Tom's better judgment, I talked him into going back up the driveway, and then I sprinted back into the house to grab phones and computers, knocking chairs over in a panic. I jumped into our other car with flames licking the grass not 30 feet away. Shaking from adrenaline — and the realization that this had been a really bad idea and that another wind shift could kill me — I kept fumbling and dropping the car keys until, finally, I jammed the key into the ignition and got going.

Too wired to sleep, I opted to head to The Union and spent the long night tweeting the fires' progress and trying not to obsess over the fate of our little cottage. Tom and Spencer, having much better sense, drove to the family home in Lincoln. I crashed for about an hour on a couch in the newsroom, as the chatter from the scanner washed over me.

When dawn broke, I drove to the fairgrounds, then walked the rest of the way to the house past the CHP road closure, hitching a ride from a guy in a truck for part of the way. As we came around the curve in the road, I saw our house, unbelievably still standing while the barn, a trailer and the neighbor's house all had been destroyed.

All was not completely well. A closer inspection revealed firefighters had knocked down a fire under the bedroom, leaving a big hole and a sagging floor. The house is, for now, uninhabitable. And everything inside reeks of smoke. But as I watched our neighbors weeping on top of the rubble that was once their home, I felt pretty lucky.

No one got hurt. I lost photos, letters and lovingly collected treasures — but as my unflaggingly optimistic son pointed out, it's just a chance to gather new memories.

Lessons learned? I'm pretty sure we could serve as textbook examples of what not to do in the event of a fire.

Since we knew fire was a very real possibility, we should have created an evacuation plan, and used it. We should have known what evacuation routes we could take. We should at least have had some flashlights.

And once we determined we were in danger, we should never have returned to the house.

To contact Staff Writer Liz Kellar, email lkellar@theunion.com or call 530-477-4236.

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