Returning from the fire

  • Published
  • By Techinal Sgt. Robin Hiatt
  • 336th Air Refueling Squadron
"Is this really happening?" Surreal would be the best way to describe my situation. 

I am one of the Southern Californian Air Force reservists whose house was in grave danger. Nonetheless, I think it's a general consensus that everyone's life has been affected immensely in such a short time. 

I was just returning from a great vacation weekend in Monterey, Calif. We were driving down the coastline when we got the call, "You better get home!" We held our breath. After the longest drive of my life, my roommate and I made it back home Monday morning... just in time to pack up what we could, load all the pets and evacuate our precious mountain home. 

Our house, just a few miles from the fires, was encompassed by smoke and ash and it literally looked like the sky was falling. I thought, 'Oh my God! It's Armageddon!' and almost panicked at the sight. The wind was blowing so hard I had to duck from falling branches and limbs from our trees while packing the truck and car. 

We drove literally an eighth of a mile before we hit 'evacuation gridlock.' Residents of the mountain were trying at the same time to drive down the highway and for hours we sat in ashy smoke wondering if we'd make it to the flatlands safely. The worst part of the experience for me was when I looked down at my cat carrier and saw my precious Himalayan turned upside down with its eyes closed. That was it! I started to cry and yell out "God, Please help us!" As soon as I opened the carrier's door to help Hailey I was quickly relieved -- she was in better shape than I was. She gave a great big meow and popped out of the crate. My mind couldn't comprehend how anything could literally sleep through this disaster! 

Once we made it off the mountain, our frustration continued. Santa Ana winds kept all major freeways closed down with semi-trucks overturned and metal debris laying over the lanes. Spot fires perked everywhere. I felt like we were continually driving into more chaos... and more chaos. 

Reading though the news, I have seen comparisons to other disasters such as Hurricane Katrina or 9/11. Witnessing this event personally, "Evacuate!" is much more than leaving home until the danger passes. It's leaving your loving home in a moment's notice... and leaving everything you lived and worked for behind. It happened that fast! 

We finally found solid ground to stand on when we arrived at our stable where all the horses would reside in the San Dimas area. Checking in our horses was our last task... all 7 were fine and accounted for. Our emotional experience had left us drained. We decided to stay overnight in our living quarters horse trailer. Our small RV type trailer was more normalcy than anything we've encountered, so we stayed in it for the entire time we were evacuated. What was our option... the evacuation centers at the Orange Show? 

When people find themselves in types of trauma ... finding 'real' is beyond certainty. For me, I found solace in my horses. They were my rock and my reassurance that my life was still continuing even though I was homeless and barely surviving with just the clothes on my back! We never had time to ride any of them the entire time we were evacuated... but just seeing them across the way was just enough to keep me calm. 

Our days were hectic. We had regulation check-in's at the evacuation centers, meetings
with Red Cross, State Farm Insurance Co. and listening for hours to the fire department updates. We drove miles to Norton AFB, Calif., just to receive our mail. At night, we spent countless hours on the phone talking to loved ones and anyone with information. The commander and members of the 336 Air Refueling Squadron contacted me several times throughout the week, reassuring me that everything was going to be okay. It was so heartwarming that so many from my base called to see if they could help us out in any way. At the time, I didn't know what was coming our way but knowing I had my troops behind me was a safety net for me! 

Few people have any idea what a Santa Ana wind can do with a fire. I try to explain to people, telling them about galeforce hot wind, how it picks up embers and deposits them on homes that are miles away from the leading edge of the fire... yet I can tell they don't truly understand. The forces of nature are never to be taken for granted. We all witnessed the week of wildfires in Southern California and the devastation it brings. It literally brings you to your knees when you must literally really 'live it'. 

The last few days have been spent searching for the latest updates online, because TV news for up in Lake Arrowhead area doesn't give nearly enough details. Frustratingly, even the internet sometimes fails my desperate thirst for knowledge of my homes status. By the following Tuesday night (over a week later) we had known our home had, miraculously, survived. I breathed a sigh of relief and thought of all the poor people who have to now start over. 

My heart breaks for those who lost homes. For those who didn't know and had to wait all those days in evacuation center not knowing if they had a home to return to or not. And those who have the immense job of cleaning up what is left behind. Our home is filled with smoke and ash. It's like living in an ashtray at times. We spend our free time cleaning carpets and washing off the deck, etc. and keep our precious cabin from sustaining other damages due form this ravage wildfire. It's all worth it when you think about it! 

I cannot say enough thank you's to the brave men and women of the fire department.