Wind and Grace
The winds are back, as is the memory. My five-year-old daughter asks, “Will there be fires?”
I look at her face, at her brow that is furrowed, creating a wrinkle that she does not need. Not yet. She is too young to start the ever-demanding leech of worry. I feel conflicted, not knowing if I should tell her the truth or tell her a lie to make her feel better. I opt for truth.
“I don’t know,” I tell her. “But whatever happens, I will never leave you.”
This has been our conversation the past few weeks. The Santa Ana winds have whipped Southern California again, bringing with it the fear of fire. Bringing with it the memory of last November, when our little city of Thousand Oaks was surrounded by flames.
My daughter begins her onslaught of questions, as any five year old would. What would happen if she was asleep and there was a fire in the house? What if there is a fire in our backyard? She hears the roar of a fire engine and wonders, Is there is smoke nearby? I try to calm her as best I can, try to convince her that I have some sort of plan for these different scenarios. I try to make her believe that no matter what, I would never leave her.
But the truth is, I wasn’t with her when the Hill and Woolsey fires surrounded our city, two raging beasts heavily fueled by dry lands and winds. She had spent the afternoon at my mother in law’s house just a few miles away, something she did every week. The winds were thick, the air so dry. When the Hill fire broke out, I could see the smoke from my front yard. Flames began pouring down the hill behind my husband’s work and he immediately evacuated. Traffic was so terrible that he left his car near a Target and walked the rest of the way home.
My mother in law and I decided that it was best she keep my daughter overnight. The 101 freeway was closed, traffic was congested, and the fire so close to our home.
“We may need to evacuate,” I told my mother in law.
“I think I’ll keep her here,” she said. I could hear the shake in her voice.
“Yes,” I said. “It’s safer if you keep her.” And with that, I left my daughter’s life in someone else’s hands.
We were a community already reeling from a mass shooting at Borderline Bar and Grill, a local bar with a country theme, just the night before. I felt the tangible fear of a mother who had two young daughters and how do I ever explain such tragedy to them? Twelve people were killed that night. Twelve lives were taken in another mass shooting in America. The shooter turned the gun on himself and we would never get any answers to the myriad of questions we all had floating in our torn hearts. A year later, we are still no closer to knowing what possibly possessed this 28-year-old white male to randomly kill a bar full of college students.
As in every city ensnared by such tragedy, I found myself saying the same thing: This isn’t supposed to happen here. Thousand Oaks is a small, beautiful city about 40 miles north of Los Angeles. It is nestled between various hills and mountain ranges, making it ideal for hikes and gorgeous photos. With such remarkable schools, it is a wonderful place to raise a family. It is safe here.
It was safe here.
There wasn’t any time to process how a mass shooting had happened before the fires broke out. We as a community had to prepare to run again. As the Hill fire continued to smolder, another fire called the Woolsey fire exploded that same night. It quickly became the monster to fear. Fueled by strong winds, it spread over the dry hills and land so incredibly fast and directly towards my in laws’ house. Their neighborhood was one of the first ones to catch fire, my daughter still inside their house. Still supposed to be safe. My in laws woke her up at midnight, telling her that it was just a little smoky outside and they want to be in clearer air. They didn’t tell her how close the flames were. They didn’t tell her that in the next cul-de-sac over, a house was burning, and would continue to burn until there was nothing left but a charred, empty lot. They didn’t want to traumatize her. “It’ll be one big sleepover,” they said and grabbed my daughter and evacuated to my brother in law’s house a mile away. Within an hour, they too were evacuated, my daughter along with them.
The first fire to break out, the Hill fire, began burning towards the ocean and away from our house. We never entered an evacuation zone. Out of all of my husband’s immediate family, we lived in the only safe area. They had no place to go and so they all headed towards our home. As my in laws drove my daughter towards me, she saw the flames along the road, the fire trucks pacing the streets. She remembers the fear. She still speaks of that night, still asks when the fire will come for her.
I’ll never forget watching coverage of the fires on the news, seeing my in laws’ street on the television. With the roads so congested and many closed due to the fire, it felt like an eternity waiting for my daughter to come home. My husband called several times, wondering where they were, wondering how long they would be. I’ll never forget the relief I felt when my mother in law pulled up to our house with my daughter in the car. I’ll never forget the sadness in my father in law’s eyes and the first words he spoke to me, “Is my house still standing?”
By 3 a.m. we had eight adults, five children, six dogs, two cats, one bird and one bearded dragon all staying in my 1300 square foot house. I spread blankets and pillows along the family room for the adults and along my daughter’s bedroom for the kids. I tried to sleep with my one year old, but while she snored against my chest, I was awake for most of the night. We all were.
The fire continued to move like a snake, curling around the hills and slithering west. Homes in Malibu would catch fire, their owners trying to tame it with water scooped in buckets from their pool or a garden hose. What they didn’t realize is that such fury can’t be contained. The Woolsey fire was on its own path, and one that burned all the way until it reached the ocean. I remember seeing photos taken of students at Pepperdine University of the front of the fire circling the campus while they were told to shelter in place. I remember seeing photos of horses running loose, some galloping on the open beach with black smoke curling around them like an ominous blanket.
I don’t know what to call it. Thankfully? Mercifully? Blessedly? The Woolsey fire moved away from my home, as well as the homes of my husband’s family. We were some of the safe ones. I don’t know how to explain such chance to my daughter. Thankfully, mercifully, blessedly, she hasn’t asked. If she does, I’ll tell her it was a grace out of our control.
Later in the week, I hosted a play date with some friends and their children at my house because what else can you do except practice normal? The smoke licked the back of Boney Mountain, a view so eerily beautiful from my backyard. Helicopters hovered in the distance. I remember the children playing, a pink dusk settling into the sky, the smoke illuminated, the children oblivious, and we mothers staring at a scene we never thought we’d see.
“Remember when all of our family had a big sleep over?” my daughter still asks, even a year later.
“Yes, I remember,” I tell her and try to give her a smile.
“We should do that again,” she says, not remembering why such a sleepover took place.
“We may have to,” I say and leave it at that.
I sometimes wonder if we are really okay. The sounds of bullets still echo in our ears. The smoke still settles into the hills behind our eyelids. It is 90 degrees outside, an uncomfortable day in October, and I hear a fire engine roar and I wonder, where is the fire? I feel my heart jump, my hands shake slightly, my own fear manifesting inside me. Memory is like the wind, a force that comes and goes, shaking us up when we least expect or want it to.
My daughter still fears the wind because she remembers. She remembers when the city she lived in experienced such tragedy. But I continue to tell her about our resilience. That is our memory now. Grace is our story. And it is my duty as a mother to tell her so.
Kelly Niebergall has a masters in creative writing from San Francisco State University. She lives in Thousand Oaks, California, with her husband and two wild daughters, ages two and five. When not writing about their shenanigans, she has been working on her first novel.