The Ormsby Fire
... solving the mouse problem once and for all
Thursday 5/22/08
We had heavy (35-40 mph) winds last night and through the morning. I woke up around 6:30am to the sound of something crashing onto the patio. I was just getting up to check it out when the phone rang. It was our neighbor Diana telling us that there was a fire in the canyon. I looked out the great room window and saw a small pocket of flame across our canyon, with a bright red glow rising behind the far ridge ("Maymen's Flat"). That's around a half mile away. With the wind blowing so strongly toward us, it was clear that this could be a problem.

I woke up Walendo and we quickly started to collect up our things. I immediately grabbed my photo gear and Walendo went down to get our server, which has all our data, including all my digital photos. (I can't express how glad I was that we'd set up the network this way and had put all the photos on the server.) I then opened the safe and grabbed all the photo albums from pre-digital days, all the discs that have our videos and other images, and a few envelopes that contain all the valuable documents such as passports, birth certificates, vehicle titles, etc. plus spare cash. Luckily, we had collected all this stuff together earlier, so I just grabbed the whole wad and didn't even think about what was in it. Meanwhile, Walendo grabbed his backpack (with two laptops in it) and put it out on the porch, and then went to collect up some medicines and clothing while I was grabbing the scrapbooks and then my laptops. He also went up to get the Expedition and drove it down to the house from the garage so we could load both cars. We then got some suitcases from the shed and filled them with clothing and toiletries. Somewhere around then Eric called to find out if the fire was near us and if so, to make sure we were up. (Thanks, Eric!) The house's security system sounded the fire alarm a short time later.

Next I started walking around from room to room looking for things we might be forgetting. I grabbed random things, including a little food (that we later forgot we had), various chargers for the cell phone and point-and-shoot camera, checkbooks (even though I almost never write paper checks anymore), flashlights and some extra car keys. In the office I remembered to grab the folder with our insurance information -- which seems like an obvious thing to grab but, as urgent as this sounds, all this time we both thought that we were doing this as a precaution, so we weren't really in a panic. We both even initially considered taking a shower but decided we'd better get packed up. I remember thinking I was being silly by grabbing the leather jacket I'd just bought in Italy since I probably wasn't going to be needing it. I even collected a second round of clothing, tossing in some pajamas and more shirts, even the book I was reading, again feeling a little dumb since they could easily be replaced and we weren't really going to need them.

All this time we were grabbing loads and throwing them into the cars. We could certainly smell the fire and see lots of smoke across the canyon but we didn't see anything close. Walendo even grabbed the video camera and took some footage looking down the canyon, which was mostly smoke. (And you all think I'm the only crazy one about taking photos!) I took a few photos of the cars packed up and one of the house with the red sky and glowing red sun behind it.

A view of the house a few minutes before we headed out. That glow in the background is the sun coming up, not fire, but the orange is from the light reflecting off all the smoke. I later uploaded this picture to the local ABC station and they apparently showed it a lot and it now have it on their website.

Here can get a sense of about how much stuff we packed up. There are two suitcases of mostly clothes and toiletries, and then stacks of photo albums, scrapboks, and such. Behind the suitcases is the big server that has all our data, thank goodness.
But then suddenly Walendo noticed some flames coming from just below the house, approaching the propane tank! We immediately grabbed the dog and got her in the car and headed out, Walendo in the Expedition and me in the Murano. (How sad to leave the Maxima behind!) Well, okay, I admit that I took one more shot from the car just before I backed out, showing the flames coming up to the house.

Here's the shot I took from the driver's seat of the car, looking down our hill to flames coming up from below. That's the propane tank on the right.

As he turned down Ormsby Road, Walendo slammed on his brakes as he saw fire burning the brush along the road and I narrowly missed rear-ending him. We both backed up and turned around to head up Ormsby. This was when it really hit me that we could actually be in danger and might be trapped, since we knew the fire had come from above us originally. We bounced our way up the dirt road as quickly as we could and at one point had to drive through some fire that was burning on either side of the road, although it was just an area of about a hundred feet or so. Once we got up higher, there was no more fire. At the top of Ormsby we turned south toward Mt. Madonna and drove along the summit. We stopped to get a few more shots of the smoke pluming up over the hill below us.

The Expedition up on Summit looking back over to our canyon.

From that same spot, you can see a house at the top of the ridge and all the smoke coming up from our canyon. At this point we were pretty sure our house would be gone.
That's when we first encountered a fireman in an SUV. He didn't have much information but told us to head toward Mt. Madonna Park, where they were setting up a staging area. We stopped there to check in and gave them our names and addresses so they'd know we got out. We thanked them for doing whatever they could.

The staging area at Mount Madonna park.
We decided to head back down toward Watsonville to get some breakfast and figure out what to do. On the way, Walendo called Larry, the builder working on our remodel (so much for that!), and he'd been frantically calling us to make sure we were okay. We decided to head over to his place just to have a place to go. On the way I called my parents to tell them we were okay, figuring they'd hear about the fires on the news soon enough. (First, though, I got the update from my mother about her recently-diagnosed cancer, learning that they'd just found out that it seems to be further along than they'd originally thought but they can't start treatment right away until she heals from the initial surgery last week.) When I then told her what was happening to us, she scolded me for letting her go on about her troubles for so long. Oy vey.

Larry immediately offered us a place to stay in his little rental unit on his property, which was a big source of comfort to me: Okay, we have a place to stay tonight, we're good. Walendo, naturally, had driven through McDonalds and picked up some Egg McMuffins and coffee for all of us. I, naturally, asked Larry if he had any cereal. We ate as we watched the TV news showing flames in the mountains but there was no telling exactly where they were filming. They kept saying that the fire started at 715 Ormsby, which is the neighbor who had called Diana, who had then called us. But given how the fire had been across the canyon, we didn't think that could be right. They asked people who had photos to email them in, so I decided to send them some of mine. Larry's son got out his laptop and I uploaded the pictures and then checked email. I was so glad that I had my mail on Google so it was all just right there and I could send messages as usual. For the second time, I was really relieved that we live in a world of distributed data, which means that a lot of things could function as usual.

I called our insurance company (Farmers) and filed a claim. They wanted to know the extent of the damage, so I told them we didn't know for sure but it looked like the house was gone. That made it a little more real. A year or so ago we'd increased our coverage after we'd finished the big remodel, so I felt fortunate about that. Within minutes, we had an email confirming the claim, which was reassuring. We sent some email out to a few people to let them know we were okay, figuring we'd send messages to more people once we were settled and knew more. As the day wore on, we got emails and phone calls from many of you and I felt bad that we hadn't sent the initial messages more widely. We were both able to get email on our phones, which was great and helped us feel more connected. (And I had just been thinking about canceling the data plan for my phone but hadn't done it yet. Another lucky thing.)

Eventually we decided to go check out our rental house in Capitola. It so happens our renters had just given notice and were starting to move out, and we had previously arranged to go there with Larry today to take a look at the roof, which we were worried might need major repairs before we could rent it again. Given the circumstances, we were now thinking maybe we would need to live in it. The news there was good, as it turns out the roof was in much better shape than we thought and could be fixed with minor work. So at least there was some good news. We talked a while about our possibilities for housing over the next few days and longer term: Rebuild Ormsby? Use insurance money to remodel the rental and sell it so we can afford a place over the hill? Meantime, do we live in the rental? Do we live over the hill closer to work? I think I needed a general plan to keep me calm but Walendo wasn't really ready to think that far ahead.

During this time I was getting phone calls from Angela at Farmers, the agent assigned to our case. She wanted make sure we were okay and asked if we wanted them to get us set up in a hotel, assuring us that they would find a place that took dogs. Initially I was thinking we wouldn't do this right away because we would stay at Larry's, but over time we realized it would be nice to get settled someplace where we wouldn't feel like we were imposing and could stay awhile. So we asked them to find us a place. Meantime, they arranged to send us a check for $2000 just to handle any initial outlays. I was pretty impressed with the speed and efficiency of their response.

Not sure what to do next, we parked nearby the rental in a nice spot overlooking the Capitola downtown and talked about what to do. This is when we picked up a bunch of emails from friends on our phones and let more people know we were okay. It was really nice to know so many people were thinking of us and wanted to help. We didn't have the cell phone numbers of our neighbors, though, so we didn't have any way to make sure they were okay or to find out how they were doing, which was worrying.

We also talked to the insurance people who find housing. They hadn't called back for a long time, and we learned that they were looking for a place within 5 miles of the house. No wonder they couldn't find anything! (They of course are not based locally so didn't know the towns.) We gave them guidance on where to look and after we'd headed out to get some lunch, they found a Residence Inn for us in Campbell, which we thought could be good since it's between Ormsby and work, incase we need to stay a while. We then got to Gigi's in Santa Cruz and had lunch and compared notes on our reactions and tried to figure out what to do next.

We needed to go back to Larry's house to pick up the Expedition, which we'd left there. First, though, we swung by the Corralitos Market, where we'd heard they'd set up barricades, to find out any news. I spoke to a cop there who said the firefighters thought that none of the homes on Ormsby had survived. I was already operating on that assumption, but again it had an impact for him to say it. On our way to Larry's, as I was talking with Savitha, we passed our UPS guy (he delivers packages to us so often that we're practically friends). We stopped to check in with him, and it turned out that he had a package for us -- a bathroom heater that we'd ordered for the bathroom remodel. That'll come in handy now! He wasn't sure what would happen now that there was no place to deliver them. We also remembered that we have two toilets on order to be delivered to the house. Now that's going to be interesting...

We checked back in at Larry's (fielding more well-wishing phone calls on the way), where we met some other friends of his who had been evacuated from their homes. So far the fire hadn't gotten to theirs. We watched some news and saw lots of fire but again couldn't tell where they were filming. Larry's son said that they had shown one of my photos on TV, which delighted me. (My sister later asked me if I had sold the picture, which I admit had not occurred to me at the time. I guess I'm not really a pro after all.)

After telling each other our stories, we headed out over the hill to the hotel. There we brought in our stuff, took showers and checked the news where I did indeed see one of the photos on the air. It's also on their website (here). We talked with a few friends and family on the phone to give them updates. Most people offered different ways of helping. (My sister knows a guy in the insurance industry and she wants to help make sure we're able to navigate our way through that process successfully. Some were ready to leave work and help us get stuff out. Walendo's mom wanted to mail us supplies from New York. Many people offered a place to stay. Even our renters called to tell us they were arranging to get fully out of the rental house and get it cleaned up earlier than they'd planned so we could move in there if we wanted. Everyone wanted to us to know they were thinking of us.)

Then we headed out to get some supplies. First stop: Fry's. We realized we didn't pack the power adapters for our Macs, so we grabbed those. Of course we needed a power strip for all the things that needed to be charged, and I needed a flash card reader to upload photos (we'd borrowed a cable from Larry's son earlier in the day). Next we went to Target and got some underwear, toiletries, dog dishes (and a chew toy) for Cassie and some food. By now it was around 8pm and we were pretty hungry, so we decided to just go to the diner across the street called, of all things, Flames. Amazingly, it wasn't until a few hours later that the irony of this dawned on us. :-) It was at dinner that I had my first feeling of real sadness as the adrenaline of the day started to wear off and the impact of all that we'd lost started to sink in. The thing that made me tear up was imagining each room of the house going up in flames and all the contents burning or melting away. All that effort building the great room! Our beautiful kitchen with the gorgeous cabinets Larry made for us! All those tiles we laid by hand! The artwork and crafts we'd bought in New Mexico, Hawaii, Australia, Japan, Italy. And, oh no! My stockpile of Bud's chocolate ice cream melting...

Without even recognizing the irony until later, we went to Flames diner for dinner.
Now we're back at the hotel where we've been communicating with some of you, watching the news reports on the fire, and trying to absorb it all. Throughout the day we had been giving Cassie water, but we didn't realize until now that we hadn't explicity taken her out to pee. (She's a shy dog and needs to know the time is right.) So when Walendo took her out tonight, she unloaded a full day's worth of supply. Poor sweetie.

All in all, we feel pretty lucky about a lot of things: It happened when we were at home so we didn't have the horror of not being able to get back to rescue Cassie. We had enough warning to get out the things that are most important to us. We keep all our data on a single raid array, so it was easy to get out all the critical information, photos, and videos just by grabbing one box. (I think knowing that my photos were saved was the biggest thing that kept me calm all day!) I in particular was grateful that this happened in the spring, so we won't have to deal with all the things to come in the cold! We even had increased our insurance recently. And, as I mentioned, so many people contacted us to make sure we were okay and to offer their assistance, which made us feel grateful for the people in our lives.

So far we haven't thought of too many things that are really painful to have left behind. One of the few is the realization that, now that our book is out of print, the 15 copies or so that we had were the only ones left, and now they're gone. (Luckily we had 2 or 3 in our offices at work.) Some others are the quilted bedspread my mother made for me, the picture that Walendo's father once painted, and the black-and-white prints of Libby that I developed by hand (I didn't grab the negatives).

Now we have to figure out where we'll live and how our life will change. Tomorrow we're going to try to get up to the house. We saw shots of Ormsby on the news tonight and it looked like it wasn't burning anymore, but we don't know if we'll be able to/allowed to get up there. We saw one shot on the news of Ron & Diana's house that is pretty devastating. The front gate looks fine and the car is sitting in the driveway, but the house is just rubble. So we'll have to brace ourselves for that. We also need to take another trip to Fry's to get some stuff we forgot.

We'll keep you posted as the events unfold. Thanks again to everyone for all your support and concern. Some of you have asked how Cassie's doing. She was pretty agitated all day, but now she's resting peacefully and happy to be settled in with us.

Cassie finally relaxed at the end of the day.
Friday 5/23/08
Walendo: We spent most of the day in Corralitos, where we ran into our neighbors and comiserated. They still have our area closed to residents so we can't go up and see the damage done firsthand. It's a bit frustrating. We all assumed our houses were gone, but all want to see real evidence. The ABC news crew was particularly helpful to us. They had permission to go up and get some footage for the evening news, and they made a point of going to our house (which was the furthest up the road) and getting some HD film of it.

It was pretty sobering when they came back and invited us into the van to see it. As expected, there was not much left. They said they would be using it on the evening news so perhaps we'll see it there.

In the meantime, a neighbor (Dan) had snuck in on a dirt bike and taken some pictures of the property. He emailed them to me tonight. Here's what's left of the house:

View from the driveway toward the house, with Dan's bike in the foreground. So much for Ellen's Maxima... This is pretty much the same viewpoint as the very first picture on this web page.

A little closer view. There's our brand new composter in the background. I wonder if it still works.

Looking through what used to be the front porch toward the old 'yard', as if you were standing where the rain barrel was. That box is the old gun safe, which had been sitting on the front porch. Don't ask about the bathtub...

The view from the ex-front door, looking up toward the ex-garage (and ex-ATV and ex-backhoe and ex-motorcycle and ex-generator...)

The view straight back, across the creek. The big box on the left appears to be the fire safe. It'll be interesting to see how it did. The box to the right of it is probably the washer/dryer set. Looks like the remains of our bbq grill on top of the fire safe.

Here's some more of it, from the local ABC news guys. (Ellen's in it):
ABC News - Corralitos home owners get devastating news

Here's an article from today's SF Chronicle. The reporter was a really nice guy who gave us a lot of useful information that the police wouldn't. Ellen gets a mention here, too.
Summit Fire investigators find the starting point

One cool thing: Ellen has sold two photos over the past two days, one of Larry (our builder) during the last remodel. How cool is that?

Saturday 5/24/08

Walendo walking through the front gate for the first time.
Today we got to go up to the property to see the house-no-more. We went up once in the morning in a van with our neighbors, accompanied by a Red Cross counselor and a chaplain, and got to spend about 30 minutes there, walking through the rubble and identifying things -- that's the mattress that we were storing in the dining room during the remodel, that's the compactor, that's the big TV, and oh look, here's the file cabinet that fell from the loft into the kitchen area. I found the ceramic tile with the Chinese symbol for 'long life.' It was given to us as a gift from a family member. Let's hope it's more true for us than it was for our home.

This is a tile with the Chinese character for "long life" (upside down), a gift from a family member that we were going to incorporate into the house.
Meantime, Walendo noticed things like: Look at how the nails are all lined up on top of the foundation, and look at how the steel frame wall just bent over at the bottom. (He also noticed that the bolts he had tightened had held.)

The steel frame of the big great room wall melted at the bottom and folded over onto the rubble.

The chaplain was caring in a non-intrusive way, asking about what things were and pointing out some things that had suvived: The horseshoe set, the shovel (no handle), some planter pots, and the meat smoker. The most amusing thing we found was a t-shirt of Walendo's from when they released SunPHIGs 3.0. The t-shirt read, "We're not dead yet." I of course took lots of photos.

The SunPHIGS "We're not dead yet" t-shirt that we found in tact. It had been in the shed near the 5,000 gallon water tank, which appears to have spewed out over the shed and down the driveway when it burst.

After seeing the damage, we walked down the road, now accompanied by TV and newspaper reporters who interviewed us. I would have rathered experience it on our own so I could focus on my reactions rather than talking to them and telling them the story, but we understood why they were there. Walendo was grateful that they had been so helpful to us yesterday and so overcame his desire for privacy to return the favor by speaking to them. You can read the SF Chronicle article. However, I assure you that I never said that I was picking out which shoes to bring when we were evacuating the house! Here's another story from the Santa Cruz Sentinel.

Walendo being interviewed by the woman from the Chronicle. The chaplain who accompanied us is on the left.
We were also interviewed on KGO (ABC) TV news, and we saw footage of both of us on the 11:00pm news. That footage isn't up on their website yet, but we'll link to it when we see it. The difference between the TV and newspaper reporters was interesting. The newspaper people spent time talking with us, getting a bunch of the story, walking along with us or later kind of hanging out with us, so you develop a little bit of a connection with them as you share the experience. Sometimes they were scribbling things down, sometimes they were just walking and talking with us, so later they didn't quote us exactly right. The TV people spent about a minute with each of us, recording everything on camera, so it feels much more rushed. Since it's all so quick, we didn't develop any kind of connection with them. You know that anything you say that isn't crisp and articulate won't be used, so I wound up focusing more on trying to say things cleanly. Of course I didn't, so I felt like an idiot, which was confirmed later when I saw myself on TV. :-) Then again, the TV guy down at Corralitos did connect with me more, so maybe it was just that reporter. After the interview the cameraman kept filming as I walked down the road, so I turned around and took a photo of him, which made us all laugh.

A shot of the KGO cameraman and the reporter who interviewed both of us as we walked down the road.

By the time we got back down the mountain, they were allowing residents up on their own, so we went up again with our insurance agent, Brian, who was very competent and efficient, once again making us feel reassured that he would do a good job for us. He did an initial round of assessment focusing on the layout and footprint of the house and the structural components -- did we have central heating (yes!), what type of doors, windows, flooring, etc. He then took off to do the same for a neighbor who was waiting for him, and then later came back to go through the personal possessions. I think Walendo impressed him when he could not only name the brand of our TV but also the model number! I think Walendo was almost having fun reminiscing when we went through the garage and he got to point out all the power tools, again reporting on each of their brands.

Brian walking 'in' the house, assessing the damage and measuring the foundation.

Walendo walking through some of the contents of the shed and garage with Brian. Brian is speaking into a microphone describing what he sees. That's the motorcycle in the foreground with the table saw behind it and the big jointer behind that.
I think he got the idea that we were computer people when he saw the big pile of hard discs, mother boards, computer towers, monitors, and so on.

And these were just the backup computer supplies...
After Brian did his assessments, we finally had a little time to sit together alone with Cassie and absorb it all. The most heartbreaking moment was when Cassie urged me to follow her to the house and then kept looking to find it. She climbed up the steps toward the garage and, not seeing it there, paused and went back down again, clearly distressed that it wasn't there. That made tears flow for the first time.

Cassie on the steps from the garage looking for the house.

Cassie finally lay down in resignation after searching unsuccessfully for the house.
Cassie's not been holding up all that well. We've had to leave her alone in the car a lot, and she's ripped a bunch of the skin off her face as she's burrowed down under the driver's seat and banged into the pedals. She's barely been eating or peeing, and at times she's been so agitated by loud trucks that we haven't been able to console her. She wants a routine and some calm time to be with us. When we finally got to sit with her on the dirt by the rubble, she lay down and relaxed for the first time all day. So we'd really like to get a place where we can settle in and be able to leave her when we have to so she can curl up and heal.

Walendo comforting Cassie as we all try to accept that it's all gone.

We're now thinking that we'll stay in our Capitola rental for a month (we're told we're allowed to rent it from ourselves), which will allow us to do the minor repairs that are needed before we can rent it out again while getting some income toward the mortgage. This will give us time to figure out what to do next. We learned that there may be some complications on rebuilding -- our agent said we should make sure we can get an insurance policy before we rebuild since he has his doubts about that. Good to know. On the other hand, they may not release all of the funds we're covered for if we don't rebuild. Still, I'm reasonably optimistic that we'll come out okay on this financially. (Let's hope those aren't famous last words.) We're learning about some of the gotchas with an insurance policy (involving depreciation and the involvement of the mortage company -- you can ask if you're curious) but also some surprises about how we're better covered than we thought. Anyway, for now, we're still in the Campbell Residence Inn at least through the long weekend. Tomorrow we do some shopping and some laundry.

Sunday 5/25/08

Today we did some shopping and some laundry. :-)

We were both low on socks (why did I just put in 4 pairs?), and we need more shirts and pants and shoes. We went down to the Gilroy Outlet Center, figuring it's Memorial Day weekend so there will probably be some good sales. There were indeed, as we both somehow wound up with 4 pairs of shoes, which is getting close to how many Walendo owned in the first place. (Bass was having a ridiculous sale.) Now we have nowhere to put them.

We bought some basics at Costco: socks, underwear, a new electric toothbrush, some t-shirts, and some jerky for Cassie (her big indulgence).

Shopping was kind of interesting. My first instinct was to go back to the places I've shopped previously to get exactly what I had before. This makes sense for things like bras and sneakers, so you know they fit and are comfortable. But it was harder for me to decide to buy certain pants or shirts, since I don't want to be wasting the money on stuff I don't love. It also occurred to me that this could be an opportunity to experiment with some different styles rather than going with my same old simple clothes. Could be a whole new me! Also, I've learned that it's impossible to buy a long-sleeved shirt in May, since all the stores are selling summerwear. I'm thinking I'll do a bunch of shopping online, where they're less likely to be out of stock in my size and will offer some out-of-season clothing.

Although you'd think it would be fun to go on a shopping spree, I wound up feeling overwhelmed by just how much we're going to have to buy. It's starting to sink in that we have almost no stuff and will have to buy every little thing. If I want to go to yoga, I first have to buy some workout clothes and a yoga mat. To store leftovers, we'll have to buy some tupperware or ziplock bags. Not surprisingly, Walendo didn't have this overwhelmed reaction and promises to do his part to make sure we have stuff. He did make some noises about liking the feeling of having purged and being able to start over without any baggage. He's terrible about getting rid of things, even if it's 10-year old technology that won't even run (it's a collector's item!), but this way, he didn't have to make any decisions on a case-by-case basis so it was okay. We'll see how long this uncluttered attitude lasts. :-)

I've been having a hard time sleeping over the past few days. I just haven't been able to turn my brain off, so I've been getting 3 hours of sleep, even after taking Ambien sleeping pills. (Thank goodness Walendo dumped all the medications into his bag.) One night I even took two Ambiens for the first time ever and that got me 5 hours of sleep. So today it finally caught up with me as I felt like I was running on empty. I've also been eating a lot less, partly because we've been so busy that we haven't always had time to find something to eat, and partly because once I am eating, I can't get much down. I discovered today that I've dropped a size in pants, so I'm thinking of publishing a book called The Summit Fire Diet.

We've been getting back to the hotel around 8 or 9 each night, so tonight was the first time we got back around 6pm. Once we did, Walendo took care of me by allowing me to collapse while he did laundry and then went out to the store to get me my Bud's Bittersweet Chocolate ice cream. He even remembered to get the cones! Earlier, while we were shopping, Eric called from Safeway to make sure he bought the right brand of chocolate ice cream for a small gathering tomorrow, knowing very well that getting the wrong brand could be disasterous. It's very nice knowing that my friends are looking out for my chocolate ice cream needs.

My first Bud's ice cream cone since the fire. I consider this the first milestone toward getting back to a normal life. But oh yeah, we need to get a new ice cream scooper.
There was a meeting for the residents in Corralitos today at 3pm but we didn't make it. We spoke to friends and learned that they are still controlling access up to the houses, which is good because it will cut down on the looters. (It's amazing to me that some people react to other people losing their homes by trying to steal whatever little they have left, but so it is.) They were also told that the county was going to streamline the permit process for those who want to rebuild, which is a big deal because Santa Cruz County is obscenely obstructionist (and extortionist, imho) when it comes to issuing permits. I'll believe it when I see it, but I'm glad to hear it was talked about.

Although Cassie didn't seem quite as anxious in the car today, she continues to bang herself up and she now has exposed skin on all four paws as well as much of her face. We got her some ointment and bandages to protect her paws, which brings back the days when we first rescued her. Tomorrow Walendo's going to go up to the property with the maker of the fire safe to open it for us (it's a small company), but I'm going to stay at the hotel with Cassie so she can have some time to heal. I hope it'll be just one or two more days until we can get settled and she doesn't have to be in the car in order to stay with us.

Cassie has wounds all over her face and legs, poor sweetie.

On this paw she's missing an entire pad. Because of her disease, this does happen from time to time, but she hasn't had this many injuries all at once since we first rescued her.

We put ointment on her feet and bandaged them up, the first time in years. She was pretty patient about letting us put on the bandages but then walked around like a duck for a while as she got used to them.
We're curious to see if any of the contents of the safe survived. Usually the fire department arrives and puts out the fire after a while, but in our case the fire burned the house all the way to the ground and I guess the safe isn't necessarily built to withstand that much heat for that long. Walendo thinks the maker of the safe is interested to see how well it did. In any case, it's nice of him to come all the way out here to help us. After Walendo deals with the safe we'll be getting together with some friends for the first time. I'm looking forward to that.

Monday 5/26/08

Today was a busy one for Walendo, but I got to have some quiet time for the first time. He went back up to Ormsby to see if he could recover the contents of the fire safe while I stayed at the hotel with Cassie, who also got a badly needed low-stress day.

I spent some of the morning reading and reviewing a paper for a conference. I'd committed to reviewing five papers and I'd only reviewed two when the fire happened, so I somehow had to get three reviews done by Tuesday. Or I would have, except that the papers chair, John, a former colleague and friend, contacted me and offered to have my papers reassigned if I didn't think I could get to it. This is just one of the many ways that people have been reaching out to us and finding ways to help, which has meant so much to us. (More on this in a bit.) So I did my best to review the one paper I told him I'd been wanting to review and then let him know that I hadn't been able to get to the other two. I admit that I had to read some sentences over and over a few times before they would sink in. My mind is not really back in that world just yet. John quickly mailed and told me not to worry about the other two papers, that he would ask for a review later if there was a split decision on any of them and they needed an additional review. So thank you to John and to the anonymous people who will be picking up the load and reviewing those papers for me.

Even now that it's been a few days, we are still getting emails from people whom we don't know as well or haven't spoken to in a long time. We've even gotten some lovely notes from relatives of close friends, some of whom we barely know. I love hearing the little details in each person's unique response to our situation. Whenever people I know have been affected by a tragedy, I've never been quite sure what to do to help, but now I've learned that just reaching out to let them know that you care and are thinking of them is extremely helpful. I especially appreciate hearing people's reactions to this blog so I know people are reading it and following our journey. (We should have used a blog service that allows people to comment, but since we didn't, I'm glad people have been responding to it in email.) Everyone has offered to help in any way they can, and some people have found creative ways to offer specific types of help.

For example: I received an email from one of the co-owners of the Capitola Book Cafe, a locally owned bookstore. I've taken photos for them at their author events and they sell my photo greeting cards. She offered to help restock us with books when we're ready, an incredibly generous gesture. Of course that's too much, but I did let her know that I would appreciate a recommendation of a book on loss and grieving that might apply to our situation and she quickly replied that she knows of a good book and would like to give it to us. How kind. A work colleague sent us his list of things to ask and look for when renting a place, honed from lots of experience. (It's been a while for us, so I'm sure we'll make use of it.) At the gathering today a good friend brought us three games, since we've had lots of fun playing things like Cranium and Taboo with them over the years. Surely not at the top of our list of things to buy, but now we have them! She also made a list of household items they have but don't use and could give us if we wanted them. (We're told that the furniture rental place will provide all sorts of housewares and such, but there are probably things they don't include, so we may well make use of that.) Several people we don't even know that well have offered us a place to stay. And our good friends Eric and Tania spent the day cleaning their house and buying food and drinks so we could gather at his house instead of at a restaurant, which wouldn't have been as relaxing for me.

I can't express how deeply we're touched by the many ways that people have reached out to us, so thank you, thank you, thank you. It has already been an important part of our healing process.

We met with some friends, telling our stories and feeling their support. It was very healing.

In the afternoon, we had the gathering at Eric and Tania's place, the first time we've seen our friends in our new post-fire life. It felt great to connect and to tell the stories and answer their questions and to find out how they had followed the story. Sadly, Walendo wasn't able to get there for a couple of hours since he was delayed in dealing with the safe (more about that tomorrow when he has a chance to write it up), so he missed a bunch of it. Still, after he got there we talked for a couple more hours with those who could stay. It was a very healing day for me.

* * *

Walendo: Some of you have asked what happened with the safe, so here's an update. First, the brand is SturdySafe. They're a local (Fresno) company and build a really good fire-resistant safe. They're not the prettiest safes in the world, but they're secure and have a better fire rating than most.

Sadly, no fire rating in the world is going to get through what this one went through. Usually houses don't burn like ours did. Usually, the fire department is there to quench the fire after an hour or two or three. In our case, it's not clear the fire department ever showed up at the house. So, the safe fell through the floor onto its side and then lay there in the embers for god knows how long. When we got to it on Monday - 4 full days after the house burned - it was still too hot to keep your hand on for more than a few seconds.

Terry, the owner of SturdySafe, and his daughter drove all the way out from Fresno to meet me in Corralitos on Monday morning. He said he'd be happy to come open it (the dial had melted off, so the only way to open it is to break in), as they themselves were curious to see how it held up. As for me, I wanted to get it open soon because now that nobody is living up there, I suspect the looters are going to start picking through everyone's stuff. Since I'm technically not allowed to booby-trap the property, I figure we may as well try to get the valuables before they do.

Anyway... I met Terry and Alissa in Corralitos and then escorted them up to the property. We had to give our licences to the police at the Rider Road checkpoint but I've since heard that they are only checking them now. When we got to the property, Terry was immediately a bit concerned about the condition of things. He was actually worried that it was too hot to work on since he couldn't keep his hand on the top of it for long. He could also tell right away that thet lock box (inside) had melted (at ~500 degrees).

His blowtorch was acting up, so we decided to drill some holes into the safe to see if anything could have survived. We ended up drilling 3-4 holes through the door near what used to be the bottom of it and used a pencil light to look in. All I could make out was a bunch of ash and what looked like a small puddle of molten metal. Terry agreed that, given the condition of the safe and the way the fire had burned, it was extremely unlikely that anything in the safe had survived.

Terry drilling into the safe so we can take a look inside.
We had had time to grab the really important stuff before we left the house on the morning of the fire, so the only things that I can recall being left in the safe were some rifles, a shotgun, a little .22 pistol and some random legal papers. Maybe a couple boxes of ammo. No huge loss, fortunately. Terry was willing to work on it some more if I really wanted it open, but I was already late for our gathering at Eric's house and decided to call Time Of Death and leave it be.

So, for now, the safe is still sitting there unopened. I may try to get a torch up there at some point and cut it open just to see. Terry showed me what to do, and I've never broken in to a safe before, so...

(BTW, Terry promised me a brand new safe when we're ready for it. That's some nice customer service.)

Tuesday 5/27/08

Today was a day of logistics. In the morning we got the confirmation from the Farmers agent in charge of our housing situation (Frank) that we would be able to rent to ourselves at our rental house in Capitola, which is a relief. He put us in touch with a furniture rental company, who arranged to deliver furniture to the house tomorrow morning. We just told them what we'd need and they'll show up with everything, including kitchenware, linens, lamps, and furniture. They really have this down to a science. Later in the day we got word that they would be delivering between 9 and 10am tomorrow, so within a few hours, we'll finally have a stable living arrangement. With all the houses burned down (I think it's now around 38), they have been very busy, so we were grateful that they could respond to us so quickly. Our plan is to stay there for a month and then move closer to work after we rent it out to new tenants.

I also filed a claim for the car that was destroyed. Farmers handles auto claims completely separately from homes, but once again, they handled it promptly and competently. Normally they want an adjuster to go to the house to confirm the loss, but since access is still limited and I had a photo, they told me to email it to them. A few hours after I reported the claim I got a call from Dana, who said they would accept the photo as evidence. (You would think they could call up Brian and ask him to confirm the loss, since he saw it and he works for the same company, but I guess the two divisions operate as separate companies.) Dana went through all the features of the car with me (did we have positraction? Who knows?) to make sure she could value it appropriately. She said they look at other cars in the local area that have approximately the same mileage and options, which normally comes out better than Kelly Blue Book, so that's hopeful. Since we live in an expensive area, that should help us. Perhaps the best thing is that she said they reimburse for sales tax on the value of the car. That's my favorite part! So we should be hearing back from them within two days and she said they should be getting us a check shortly after that.

I called AT&T to get them to fix the problem where our home phone wasn't being forwarded to my cell phone and now that's in place. And we had some great luck in calling vendors with whom we had orders for the remodel. We had put in an order for something like 12 windows with San Lorenzo Window and Door (now Lumbermans), a local shop, so we called them to ask what would happen now. They make everything to order, so they could certainly make us pay for it, but the guy expressed compassion when I told him ours was one of the homes destroyed and he said he would look into it and see if he could cancel the order. I have my fingers crossed. We also had two packages en route for bathroom components. One was a floor heating system from and the other a liner for the shower enclosure from Both of them said they would simply cancel the orders and contact UPS to send the items back. We told them we were now fans of theirs and when it comes time to rebuild, we'll surely be using them.

We called Charter cable company to get internet and cable TV set up in the new place. This was the only company that wasn't much fun to deal with, but in the end, it'll be great to finally have high-speed internet in our home (we had unreliable medium-speed internet at Ormsby). They can't get us set up until Monday morning, so somehow we're going to have to live without internet at our house for five whole days. OMG! As my sister said, it's like living without air. (On the other hand, don't put it past Walendo to find a way...) That may put a crimp in our ability to update this blog, but I figure once we're in the house there will be less to report on anyway. We should be able to go back to a relatively normal life.

I also called the Red Cross, who had offered a few free counseling sessions. A therapist called me back and we made an appointment. Now that we've gotten through the first phase, I'm kind of curious to hear about the phases to come and to get some advice from them about how to best prepare. It's not often that you get free counseling, so I figured I'd take them up on it. It's interesting (and encouraging) to see the many ways that the system kicks in to take care of people in an emergency. In a way, we're probably better off that this happened in a very dramatic and visible way, so the community wants to reach out and help and businesses are willing to accommodate us. If your house burned down in an isolated incident, it would be just as traumatic but you'd get much less support from the community. It's also good that the damage was limited to a relatively few homes, so the system isn't so overloaded that you can't get any attention. So really, we're pretty lucky!

We made another trip to Fry's where Walendo did the more thorough pass at getting equipment we need. I stayed in the car with Cassie so she wouldn't climb under the steering wheel and damage herself some more. I took her to some nice grass so she could pee but she was just too nervous about all the loud noises. It's hard to find a grassy area that's not right on a busy road and isn't someone's lawn! Fortunately, she took care of the serious business early this morning when Walendo took her out, so she should be good for another week. :-) We told her that many, many people have expressed their concern for her, so she needs to focus on healing so she doesn't let everyone down. She grumbled, but agreed.

While waiting for Walendo, I got to spend a little more time talking to a few friends and family members. That felt good. I even got to hear a little about what's going on with them -- it was a nice change of pace to not be focusing on me for a while. I finally spoke to a friend who also lives in the Santa Cruz Mountains. She's a few miles from the fire but it has spread in her direction, so she's not out of the woods (so to speak). It must be pretty tough on the people who have been evacuated and have to wait and hope that the fire doesn't reach them. She hasn't been evacuated but she's concerned that the fire could still reach them. They say it's now 80% contained, so let's hope no more homes are destroyed.

I spent a few hours working on our list of all our possessions for Brian. Once again, the world of distributed data comes to the rescue. We have our entire history of online purchases available to us. Looking at all our Amazon purchases going back to 1995(!), I think they've been kept in business by us! And then there's LLBean, Lands End, B&H Photo, New Egg, Crucial, and on and on, all of which have our purchase history. How's that for another reason to buy online? Brian told us the more detail we can offer them, the better it will be for us. So I guess they're going to hear about everything from the jigsaw puzzles to the power tools! This is going to be quite the project.

In the evening I started looking at some real estate listings and was hard hit by the sobering reality of how out-of-reach home prices are, especially on the Peninsula. I could have sworn I read something about a real estate crisis that caused prices to decline, but either someone forgot to tell the Bay Area or things were even more outrageous a year or two ago. This pushed me closer toward wanting to rebuild on Ormsby, as remote as it is, as barren as the land now is, and with all its problems with unreliable roads, unreliable power, and unreliable internet. A big part of our dream is designing and building/remodeling a house to our tastes and that doesn't seem possible when tear-downs are going for a million dollars. This changes day to day, though, so we won't be deciding for a while.

On a happier note, we continue to receive emails from an even wider circle of people who are expressing their concern. It is so deeply touching.

Wednesday 5/28/08
Today we moved into the rental house in Capitola. The truck full of furniture arrived first thing in the morning -- before we got there even. This was good because it gave us the day to get settled after that. Once we arrived, two guys moved in a small living room set, a bed and dresser, a dining table, and two office desks and chairs. They even brought lamps. Boom, boom, boom and we had a furnished place. All we had to do was verify that they had delivered all the items on the list. A little while later, another truck showed up with housewares. A woman came in and stocked our kitchen with cookware, plates, sliverware, cooking gear, small appliances (we've never had an electric can opener before!), a phone with answering machine, cleaning and laundry stuff (we hardly used an iron before but just in case...), towels, bath mats, the works. In an especially nice touch, they included a little gift package of makings for spaghetti with tomato sauce. The woman even unpacked it all and made the bed for us. It was pretty amazing.

The truck showed up early and moved in a set of furniture for us.

The housewares company arrived next, providing us with all sorts of stuff that we wouldn't have thought of until we needed them. They unpacked it all for us and even made the bed.

Our former tenant came by to drop off the last key and after she left, we sat there in the quiet house and let it sink in. This was a bit of a low point for me. Suddenly we were in a small rental house that needs some work (and we need to do it!) with somebody else's furnishings, and the contrast from our lives just a week ago seemed stark. Of course we are very grateful to be safe and together, and for being able to get set up in a new place so quickly, but it's still a long ways from being home.

Here's the house with the furniture set up. The couches are comfortable but that tiny 27-inch TV is going to be barely visible from them! :-)

One good thing: Once everyone had left, Cassie seemed happy and even got playful for the first time since the fire. We stayed in this house for 3 months a few years ago when we fixed it up, so it's familiar to her and she's a dog who craves the familiar. All four of her paws have damage are she keeps licking them raw, but at least she finally feels at home.

Cassie quickly burrowed into this closet, a favorite spot of hers when we were fixing up this house a few years ago. She even got a little playful for the first time.

There were things to be taken care of, so we didn't linger long with that depressing feeling. I went to the post office to pick up the mail they've been holding for us and to give them our forwarding address. I also went through Target's housewares section and used it to remind me of all the things we need to get (oh look, cleaning solutions, we need some. Tupperware, yep, need that. Some trash bins, yep. Oh, and we could use some throw blankets since the house isn't well insulated. One thing I forgot: An ice cream scooper!) Meantime, Walendo went to Orchard to get, among other things (can you say 'tools?'), a table on which to put the big server. We still hadn't started it up since the fire so we just wanted to be sure everything really was there, and sure enough, it happily booted and showed us our 500 GB of photos plus another 300 GB of other stuff. Phew! (The dust filter did smell a little smokey, though.)

Our house server booted up right away and restored to us the 800GB of data we'd have lost. What a huge relief.

Next he tried to get onto the internet but found that there were no open wireless networks around us with a strong enough signal. Instead, he tethered the laptop to his cell phone and used the data plan to connect. It's a slow connection but it worked well enough to get email. We'll need to go to nearby coffee shop to upload this entry with photos.

Without internet until Monday, Walendo tried to get on a nearby wireless network but there were none open. Instead, he tethered the laptop to his phone and connected through it. Not fast but enough for email.

While I was out doing errands I got an email from the head of our lab at work, who had tried to reach us earlier but didn't have our personal email addresses. She had already ordered us a copy of our book so we would have a copy. How amazing is that! She asked if she could send out the link to this blog to our lab and I replied saying she could. (I love being able to text messages on my phone.) Soon after that, I started getting a flood of emails from people at work, all expressing their support and offers to help in many ways. I know I keep saying this, but the steady flow of support from so many people has been so important to us. Many of you comment on our positive attitude through all of this, and a lot of that has been because we have never felt alone or isolated or unsupported, even though we've had very little in-person contact with most of our friends and even our neighbors who have gone through it with us. So thank you to everyone for directly helping us to get through this. I've tried to respond to everyone who has contacted us individually, but if I missed some, please accept my apologies.

One strange thing: I heard on the local NPR station that the United Way was setting up a special fund for the victims of the fire. It felt weird to be a "victim" for whom a collection was being taken up, especially since we haven't really felt that helpless. Walendo read that morning that so far they had collected $700, which made me smile for some reason. Most of the people in the fire are probably also well supported, but it touches me that people want to reach out to help out their local neighbors. (It may be that more will be collected over time, and in any case, I think all of it should go to people who didn't have insurance.)

After everything was unpacked we walked into downtown Capitola for a nice meal. It's kind of nice that we can go out for just 5 minutes and be at a restaurant. Interesting concept for us.

Once we got back to the house, I unpacked our belongings (new and old) and, with everything in place and the day warming up and the light streaming into the living room, we both felt better about our new home. We walked into downtown Capitola for dinner (just a 5 minute walk!) and remembered how nice it can be to live in civilization. Tonight I spent some time going through some of the scrapbooks and photo albums I'd rescued and I was *so* grateful I'd saved them. So many memories, so many little events in my life that would have been completely forgotten if I hadn't made these albums and been able to save them.

Since we're mostly settled now, I think it's time to end the daily updates of this blog. Our plans for the next few days are to go up to Ormsby to go through the rubble more carefully to see what might be left (mostly out of curiousity, I think), and to work on our big project of itemizing everything we owned so we can maximize the "personal possessions" reimbursement check. Walendo's going to email Amazon to see if they can run a report on our purchases and give it to us in a spreadsheet (since their website makes it a little painful to itemize everything). Not your usual request, but Amazon has amazed us many times with their superior customer service, so we're curious to see if they'll rise to the occasion again. Finally, all our Ormsby neighbors are planning to get together soon to share stories and re-bond.

If people are interested, we may give updates on how the insurance recovery process goes and perhaps other aspects of the process that could be of general interest. Some of you have shown concern about the insurance company potentially not paying out fairly and have suggested we go with an independent adjuster, so if that becomes necessary, we'll let you know. (By the way, I noticed when the auto insurance agent called about my car claim, she also said "I want to help you maximize your payout," just as Brian did. That rang a bit of an alarm bell. I wonder if they tell their agents to say that so that it puts people at ease and makes them feel like the agent is on their side when of course they work for the company and their interests presumably lie there. Maybe I'm being cynical here, but I also don't want to naive. We'll be watching out for this over time.)

Some of you have also asked us to make a list of things we need so you can offer us any spare items you're not using. Right now, since we plan to be in Capitola just the one month, we're trying not to accumulate too much, since we're just going to have to move again. But if we develop specific needs or if we think of other ways everyone or specific people can help, it has come through loud and clear that it's really okay to ask. So thank you once again.

For now, we thought we'd make a list of our lessons learned.

Finally, for those of you who are curious about what the house looked like before the fire, here are some photos of it before and after the remodel.


Before [2005]

After [2006]

Before [2005]

After [2006]

Great Room (didn't exist before the remodel) [2006]

Dining Room

Before [2005]

After [2006]

And, today...

Doh! [2008]