The night after the 2008 Santa Barbara Tea Fire — which destroyed my house — was the last time my then-husband and I would be in a room together with our kids. We switched channels between the local news and The Wizard of Oz. As a long distance runner, I followed the yellow striped lines of the paved roads, wondering which characters would take me to Oz and over the rainbow.
At the time of the fire, we were in the midst of a very contentious divorce.
I loved the Coyote Road house, especially the French doors that led to the gardens that were a perfect hummingbird sanctuary; they were filled with rose, honeysuckle and Mexican sage bushes, plus Jacaranda trees and Sago palms.
Each room, including the front entry where my husband threw his wedding ring at me, was handpainted with different themes. The office had a dark red Moroccan theme; the kitchen blossomed with olive and orange branches; Lego Star Wars fighter planes flew across the walls of one son’s room, while the other son slept beside the depths of the ocean and his favorite soccer hero, Cristiano Ronaldo.
My favorite theme graced my bedroom in a light lavender with white feathers floating down one wall and a Goethe quote above the French doors, “Whatever you can do or believe you can, begin it now. Genius has boldness, power and magic in it. Begin it now.”
On November 13, I looked out the patio doors and was shocked to see a gigantic wall of flames and dark billowing smoke burning into the sky about a mile away. But within minutes I was calm again and methodically raced from room to room, choosing what to take with my heart.
My 13-year-old son and I had an hour to evacuate. We carried armloads of photo albums, soccer trophies, pieces of art — including my cherished hummingbird nest photograph — two hard drives, a violin, a saxophone and most of my jewelry. At the time, we had three pets and a saltwater aquarium. William wanted to take our snowflake eel and puffer fish, but my mind was on our two cats and Aro, our Jack Russell, who was safely waiting in the garage. Our cat Einstein appeared, but Midnight, our all-black cat, was missing. With Einstein meowing in her crate and Aro on William’s lap, we were ready to evacuate.
There was no smell of smoke but lots of wind as a page from a journal swept across the driveway. I heard no sirens; no police came to the door; and the neighbors in our cul de sac were already gone.
I called my children’s father from the driveway to let him know we were on our way. I can still hear him swearing, “I don’t care about the f**ing cat; I’ve called the sheriffs to go up and find you.”
“We’re fine. Yelling at us is not helping the situation,” I answered.
I was now scared… of him. William and I drove down Coyote Road. At the intersection, the only way we could turn was right, towards a road that had been barricaded during the rainy season with a threat of mudslides. Fortunately, the road was open. We drove to our evacuation destination, Butterfly Beach. I wanted to shake away the horrible feeling inside, a knowing that our house would be gone in the morning, but I was eerily comfortable with the uncertainty.
After the fire, both my house and husband were gone. There was nothing left to show for either, except a wedding album, a few pieces of art, and our wedding silver we had never used; it later became my everyday silver.
Finding two fully intact piggy banks in the remains of my older son’s room offered me an inner strength, especially when I started picking up coins on my runs. I later learned about the three symbols on a dime: the olive branch, torch, and oak tree, representing peace, liberty and strength, respectively.
Four days after the fire, our cat Midnight sauntered along the remaining hedge of honeysuckle. She, Einstein and Aro have moved with us eight times in six years.
I lost a house that had stopped being a home, but ultimately gained a new house in the mountains of Park City, where afternoon storms bring double rainbows. It has been a long path, but I feel free from the turmoil and chaos of my former life. Like Dorothy, I finally found home again through friendship, courage and sheer determination.
There is no turning back as I follow the yellow striped lines, always running forward, never backward.
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