Nearly 25 years ago, my husband, Janek, and I moved our large family to Topanga Canyon. Like many newcomers to canyon life, we were clueless about what living in the wildland urban interface really meant, believing that we were simply the smart ones opting to live out of the city.
By 1994, just before we arrived, this community had suffered nearly all types of disasters short of locusts. Community organizations had been chastened by these disasters—fire, flood, and earthquake—and refocused and heightened their programs and community outreach. The result was the creation of one of the models for disaster preparedness in the country, the Topanga Coalition for Emergency Preparedness (TCEP), a coalition of local volunteer teams ready to respond to disasters in coordination with county agencies of the fire department, Sheriffs, CHP, and state officials. The goal was to educate, prepare and communicate.
We listened. We had our “Go Bag” packed, our precious photos and papers boxed and at the ready. I packed our bags, hesitating about taking more than we needed; of course, we would be right back. With the car brimming with family records, blankets, pillows, and a change of clothes, our family and pets all evacuated on November 9 when the order went out, even as we wondered if the threat to Topanga was serious. We didn’t even smell smoke. Was leaving really necessary?
I had another concern; we were in the middle of production of the next issue of the Messenger Mountain News. I stopped at the office at Rosewood and gathered up records and three computers with our vital files. I was driven by a sense of pride that we are a “real” paper, one that did not flinch in the face of obstacles. Rain, shine, fire?
The drive south on the Boulevard to Canoga Park brought a sense of unreality. What we could not see from our home in Fernwood was vividly visible; it looked like the entire valley was on fire.
Three families converged on that little home in Canoga Park, a total of seven adults, six children, six dogs, and three cats. We parked the traumatized cats in separate rooms where they promptly retreated to the darkest corners they could find. We set all the kids out on mats in the living room. Janek and I moved out some dolls and stuffed animals and pushed aside a massive dollhouse so we could ensconce ourselves on our granddaughter’s trundle bed.
I set up my computer on the kitchen table and remained there for the next five days, pausing to sleep, eat, or laugh with family. The chaos was palpable. Children played board games, soccer in the yard or wrestled on the sofa—the only peace came when they entered “iPad” time or watched a movie. My daughters became master organizers, shoppers, cooks, and cleaners for meals for the crowd. The dogs, two of which are Great Danes, roamed freely throughout the house (always trying to perch on my lap) and into the enclosed back yard (a nice perk for Roux, our terrier, who never left our home in Topanga without a leash).
The weekend was practically festive with my son-in-law, Olaf, stating that we should expand our monthly family dinner practice and have family sleepovers.
Come Tuesday, as we constantly tracked Twitter, Facebook, Nextdoor, and TCEP online we realized we weren’t yet going home. We wondered if we were wearing out our welcome. All those who needed to, left for work and encountered hours of delay in freeway traffic, vivid evidence of how Topanga Canyon Boulevard vents commuter traffic in its shortcut to the Westside.
My commute was now unnecessary. The Messenger staff worked tirelessly and remotely—Flavia working from her laptop at a friend’s home in Woodland Hills. Suzanne evacuated their home in Point Dume with her mother, 86, and their pets, to her brother’s home in Seal Beach, following a harrowing four-hour drive south on PCH. Thanks to a neighbor, their home survived.
We shared material through our iCloud storage system on Google Drive. The pre-planned issue of post-election coverage was replaced through texts and phone calls as we watched the Woolsey Fire decimate the Santa Monica Mountains. The next issue would devolve into critical fire coverage.
Our cover artist, Calamity Cole, had also evacuated and was unable to complete her cover, which was no longer relevant anyway. A friend of a friend supplied us with a video from which I was able to pull a screen-grab of that DC-10 spewing hot pink Phos-Chek over Latigo Canyon, the last stand that protected Topanga. We all agreed that it was not only an OMG cover photo, but a hopeful message that we chose over other photos of raging fire and blackened hills.
On deadline—actually, about 10 hours late, but our printer is forgiving—the Messenger issue was compiled, laid out, proofed and reproofed, despite the unusual circumstances and stress each of us was experiencing. The next two days we entered the entire issue into M’Online.
Finally, one week after arriving, we were able to go home. Iris, the cat, decided the disruption was past her tolerance level and hid at the last minute. I stayed in the empty house until she decided it was safe and, in the peace and quiet, I contemplated what all of this meant.