Fire nearby, a couple packs up memories

As evacuation orders come down, homeowners ask: What really matters? What can't be replaced?

Monday, Oct. 22. Shortly after 6 a.m.

The phone rings. "Hello," I mumble, half-asleep. It's my good friend, Susan, from the far end of the cul-de-sac.

"Turn on the TV," she says, without any sort of preamble. "Looks like we're all going to have evacuate."

Outside, the wind howls, as it has all night, and I nudge my husband to tell him what our neighbor has just told me.

We scramble out of bed. On our way to the TV in the family room, I look out the window to the northwest and see this day dawning an ominous dirty-brown. We live in the area of San Diego known as Rancho Peñasquitos, a pretty pocket of suburbia some 30 miles or so east of Ramona, where the blaze they're calling the Witch Fire started. Midafternoon on Sunday, a smoky haze had suddenly blown into our corner of Peñasquitos, carrying with it the smell of burning wood. The smell was so sharp, so palpable, I thought then that a fire had to be close by.

Sunday, it wasn't. Monday morning, it is.

On TV, city officials are holding a news conference. Facts about the situation crawl across the bottom of the screen: highways closed, areas already evacuated, shelters opening.

"If you get the order to evacuate, gather your belongings and get out," one of the officials is saying.

News comes that an evacuation order will soon be issued for a huge section of the county – an area that more than 250,000 San Diegans, including my husband and me, call home.

The phone rings again. This time, it's a recorded message – a "Reverse 911" call – alerting us that an official evacuation order will soon be issued. "We better get movin'," I say, pulling on a pair of favorite jeans.

When I had checked my e-mail Sunday night, there had been a message from our friends Al and Josie Rodriguez, saying that should we need a place to stay, we'd be welcome. They live in Mission Hills, not far from downtown, and none of the fires were upwind from their home. Now with a quick phone call, I ask Josie if the offer's still good. "You bet," she says.

As calmly as if we're packing for a weekend getaway, my husband and I set to work. I empty into a large cardboard box all our important papers – passports, insurance policies, birth and marriage certificates. He unplugs the laptops and puts the external hard drives into a big plastic bag. I gather up the family photo albums. We take down the paintings our daughter Anne did in her high school art class. And from the fireplace mantel, I grab the cherry-wood clock our son made years ago in wood shop.

What a surreal feeling it is to go from room to room asking, in essence, "What really matters here? What can't be replaced? What do we love?"

Just before we're ready to leave, my husband goes through the house snapping photos of all we're leaving behind.

"OK. Let's go," my husband says, closing both trunks. "You know," he adds with a small smile and a shake of his head, "it's gonna be a real pain in the neck to put all this stuff back when this is over." He's right, I think. But as I join the line of cars now streaming up our street and out toward the coast, I can only hope we will all be so fortunate.

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