Leaving home in a fire zone and fearing it's a final goodbye

Neighbors and strangers huddle along streets under siege by wildfires. We fix our worried stares on ridges encircling us, at billowing smoke and hope we don't see the glow of flames.

In the path of one of California's deadliest blazes, talk is of wind direction, evacuations and goodbyes.

Each time I turn the key to lock my front door, I think I might be leaving home for the last time. I've covered my share of stories about people fleeing catastrophes, but I'm living the life of a fire evacuee for the first time.

"Take care, sweetie," one woman said in my community on the edge of the small, rural, wine-centric city of Sonoma, hugging me through my car window on one of three consecutive nights we fled an approaching blaze.

On that Tuesday night, flames arced like solar flares on the ridges above sprawling old oaks and tall redwoods. The trees conceal the wooden former cottages from Boyes Hot Springs' days as a resort destination for wealthy San Franciscans looking to soak away their aches in the hot springs.

Now, it's a tinder-dry working- and middle-class community on edge.

Another neighbor climbed onto his roof with a garden hose, training water first on his house, then surrounding ones. Another neighbor vowed to stay, envisioning taking a stand against any looters.

With the ever-present stench of smoke, discussion that night on the street focused on the direction of the wind and advancing fires.

"Northeast," one man said. I didn't understand the subtleties but knew winds from the north were bad.

"Northwest," a woman next to him angrily corrected, glaring at him in darkness brought on by a loss of electricity.

"Northeast," he insisted, and we all lapsed back into our silent sentry of the ridgetops.

Not everyone in Northern California had the ability to watch the fire grow when so-called Diablo winds whipped up the wildfires late Sunday. In the first hours, dry tempests toppled oaks onto roads, ripped loose power lines and drove deadly embers ahead for miles.

Many of the more than two dozen people killed so far died in those first hours as wildfires reduced whole blocks of houses to ankle-high ruins with little or no warning.

At 3:30 a.m. Monday, smoke was so strong that I awoke thinking my house was on fire. With electricity already gone, it shocked me how long it took to gather contact lenses, shoes and other essentials I scattered when I had returned to California a few hours earlier from a cousin's wedding in Oklahoma.

For two sleepless days, I drove around with my dog, John, in the backseat in case fire overtook my home while I was reporting on the destruction.

The death toll climbed. The number of houses destroyed grew into the thousands. And two dozen fires kept advancing at the whim of the winds.

My canine companion lost hope he was on an extra-long trip to the dog park and grew steadily depressed, slumping on the seat. Many others had their dogs in tow, their heads sticking out car windows as firetrucks sped past and mountains burned.

With my suitcase still packed from the wedding, I had a go-bag with me, although the knee-length dresses and heels were unsuitable evacuee wear.

Hundreds of police officers and then National Guard members poured into fire zones, helping evacuate residents and block people from returning to burning and scorched areas.

My press pass got me past roadblocks. Highways and farm lanes were blackened for miles on both sides. With familiar buildings and landmarks gone, whole stretches of road were unrecognizable.

I came across former volunteer firefighters defending their houses from relentless flames that advanced at first from one ridge, then another, then another. The popping of propane tanks in the area punctuated conversations.

People clustered at barricades that blocked them from their homes. Some pleaded with lawmen to pass. Others numbly accepted it.

I encountered people on foot where it seemed unwise to be.

A woman with a duffel bag hanging from each shoulder stood alone on a highway, the only pedestrian for miles in a burning area.

"What should I do?" she asked.

She had been told the fire was coming, that her house would surely burn. It wouldn't burn, would it? she asked, seeking reassurance. She didn't want to go to Sonoma, where I was heading, so she thanked me and stayed behind.

I gave a lift to a San Francisco man who had left his car and set out on foot to check the fate of a vacation rental property. He celebrated to see it unburned but returned to the car grumbling about how messy the vacationers had left it when they fled.

I returned home Wednesday morning and relished a rare normal moment walking my dog, only to curse when I realized ash was raining down.

Later that morning in Napa, the namesake city of the neighboring wine-making area, smoke blinded a driver as he rolled down a window exiting a freeway and rear-ended my gray Prius.

Driving back home with the left rear lights and back frame of my car now askew, the radio station I was listening to had a news reporter breathlessly broadcasting from my block. Never a good sign.

Ash pelted my windshield and officers encouraged us to go.

I picked up my tortoise shell cat, Jumpy, and sadly freed two chickens to their fate in my backyard before turning the key in the lock one more time.

Tree limbs started swaying gently as the wind rose and I drove away, hoping it wasn't the final goodbye.

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