Evacuation, Cats, and Fire, Pt. 2

For those of you who don’t know Palo Alto, it’s very white, upper middle-class, and wealthy. The Airbnb was not as advertised. Yes, it was 3 bedrooms, 3 baths, but it was an apartment, not a house, and both the plumber and the electrician should have lost their licenses. However, I will say the manager was very nice, did not flinch at the number of cats, and gave us absolutely no trouble even when we pointed out one of the toilets sprayed water on the floor when flushed. I ended up with my three cats in the biggest bedroom and Kay had the smaller bedroom, and the kitchen/living room for hers. Mike had taken her barn cat home with him, since the barn cat hates all other cats and fights to the death. He’s fine with people. So with my three and Kay’s remaining five, we were all crammed in with eight disoriented cats. Of Kay’s cats (keep up, there may be a test), two were purebred Maine Coons, two were elderly litter mates with medical issues, and one was a perfectly lovely large rescue male tabby called Kittyboy.

The third and smallest bedroom ended up being Mingo’s because he marched out into the living room and was confronted by the two Coons, both of whom were bigger than he was, what a shock for him, and Kittyboy, who was roughly the same size. So he took refuge under the third bed, came out for food and occasional territorial disputes. I will say, during this entire time, no one bit anyone else. Not even me and Kay. There was, however, a certain amount of howling in the night. Squeaky, to my surprise, had no problem with strange cats. He wandered everywhere and no one attacked him. Sophie the Tiny Cat spent most of her time either under my bed or on it, but she was fascinated with Tommy, the male Maine Coon, who was attracted by the window in my bedroom. No idea why, but he’d jump up on the windowsill and Sophie would attempt to copy him. Tommy is about three times her size so she had to do creative scrambling to get up there.

We’d shop for supplies during the day and meet Mike for dinner at night. Because of Covid, the main drag of University Avenue was closed to cars and restaurants had their tables in the street. We’d have lovely exotic food served by attentive waitstaff, while the air was smoky from the two huge fires to the east and west and helicopters droned overhead. Welcome to the end of the world, would you like another glass of wine? Then we’d walk back to the Airbnb and clean up the puddle of territorial urine in front of Ming’s bedroom. We suspected Kittyboy but we never caught him in the act.

Every day at 3 pm CalFire would put out a summary form on fire containment, evacuation zones, and eventually “repopulation”, i.e., when they let people back in. At 7 am and 6 pm there would be a video news conference. We structured our day around these, hoping for good news. Mercifully, although both Kay and I broke down in tears and despair several times, we managed to stagger these so that one of us could comfort the other. God  knows what would have happened if we’d both broken down simultaneously.

I’m not sure when I heard that my house had survived, but it was either the first or the second day of the Airbnb. Several of my neighbors had defied the evacuation order and stayed to fight the fire on the street. And a good thing they did, since the fire crews at the beginning were overwhelmed and severely understaffed and under-resourced. I found out weeks later a combination of local fire fighters, volunteers, and neighbors made a stand in front of my house, managing to save it, the two houses behind it, and one house on the cross street. The house across the street from me burned to the ground and the fire came within twenty feet of my driveway. Fourteen houses on the cross street burned down.

Let me say right now (and I have been saying for weeks), I have no idea why I was lucky. It’s certainly not due to my saintly character or reservoir of good Karma, nor do I feel I “deserve” this. It happened. I was incredibly fortunate. Other people weren’t.

Kay’s house, although in a mandatory evacuation zone, was outside the fire perimeter. By about half a mile. Which was important and so was all the acreage of defensible space she’d created by compulsive grass mowing and brush removal. Which I had teased her about and did I feel like an idiot? She also had a friendly relationship with a local property manager who’d stayed behind to protect his client’s houses, leading to this exchange via text:

PM: I have some extra fire retardant. Do you want me to spray your house?

Kay: Yes PLEASE.

PM: It may alter the paint color.


He sent her a legal liability release to sign. Obviously, the basic elements of the world are earth, air, water, fire, and lawyers.

We’d contracted for a week at the Airbnb. After about four days it was clear we’d be refugees longer, so we added another five days. On the eighth day, Kay checked her phone for the 3 pm CalFire notice and let out a shriek: “Pescadero’s open! We can go back!”

Never have two women packed so fast. We were out of there in under two hours, which included packing cats into carriers, stuffing all the food and extra supplies into cartons, loading it all into the truck, Mike’s SUV (including barn cat), and my car. We also cleaned the Airbnb and we must have done a good job: they refunded the money for the unused days.

So we caravanned north, west, and south around the still burning fire to Pescadero and Kay and her cats were home. I was not.

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Mary Holland

Mary Holland writes alternative-world fantasy for grown-ups. Her books include Matcher Rules, The Bone Road, and The Dog of Pel. She lives in the Santa Cruz Mountains with three cats and an ever-changing assortment of wildlife.