We crowded around our host’s living room. My daughter, Ellen Willis-Norton, opened her suitcase to pull out her pajamas. Instead of finding anything to wear that night, she pulled out her calculus book, sandals she’d bought in Greece, Hamlet, a simple dress I had bought for her in Paris, her set of Harry Potter books, a brightly colored green halter dress laced with silver sequins from Belize and a copy of Wind and the Willows. All the items a 17-year-old girl needs to survive after a fire evacuation.
When the Witch Creek Fire exploded on Oct. 22, Ellen was already up, studying. After hearing a report of fire evacuations on the radio, she woke us up to let us know that Rancho Santa Fe was being evacuated. As Solana Beach residents, we knew that our evacuation orders would soon follow. We also knew that Ellen’s horse, CJ, who was boarded at a Rancho barn, could end up caught in the middle of the fire.
This early morning announcement, although startling, came as no surprise. We’d seen the smoke billowing the day before, near La Jolla. And as former Rancho Santa Fe fire chief, my husband, Erwin Willis, had been anticipating this fire since the day he started work in “the Ranch” 15 years ago. Even though he’s been retired from the fire service for two years, Erwin jumped out of bed, pulled on his clothes and ran out the door, as if to slide down a firepole. He called out that I needed to prepare the house and pack our belongings.
By 6 a.m., the phone started ringing. My dear friends, walking partners, USD colleagues and book-group buddies began their day checking in with us through an impromptu phone network.
It was a day that ended with a caravan of cars filled with teenagers, dogs, cats, photo albums and overstuffed suitcases searching for shelter.
By 10 a.m., I’d taped the vents in our attic, packed the car and called Erwin for evacuation instructions. He suggested we travel north to the Carlsbad Costco parking lot, where smoke would be at a minimum. By noon, our group of three moms, two dads, three teenagers, three dogs, two cats and seven cars was eating pizza and watching the news feeds in the Costco electronics section.
It was at Costco that we decided not to break up our “team,” despite any other offers. And almost immediately, calls came from the USD community with offers to house my family. But because I couldn’t imagine dragging our caravan to homes that were already filled with evacuees, I had to politely decline several offers. Ultimately, we decided to head for the Leisure Village retirement community in Oceanside to the home of Lillian Westcott, our neighbor’s 87-year-old mother.
Mrs. Westcott welcomed our menagerie with open arms. Lillian soon became the star member of our team, serving sandwiches, feeding dogs and cats, hugging nervous teenagers, finding towels and blankets, and making multiple pots of coffee.
On our first night, some of us slept in beds, others on the floor. Neighbors who had previously only shared dinner and a glass of wine were soon sharing bedrooms and the occasional snore. Despite the camaraderie, Monday night was tense. Practically every hour, we called Erwin to get a report. While TV news reports were excellent, Erwin’s field reports were much more graphic, making for a very long night.
For three or four hours, we were all too aware that our horse, CJ, was surrounded by a wall of fire. It wasn’t until Erwin called from the horse’s stall at midnight that we knew for sure that he was safe. Throughout the evening, we got reports about the high winds blowing the fire down Escondido Creek, which ultimately feeds into all of our backyards. All of us had friends or family that we could not contact via cell phone or landline who lived even more directly in the line of the firestorm.
Ellen eased our tension when that green-sequined halter dress fell from her suitcase. Then and there, we decided to hold an evacuees’ party when it was all over. The plan was that whoever still had a house would host the party and that all party-goers would wear or bring the oddest item they’d packed for the evacuation.
When I returned to work, USD Professor Vidya Nadkarni commented that our group had formed the “Witch Creek Sisterhood,” with Mrs. Lillian Westcott as the president. All of us agreed that this would be the name of our community from that point forward. While it hasn’t happened yet, we can’t wait to get together again. Only this time, there probably won’t be any snoring.
Noelle Norton is a professor of political science and international relations, as well as honors program director for USD.