Yes, my friends, by the end of the afternoon on Sunday, there was a commemorative T-shirt.  A colorful and bold graphic, with flames licking up and over the shoulder, on a ground approximately the color of adobe.  Said T-shirt was being peddled out of the back of a truck to firefighters from out of the area, who were departing the Live Oak Fire Camp.

By now, you have all seen the media coverage of our third big wildfire in the space of less than 12 months.  That is definitely two too many!  This time, it was not quite as close a call as last July – when the Gap fire burned right up to the road on our north boundary.  However, things did get bad enough that we had to evacuate the cattle and pets to the other side of the Santa Ynez range.  Had the dry and windy weather pattern not broken on Saturday, we probably would have lost at least a portion of the farm.  The bad news is that the Maria Ygnacia Creek drainage is about the only fuel rich terrain left to burn on this portion of the South Coast, so the next wildfire will be directly at our back door and this farm the last line of defense before it sweeps down into the neighborhood.

You don’t need to hear about the smoke and leaping flames but, as fellow craftspersons, you might be curious as to what I deemed essential to take with me when I fled.  I have always read disaster preparedness lists with some degree of skepticism.  Three days’ worth of clothing, water and food is only going to be enough if you get to come home again.  If you lose your house, you are going to need a lot more than that!

As some of you know, I divide my time between North Idaho and the Central Coast of California.  Twelve years of moving every six months or so has given me an edge for just this type of situation:  I know exactly what I generally deem essential to my comfort and happiness, and how many of those possessions will actually fit in the car.  What I did not know was how I might react emotionally to having to pick up and leave on short notice.  I feared that there would be much indecisive pacing and hand wringing.  There wasn’t.

Just before sunset on Thursday, it became abundantly clear that the fire was headed our way at great speed.  We gathered all the cattle and pushed them down to a holding pen by the creek.  Another check of the progress of the fire from the top of the property confirmed that we did not have a lot of time.  Bill loaded the first group into the stock trailer, while I started packing some possessions up and loading the car.  What did I pack?  Two suitcases of clothing (one for me and one for Bill), file box, checkbooks and paperwork, jewelry, my tatting thread, tools, and modest tatting library.  There was a moment of hand wringing in front of the knitting stash (I would normally load one box with needles, tools and books and another with yarn) but, with the suitcase for Bill and all the peripherals for the pets, there would not be room.  In the end, I grabbed only the current project (Theodora), the Signature needle set, and my favorite Green Mountain Knitting bag.  I also packed the computer, toiletries, 4 gallons of drinking water, and a couple of grocery bags of food.

Somewhere in the midst of all this, Bill appeared, to announce that he had had  terrible trouble getting the trailer loaded (the cattle – confused by the hour and irregular loading setup – kept popping back out of the trailer) and feared that he no longer had time to make two trips over to the valley with the livestock.

This town is not our home and we have very few friends here.  However, it turns out that it truly is the quality, not the quantity, that is important.  I immediately picked up the phone and called the one person I knew could help, and would not hesitate to do so.   The man is an amazing individual: a ‘real deal’ cowboy, who specializes in rounding up wild cattle.  He raises beef and bucking horses, and operates a bulldozer, preparing land for vineyards or, at times like this, making fire breaks.  A generous person, with a heart of gold, he had come to our rescue last year when we had 5 renegade steers on the loose and rampaging from farm to farm through the suburbs of Santa Barbara; and had also provided pasture when we had to evacuate the cattle during the Gap fire.  Within minutes, another stock trailer was on its way over from the valley.

While these preparations went forward, the smoke got ever thicker, as a light rain of ash misted down through the spray of all the sprinklers and rainbirds that we had running to thoroughly soak the hilltop on which the house sits.  After the unpleasant heat of the day, the mist felt delightfully cool and refreshing – even if it did tend to blacken the clothes and face.  The almost full moon was hanging deep red in a gunmetal grey smoke shroud.  I did take the time to admire it, but did not take any pictures.

I think it was around 1 a.m. that I decided I was as ready as I was going to be.  So, with no idea where I would go when I left, I took a shower and ate a bowl of cereal.  Bill and our cowboy friend set out over the San Marcos pass with two full stock trailers around 2 a.m., and I followed a few minutes later.  An irrepressible  optimist, I started the dishwasher on the way out the door!  By that time, they had closed off access to the upper portion of the San Marcos Rd, so I had to go the long way around up the coast and through Gaviota pass on highway 101.  Everywhere along my route, I came across people in cars that were loaded to the gills with personal possessions and pet carriers.  Almost all of them were driving slowly, in a daze, while they dialed various numbers on their cell phone; trying to find somewhere to go.  All the hotels in Solvang were sporting ‘No Vacancy’ signs.  Apparently, they were full before the evacuation because of a large marathon event scheduled to take place on Saturday.  At 3:30 a.m., I arrived at the cowboy’s house and was reunited with Bill, who showed me to the guest bedroom (the cowboy had gone to bed to grab two hours of sleep before having to go back to work, but had invited us to stay as long as we needed to).  Bill then informed me he was going back to the farm and would remain there until the fire got really close, so he could turn the irrigation back on around the house as he was leaving.

Sleep was impossible.  I was way too keyed up, and so was the cat, who agitated endlessly to go home.  So, I lay quietly in the peace of a strange house, trying to wrap my mind around the situation.  It seemed as if more than two hours elapsed before there were pale aqua light shapes between the limbs of the giant oak outside the window.  Then a clock/radio went off in another part of the house.  After 20 minutes or so of movement and activity, all went quiet again.  I crept out to explore my surroundings…

Sweet!  I found myself in a charming old California ranch house, framed by large oak trees and  perched on a bench overlooking the river valley.  There were horses in the field below, and wild turkeys and a pea hen cruising the yard.  The house itself was spare, masculine, and tidy, and completely in keeping with the personality of its owner.  The cowboy décor and art were genuine, and related to a life spent in the saddle (for example, the reata coiled on top of the television was well used, not just for show), and there were lots of rodeo photographs and some trophies.  I could hardly believe my luck to have been able to evacuate to such a perfect spot!  Without network television  or internet connection, there was nothing to disturb the peace (apart from the constant helicopter traffic to and from the fire).

In the course of the next couple of days, there was some time for tatting, in between tending the cat, the parrot and the cattle and meeting some very interesting people at the Fire Camp.  Given the setting, teapots, doilies or edgings would have been really out of place; it seemed only right to start this:

from Tatting Farm Animals by Christel Weidmann

from Tatting Farm Animals by Christel Weidmann

The fire was stopped just about half a mile to the east of our eastern canyon rim, and a mile north of our north line. We were allowed to come back to the farm on Sunday evening.  Now to clean up an incredible mess of ash, soot,  and debris… and continue to prepare for the next fire.

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