Pounding on my door. I was sleeping, dang it. My flatmate H paces up and down the hall, shouting something and banging on my door and S’s. S’s girlfriend C is over too.
I get up and stumble to the door. It’s still nighttime—“What’s going on?”
“There’s a fire next door,” H repeats. “Our neighbors are evacuating.”
My brain, still very tired but also trying to be emergency-minded, says “welp”, and ducks back into the room. How much time do we have? I don’t know, so I’ll go for “quick” but not “immediate”. I grab a warm jacket, stuff my laptop and water bottle in my messenger bag—a practiced motion, something I do any time I go out—and put on a pair of socks. After a moment’s hesitation I reach into the closet and pull out a pair of pants to put on over my pajama pants. The shirt will be fine under the jacket.
That’s it. That’s what I’m taking.
I get to the living room first—there’s a fire engine right outside, the flashing red lights coming through the window—and hear H shout “Make sure you take a mask!” Right, we don’t know how bad it’ll be outside. And it’s the Bay Area, so we have masks thanks to the fires. Which I had been thinking weren’t as bad this year. I pull the box off the shelf and leave it on the ottoman by the door so that everyone can grab one. Then…should I wait to go out? If everyone else is still taking their time, should I go back and grab more stuff?
No, that is stupid, I decide, and head out first. It’s about 4:45 AM on a non-work morning.
It really does smell outside, and I jam the new N95 mask over my face, pressing down to seal it maybe a little harder than I should have. (It would dig painfully into my nose for much of the rest of this experience whenever the mask had a close-to-proper seal.) I get down to the street and see that there’s already a hose running past the front of our place. The fire is up the street from us so I go down a bit to get out of the way. There’s someone sleeping outside in front of the building next to us on the other side, and that serves as a small positive signal that the firefighters haven’t woken them up and gotten them out of there.
I don’t remember if our backyard neighbors come out first, kid, dog, and baby in tow, or if it’s H, S, and C. Once the rest of my apartment is out, though, we head across the street, to get out of the way and also to get a better vantage point. We half-joke, half-seriously talk about going to the 24-hour diner near us. (C: “Hey, I have eaten there before, and I did not get food poisoning!”)
The fire turns out to be two buildings up from us; we can see an orangey glow in the San Francisco morning fog. It’s also ominously close to both the left and right sides of the building, and that means it can still spread. At some point we’re able to spot thin plumes of smoke coming from that building’s attic; a few minutes later we spot flames. (We’d also see water jets flying up, hypothesized to help prevent spreading as much as to actively smother/cool what was currently aflame.)
Our upstairs neighbors haven’t come out yet, as far as we know. They also have a dog—not that that changes the urgency of them getting out, but it’s early morning and we’re not thinking great, so we can be worried about the dog. I get ready to text the one neighbor I know and then realize that’s stupid—if there’s any time to call someone instead of texting, it’s now! But everyone has Do Not Disturb on when they sleep these days, and so I call twice (which is supposed to get through Do Not Disturb) and then give up and send some urgent-sounding texts. Our backyard neighbor, though, is a little more concerned, and goes to bang on their door; a few minutes later they’re coming out, dog in tow. (That was the right thing to do, and we should have done it.)
The two dogs are happy to see each other. The backyard one is a basset hound named Lemon. Upstairs is a black lab mix (?) named Rocket. Lemon in particular is super excited about being out this early, coming up to everyone to be pet and straining after every other dog that goes by.
It’s hard to tell how the firefighting is going, especially since the fire started in the back of the building. (The bottom floor is a restaurant but we don’t know if that’s related.) Still, there are enough firefighters just standing around that it can’t be going that poorly. They’d be rushing around more, or at least more antsy. Right? I make a comment about firefighters getting to use all the post-apocalyptic video game equipment—crowbars, chainsaws, sledgehammers—because their goal is to bust into buildings as quickly as possible. H comments that he didn’t expect to see pikemen this morning. (Wikipedia calls this tool a “pike pole”.)
H is the one who got us all up, but now that we’re out C seems the most collected out of the four of us. She’s the one tracking what’s going on and getting updates from the various people in helmets and reflector vests. Meanwhile, the firefighters have gone up to the top floor of the burning building and are breaking holes in the roof. We see them shove open the windows to let the smoke out. (All the lights are off, of course, since they cut the power a while ago, so this is all illuminated by bright white headlamps.)
The firefighters on the ground have moved down a building, not quite to our doorway but the one immediately up the street from it, which is an alley to the back exit of the restaurant next door. They’re already up in the apartment above this restaurant too, but they want to get to the back as well, so they try to break down the door. It isn’t working! As they try smashing in the wooden panel at the top, our backyard neighbor goes over and points out that they could go through our door instead, since the fence between our alley and theirs is probably a lot flimsier. (I had just commented the same thing in our own little group, but again it’s our neighbor that’s acting on these ideas.) In the end, the firefighters do neither; in retrospect they probably just wanted to make sure there was a way out from the back, just like the ladders they had up against the buildings at roof and third-floor-window height.
I comment that we all have places to go: H’s relatives are in the Bay Area, S can go home with C for now, and I can go to my SO’s apartment as well. And then I start thinking about what it would take to get back on my feet if everything in our apartment does get burned. Clothes—I’d have to go clothes shopping in my pajamas and jacket. Chargers for my phone and laptop. And would this affect my upcoming travel plans? If only I’d already packed a weekend bag for staying over at my SO’s place.
Eventually it sinks in that this is gonna be a long process. (I teased H a bit earlier for checking Slack, to which he responded “what else am I gonna do?”) The fire probably won’t make it over to our building, but we can’t really know for sure. S and C decide to go to Starbucks, which opened at 5:30. They run into our upstairs neighbors, who say they may switch over to the bar next door. Can’t exactly blame them—this is not a normal morning.
Meanwhile, H and I get approached by someone wearing a reflector vest, who asks if we were “displaced”. We kind of look at each other cause we don’t really know yet! H gives them our names and our address just in case. A bit after that, we talk to our backyard neighbor, who says “I said no, we’re not displaced, because I expect we’re gonna walk right back in, right?” But then again, because we got out ahead of time, we don’t know if we would have been formally told to evacuate.
The sky’s getting lighter. “It’s now three minutes to ‘civic dawn’,” says H, reporting from his watch face. “Hang on. It’s currently civic dawn. It’s three minutes to ‘civic twilight’.” That sounds backwards to me, and I say so.
We’ve now been up for a while, and I feel hungry (and still very tired). C and S come back to see what’s up, but there’s not too much. I decide that I really do want to eat something, and if they need to get in touch with us they’ll figure it out. H double-checks his ID card to make sure he’s registered as living here, to help with contact later on, and we all head back down to Starbucks. I get a slice of banana nut bread and buy H’s pastry as well.
A man asks us if we were in one of the fire buildings; it turns out he’s from the one that burned down. He was there 35 years. I don’t know what to say; eventually he says “take care” and H says “you too”. We’re having a lousy morning; he’d lost his home.
It’s only at this point that I feel like telling anyone else what happened. H’s been messaging his parents, both of whom live in the Bay Area, but mine are remote, and my SO works second shift so she’s definitely asleep. Up until now I didn’t want to get in a conversation that was just going to go “I’m okay. No, we don’t know. Probably. Probably. Yeah. No.” But this is a life event and so of course I’m going to tell my parents, who are on East Coast time, so I email my mom from my phone (subject: “Scary Morning”). It occurs to me that I might need to save my phone battery; I don’t have any chargers with me, and there’s still a chance we won’t be let back in. But this isn’t so much power use. I haven’t texted my SO; she’ll be up much later anyway and so I can do that later. (This does happen.)
S gets a phone call, probably from his parents. C goes out to check on things; once I finish my email and dither around for a bit I go join her. It looks like they’re packing up some, but we don’t have further information; C had asked a random firefighter and they said we needed to talk to someone in a white helmet. I say I’ll stay out and she can head back.
Not too long after the firefighters finish packing up the stuff they had in our doorway, and our backyard neighbors decide that that means it’s clear. Nobody stops them as they head back into the building, kids, dog, and all, at about 7:30. I take this as an all-clear sign—I’m really tired—and head back in myself. I text the others and the one person I know from upstairs and collapse back to bed. It smells in the apartment and I pull the sheet over my head. It takes a while to fall asleep.
And then I get up, reluctantly, an hour and a half later, to start my day.
My mom’s reply to my email was properly concerned but also curious. “I want to hear what it was like. There’s always this hypothetical question, what would you grab, how long would you take to get out, etc.” That was a reminder to write it down—this blog post was mostly written out later that same day, trying to remember the moments and the feelings of that pre-dawn morning. (I didn’t post it immediately in a vague attempt to obscure where I live. That is, this didn’t just happen.)
It turns out the answers for me were pretty plain: most of my life is on my laptop, so that’s what I take besides wallet/phone/keys. If I were to do it again I might have tried to grab my backup drive, which has some extra stuff on it, or an extra set of clothes, to make it easier to do things the next day, but honestly I think I have the correct first-tier items. It would stink to lose my journals, my keepsakes, my books, but if you’re really trying to grab things and get out then this was it. (I’m very glad I grabbed the warm jacket, though, so that’s a good one too.)
So now I’ve had a real fire drill for my apartment. If only it had just been a drill for the people two doors up.