When fire forces you to flee your home, what would you take?

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The aftermath

Thursday March 5th
The smoke still drifts from the scorched earth, the occasional flame darts upward and dies. I’m standing on the edge of Vlakkenberg, part of Table Mountain National Park. Choppers are still traversing the skies, their buckets angling below while the yellow spotter plane flies above. It is a co-ordinated effort. Relentless and real.
No less real than that the fire we’ve been following on the mountain in the far distance near Muizenberg on Sunday evening, was the same fire that caused us to evacuate our home in the early hours of yesterday morning. And I write all this with great reservation since I know how others have suffered so much more than we did, who have lost everything and have nothing. We have lost nothing. But for me the chaos that ensued was an opportunity to, once again, evaluate how we live our lives, mostly unconsciously and ungratefully. And while I packed the car and stuffed photo albums into trolley bags, my mind was repeating the words: Live lightly. Appreciate more.

Ironic that it was only last Monday I joined a group of hiking girls who religiously hike up our beautiful mountain. Fortuitous that I had bumped into Kathy recently and said “I’m coming with you this time”, and I went. Not easily so, and not without the ever- burdening guilt that I should be more productive on a Monday morning. But I did two hikes- one a few weeks ago up Constantia Neck, and last Monday, Silvermine.
I felt like I was in heaven. Couldn’t believe that it taken me 8 years to return. “Shocking” I said to the group who watched me stumble over the stones in my flippin’ ugliest underwear and fall backwards into the dam after our hike. (Didn’t read the email to bring the cozzie and didn’t care what I looked like either).
Ten days later and that vegetation is gone. Along with thousands of hectares of forest and plants and animals and yes, devastatingly, some people’s homes. We were lucky and came out unscathed, barring a few traumatic hours when we packed up and drove away from our home of nearly 18 years, where all four of our children have been born , wondering if we would ever see it again.
Started like this: At 5pm on Tuesday , on my way to Lakeside Fire Station to drop off another bag of supplies- this time, gels , lip ice whatever, I looked at the terrifying site of Tokai forest burning out of control. The sheer extent of the area in flame, the grey clouds of smoke camouflaging any proper assessment of the urgency , caused me to get off the Highway and turn back towards home. First sms from a friend- “Looks really close to you, Dom” she said. I agreed, joining the build-up of traffic snaking its way along Tokai Road towards the circle at Steenburg. Tried to take a pic over my steering wheel of the chaos that was staring at me, fumbled with my phone. “Everything ok at home” I asked Annie, as I edged right up against the bumper of the car in front of me. “Ja, fine Mom, but can you listen to my oral PLEASE when you get home and Josie wants to know what’s for supper ….”
I sneaked upstairs and cleared my desk of papers, books, research I have been working on for months in 2 seconds flat. Packed laptop and threw passports and files with ID docs, birth certificates, the first print copy of my book into bag. At supper table I casually suggested that IF, LIKE JUST IN CASE, we have to leave for a while, what would the children take? Maybe write a note for me on the fridge or put out some stuff. Annie did the former, Josie the latter. I had pleaded with Johan to see what I had seen driving past Tokai forest. He told me he had already been surveying the devastation from the very top of our road and said out of earshot of kids , “It’s fine, as long as wind doesn’t change”. I didn’t believe him.
Later when he found me packing the photo albums into a wire basket when the kids were asleep, he said, “Why do you always make so much work for yourself?” He had his own plan of action, his own priorities – just wasn’t saying. I know him too well. By 11pm when I lay still coughing in Annie’s spare bed knowing that she was scared and determined not to infect Johan with what I knew was a throat infection, I had 4 little bags lined up- my laptop, bag of research, 2 bags of NB docs with photo frames thrown amongst them, and the kids school bags stood in a row at the front door.
Just before 3am, the wind howled around the house like a tornedo and I sat up, hearing Johan’s scooter up the drive way. I ran to my room and froze. A pinkish orange hazy ball hung in the sky just behind the trees at the top of the driveway. I was at the front door when he got back but he managed to talk first. “Pack the bags and don’t wake the kids”.
Extraordinary calm inbetween moments of complete paralysis. Handfuls of underwear , my favourite jeans, a handful of shirts and jerseys. I don’t know. Costume jewellery off the stand (not much real- most real stolen during building and nothing much replaced). L’orangerie candle (birthday present hoarded in the cupboard next to another 4 or 5), bottle of perfume – the new and only full one amongst dregs of old empties I can’t bear to throw away. It could only have taken 10 minutes. I don’t know.
Stuffed pile of Josie’s clothes and toys she’d left on her floor in a bag. Annie was organizing her own – amazingly. Mostly toys. I grabbed a little bag and dumped in some clothes. Didn’t look. Emily filled 2 bags quite quickly and sat in her PJ’s asking if she could go back to sleep. ( Apparently I had woken her and said ,”Just pack a few things, see? And then you can go back to sleep”) Johan had woken Luke and told him to pack.
Wooden furniture brought in , gas canister disconnected (too close to house) thrown on lawn, windows shut. Cars lined up on driveway, keys in ignition.
Turned on the telly and started watching the news. Brought in a tray of tea, cheerily chirping “ Let’s have some tea and make it an adventure!”
Two sips taken when the doorbell rang. “ It’s Constantia Watch , Madam, the flames are coming down Price Drive, you need to evacuate”. Something like a death sentence.
Where to go? Cars, trailer, 4 children, 2 dogs. An hours eerily spent in Constantia Village car park. Dropped off trailer with friends in Newlands, dogs were too anxious to be locked up in strange garden. Everyone there seemed to be going about their business as usual- I was still in my night dress . Needed to get closer to home- drove back to Greens car park. Picked up Milly who was trying to get the house and been stopped. Comfortable, familiar places took on an eerie feel.
Pastis opened early- we were the first to sit there. Another 3 people arrived. Johan went back to fetch dogs (he had dropped them home – it seemed safer an hour ago but not now).Ordered coffee, some had breakfast. Looked up through the grey haze and reams of fire smoke – from where? Our house? Responded to tons of sms’s coming in. Offers of help, place to rest, maybe shower, even? A garden for the dogs. Incredible support – always remembered and treasured. Phoned Johan five times to find out why he was taking so long. Was it our house that was burning? Remember someone coming over and asking if she could get anything for me- I must have been a sight with a blanket wrapped around my legs, a sweater thrown over my night dress, eyes red and watery from relief at seeing Johan back in bakkie with dogs.
Food never occurred to me until 4pm when having escaped to the other side of the mountain with the girls- holing up in an apartment that we usually rent out that was vacant for 2 days- I picked up some snacks at a garage. Not before finally showering and changing out of my night dress. Johan and Luke dropped dogs at parlour, hung around Constantia and phoned us later to come back.
It was not a happy journey home: the littlies stilled feared for their safety and I was exhausted by the incessant questions. All I wanted was a smoke- free few hours of sleep.
All seemed calm at home. Our home stood. We were safe.
The tears came gently and unexpectedly when I lay back in Annie’s spare bed, like the soft fall of rain on the roof. It was 10pm.
And so? What’s the message in all this?
1. Wear your jewellery and use your fragrant candles- there’s no point in hoarding.
2. Get dressed into proper clothes – whatever time you get woken up.
3. You don’t need half of those proper clothes anyway.
4. Appreciate the natural beauty around you. The Cape Mountains are there to be explored, treasured, loved, and looked after.
5. Nothing material is really of any value – it’s all replaceable. Only people matter.
The number one question kids were asked at school yesterday- what did you take? 5 things each I had told them.
Luke: His “mooiest “clothes, a frame of a handprint when he was 18months, and another 2 that were special , laptop, tennis bag.
Emily: All her perfumes and creams, most of her clothes (2 bags full!) tennis bag and hockey stick, jewellery (gift from boyfriend), canvas prints of her and friend, laptop
Josie: lots of fluffy toys (rang back in and she and Annie sneaked in 2 more black bags) favourite clothes, photo frames, ipad (she’s the only one who has one), hockey stick, tennis racquet.
Annie: Charlie- of course; two ‘blue noses’ (fluffy toys) , pics of Johan and me in heart photo frame, writing book and pens, ipod (bought 3rd hand from Josie, who bought 2nd hand from Ems) .

Johan: anything asset related: share certificates, agreements, title deeds, his two loved paintings
Me: personal docs: passports , birth certificates, photo albums and scrap books.

I’m sure most would tell you the same things.

What would you take?

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2 thoughts on “When fire forces you to flee your home, what would you take?

  1. allison bergh

    That is a very good question Niks and, having read your post, I plan to think about it carefully. You are right though. Nothing material really matters. I will let you know!!

    Sorry you had to go through that! Wish I had known and could have helped. Lotsa love. Allison

    Reply

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