My house burned down in the California wildfire

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Peggy Waters

Peggy’s house in San Lorenzo Valley was ravaged by the 2020 California wildfires

As she packed her car for what seemed originally like a 3-day evacuation, Peggy Waters only grabbed her three cats and their supplies, her turtle, two shirts, tools for a ritual, and tax forms she had yet to file. She never planned for that to be the last time she saw her beautiful house in the Santa Cruz mountains.
Peggy has lived in the San Lorenzo Valley area for almost 20 years, and it’s her home. It’s the perfect location for her animals, including a turtle that is over 50 years old. She’s an acupuncturist and partakes in alternative medicine. Currently she resides in her interim home: my grandparents’ living room.
Because of her location in the woods, fires and evacuations were common. In the past, the memo for such has been either to evacuate or don’t, and then come back in a few days. Peggy described that those worried about this particular evacuation had a common tendency to worry, and their remarks had little impact on her own decisions. She chuckled as she said to me, “you know, everything in their life is a crisis.” So she disregarded their comments and went on her way, assuming that not everything had to be treated as a catastrophe.
Curious to hear about the state of her town, Peggy went to speak to a ranger about the conditions of this evacuation. At around 11 pm, she ascended the hill leading out of the valley only to find that the perpendicular road was closed going North. A man stood at the entrance to the road, blocking all from entering. He explained that the fire was about two miles up said road, just far enough from their location for minimal worry. Peggy explained to me that “she’s down, fires usually go up. Usually.” After speaking to those at the fire station, she decided that she’d pack her car, leave to safety in the morning, and then return home to her life after everything was cleared. Looking back, she wishes that she had grabbed more of her belongings.

At this moment, Peggy attempted to sleep in her home awaiting the next day where she planned to escape to safety. Soon after that, police promptly awoke her with the sounds of police sirens and whistles. “I went to bed, I couldn’t sleep. The police woke me up with all the bells and whistles and stuff that they had,” she recounts the last sleep she would have in her home. The police alerted Peggy that she had to leave, with only about an hour to spare. Luckily by then, it would be brighter, as the early morning hours progressed. Peggy explained to me, “If you get old, it’s harder to drive in the dark because the bright headlights affect your eyes. You will get old. You don’t believe that now, but you will.”
As Peggy and I sit in my grandparents’ living room to recount her story, I can’t help but gaze around the space she’s currently living in. This room has all-glass walls, a large projector screen, and a huge bookcase lined with books and photos. It’s a room that I know very well, with fond memories of family Christmases. It’s a space that’s familiar, but a lot has changed since I was last able to spend time at my grandparents’ house. Now we are forced to wear masks for our own safety, and stay apart for the greater good. My mom, who knew Peggy growing up and had been to her house, explained how this room felt like walking through Peggy’s home. A space once so familiar now feels so different, with clothing racks, a small mattress, and a turtle cage.
So Peggy made the drive to her cousin’s, lacking in about 24 hours’ worth of sleep. Upon her arrival she went right to bed, anticipating the comfort she had yet to feel throughout the last day. But at about 3 in the morning, she awoke after an upsetting dream. “I was having a dream that my grandmother’s quilt was burning up. I didn’t know that grandmother, this was my father’s mother. So the only thing I had of her was her quilt.” As Peggy described her unsettling dream to me, shivers went down my spine. It was the next morning that she received the news she had been nervously waiting. “The guy who used to live next door to me called me. You haven’t told me my house burned down completely? So that was sort of a… what? What do you mean? My house burned down?”
I knew her story going in, but I wasn’t expecting to feel such a shock when Peggy described this day to me. “So everything has gone. I’m going to be 75 in three weeks and everything else is gone,” she expressed with a small quiver in her voice. “All of the journals, all of the notes from classes, all of the pictures that I might’ve had from my family back to my mother’s pictures of her as a child, that’s all gone.” She mentioned that all her clothes have gone too, including all of the pieces she never wore in fear that she’d mess them up. She saved her belongings in hopes that someday she might need them, but now there will be no someday.
So now here we are, sitting in the living room recounting the story up until now. Peggy left her cousin’s house and is living here for now, figuring out what the future holds. Because of her cats, she’s finding it difficult to find a place through insurance.
Weeks post-fire, Peggy visited her home and discovered some of her belongings had survived. Some stainless steel gopher baskets and flower bulbs seemed to be okay among the rubble. She looked in the dishwasher to find a few pieces of silverware, unusable yet recognizable. Her CorningWare survived, as well as a heart-shaped bowl gifted to her by a friend. The only part left of the house is the chimney, the rest has been burnt to pieces. “The whole area looks like the opening credits in a horror movie, the trees, the tree trunks are all black,” Peggy describes her once-lush valley home.
While she is grateful for all the help she’s been receiving, Peggy made it clear that she does not want to be seen as a victim. “There’s people’s emotional reaction to me, which basically is you poor dear, oh you poor thing. You must feel awful. This turns the person into a victim,” she explained to me. She described how people think about how awful it’d be if they lost everything, and they project that onto her. “Like, I must feel awful. It’s almost like they want me to feel awful, but they’re just trying to make themselves feel better.” The difficulty of having people around you view your situation as a tragedy makes it difficult for you yourself to push forward.
While the article ends here, Peggy’s life and her story continue on. Over 3.7 million acres of California land has burned this year, affecting thousands of residents just like Peggy. Thousands of unfinished stories, leaving people distraught and contemplating how their lives will progress. “Yeah, my next house is going to be made out of metal,” Peggy jokes.