Backyard pools provide lifesaving refuge
The Northern California wildfire season has been particularly destructive this year.
According to the most recent reports from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, since the start of the October Fire Siege on Sunday, Oct. 8, Cal Fire responded to 250 new wildfires.
At the peak of the wildfires there were 21 major wildfires that, in total, burned over 245,000 acres, 11,000 firefighters battled the destructive fires that at one time forced 100,000 to evacuate, destroyed an estimated 8,400 structures and, sadly, took the lives of 42 people.
Some of those affected managed to take refuge in swimming pools, and lived. Here are their stories:
A Santa Rosa couple survived for six hours in a swimming pool as wildfires blazed around them.
Jan and John Pascoe, aged 65 and 70, attempted to escape their Santa Rosa home in the hills just after midnight Oct. 9 only to encounter a wall of flames blocking their exit.
The couple said that they first smelled smoke at around 10 p.m. But at the time, Jan’s phone reported that the fire was still 11 miles away and it had not issued any official alerts. At that time, Jan had gone outside to look at the moon and check on her tomato plants. It was a clear, beautiful, October night.
Shortly after 10 p.m., the Pascoes received a phone call from their eldest daughter, Zoe Giraudo, urging them to evacuate. She had learned that her father-in-law’s home had burned down just 40 miles from her parent’s house.
John Pascoe, an artist and retired wine broker, was concerned enough by his daughter’s warnings to put some of his paintings and valuable glass bowls into his truck for safekeeping. There did not seem to be any need to panic since the couple had experienced fire before, so they went to bed.
They were awoken by another phone call from their daughter at midnight. At that point, the wind had risen; the flames were visible and getting closer. Jan looked out the window. Seeing a red glow, she told her husband that they needed to evacuate.
They grabbed the cat before braving their driveway to the main road but were soon blocked by a wall of flames that forced them to turn back.
Returning to their home, Jan opened the car door and the cat ran off. It hasn’t been seen since.
The couple was beginning to understand that they were trapped. Then they remembered their neighbor’s swimming pool, about a third of a mile from their own home.
At 12:40 a.m., they called 911 to report their location. The operator told them to “get anywhere safe.” They said they were thinking of going to their neighbor’s swimming pool.
When they reached the pool, they waited until the last moment to get into the frigid water. Seeing the neighbor’s house and a tree near the pool go up in flames convinced them it was time.
Once in the water, they used wet t-shirts to protect their faces from the embers and their lungs from the smoke. They hugged each other for warmth in the cold water as the world blazed around them. The heat was intense outside the pool and the wind howled through the night, accompanied by the sound of explosions.
They spent six hours in the pool, waiting for their neighbor’s house to burn to the ground before they could emerge from the freezing water. Faces sooty and only partially dressed, they were finally able to escape what looked like an apocalypse. They held hands and walked away.
While the couple endured what must have been the most hellish night of their lives, their daughters Zoe and Mia waited to learn of their parents’ fate. By about 7:30 a.m., they finally got word that their parents had survived.
Their house, which was custom built with a boat’s design, had 11 levels and small rooms meant to remind them of places where they had travelled. The flames leveled it. The rooms had been filled with John’s paintings and countless other valuables. They lost everything but their lives.
After six hours in their neighbor’s freezing pool, Jan says they still can’t get warm. John says that after living there for 35 years, he is still trying to get his head around what happened. He says what ultimately came out of this is that they have each other and they will be fine.
Cindy and Daniel Pomplum, a couple in their 50s, also have a swimming pool to thank for their lives during the Santa Rosa fires.
Daniel was jolted awake at 1:30 a.m. by the sound of crackling flames. For over three hours, residents of Santa Rosa had been evacuating but the Pomplums were fast asleep and had missed the warnings.
They awoke to a red glow outside the window, far too late to escape.
They threw on some clothes and headed to the front door but surging flames blocked the only road out of their neighborhood. Although their house was not yet ablaze, Daniel thought it was only a matter of time.
He planned to stay within the safety of the house until the last possible moment. If the house caught fire, he thought they could make a dash for the pool.
They found their cat, and gathered together their passports, a bottle of water, and a pair of kitchen towels before the house became too smoky to stay inside. At 2 a.m., they ran for the pool, cat in Cindy’s arms. Almost immediately, the cat wriggled lose, but the couple made it to the pool and slowly entered the cold water, draping the kitchen towels over their faces when they were shoulder deep.
As the fire consumed their home of 17 years, they attempted to stay as far away from the heat as possible. When the fire reached one of the upstairs rooms, they heard loud popping sounds as 100 rounds of shotgun and rifle ammunition went off.
The trees all around them were burning and their heads and faces were blistering in the intense heat.
At times they were forced to hold their breath under water, coming up only for some air.
The house finally collapsed, and the fire moved on. When they saw a squirrel emerge from an untouched tree branch, Daniel suggested that maybe they could leave the swimming pool. At sunrise, they left the pool, attempting to warm up on the still warm concrete, surrounded by ruins.
Cindy went looking for the cat, which she found alive under a bush, unwilling to come out.
After a while, they decided it was time to go, but both had lost their shoes, so they searched the neighborhood for an unburned home. They let themselves into a house, took some flip-flops and water and left a note for the homeowners, apologizing for what they had taken.
Walking down the road, they finally encountered a sheriff’s deputy, who took them to a nearby shelter.
The Pomplums are unsure what to do next. Should they stay and rebuild or move somewhere else? The fire took all of their belongings but they still have their passports, and they have purchased two tickets to Indonesia where they will think it over.
Carmen and Armando Berriz, aged 75 and 76, had a similar harrowing experience with a far less happy ending. The couple had been staying in a vacation rental in the Santa Rosa hills with their daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter, enjoying a lovely family weekend of wine tasting and swimming in the backyard.
An already aggressive fire woke the family at about 1 a.m. Monday morning. In three separate cars, the family all headed down the hill to escape. Even as the family was getting into their cars, 30-foot flames had already engulfed the back of the house.
The Berriz’s daughter and son-in-law, Monica and Luis Ocon, as well as their daughter, reached the bottom of the hill unscathed. But Carmen and Armando were stopped shortly after leaving the house when a tree fell, blocking the road.
After a turn in the road, Monica noticed that she could no longer see her parent’s car’s headlights behind her. Her husband attempted to return for them but was stopped by authorities that said it was too dangerous to go back.
The situation for Armando and Carmen was dire. Armando told his wife that their only option was to get into their vacation rental swimming pool.
They ran from their car through flames and smoke and jumped in.
According to Armando, the flames had engulfed the house and the surrounding trees, with the fire burning so hot it melted the deck chairs. Gusts of wind whipped outdoor furniture above their heads as they waited, submerged in the water.
In the pool, Armando kept the two of them afloat, hanging onto brick coping that was so hot it blistered the palms of his hands as his wife clung to him. At times they were forced to gulp breaths of air before going under, keeping only Armando’s hands exposed.
He held her for hours as they waited for the fire to burn out but just before daybreak, as the worst of the fire had passed, Carmen stopped breathing. She died in her husband’s arms. They had been married for 55 years.
Armando carried her body to the deck, and crossed her arms over her chest. At some point he had lost a shoe, so he borrowed one of his wife’s. He then walked 2 miles down the hill past the blackened houses, cars, and trees until he was found by firefighters.
Around 9 a.m. on Monday, the Ocons finally learned what had become of their parents. They had spent the night searching evacuation sites and hospitals before they were notified to come to the Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital. There they found Armando, arms wrapped in gauze, face blistered, alive.
According to their daughter Monica, they both made it through the worst of it, but her mother had always had problems with her lungs, and in the intense smoke, they had failed her.
Carmen and Armando met in Cuba, when they were just 12 and 13 years old, and they had always known they would someday marry. According to Monica, after over 60 years, “They had a bond and strength that literally lasted a life time.”
Carmen Berriz was among the 42 fatalities caused by the Northern California wine country fires that started Oct. 8. At press time, 21 people were still missing in Sonoma County. Investigation into the cause of the fires was ongoing.
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