It was just after 1 a.m. when Jaime Lynn Lojowsky woke up to a pounding at the door.
“There is a fire on the mountain,” she overheard her neighbor tell her husband. “It’s an emergency. It’s an emergency.”
Lojowsky, who lives in Redwood Valley with her husband, Mac, and two young girls, looked out her back window. Normally, she’d see bright stars, the moon peeking between the redwoods, pines and oak trees. It was one of the reasons why she’d moved from crowded and light-polluted Southern California more than a year ago.
This time, white smoke choked the night sky. The hillside was on fire. Flames licked the backyard of her 1-acre lot. By Tuesday, the fire scorched 21,000 acres west of Mendocino National Forest, claimed one life and left two others seriously injured.
Lojowsky’s husband ran out the door to knock on neighbors’ doors to wake them, telling them to get out. One home had already caught fire.
The winds picked up. The flames raced toward them.
“Jaime, the house is going to go. What do you want to take?” he asked.
That’s not how evacuations work, she told herself. Some people have hours. Some people have days to pack up their lives.
She had minutes.
In the moment, not much seemed important enough to save, she later recalled. She grabbed her late father’s watch and great-aunt’s bracelet. She managed to take some clothes for her daughters. She forgot her purse.
Her husband grabbed passports, other documents and photo albums.
Lojowsky, who has fire insurance, would later discover that her house and farm had burned down. Only the brick fireplace remains of Lojowsky’s three-bedroom home. It’s unclear whether her chickens survived. But her family, two dogs and cats had made it out alive.
That is what’s most important — not the material things, she said.
On the outside, the couple tried to stay calm for 5-year-old Isabella. Lojowsky asked her to grab some things she’d like to take. Isabella grabbed her blanket and a stash of Halloween-themed toys.
On the inside, Lojowsky panicked.
“We’re going to die. I don’t want my babies to die like this,” she thought. “This can’t be happening.”
Lojowsky roused her youngest — 2-year-old Lourdes — from bed. She piled the girls into her Kia Sedona. They were met with a cloud of white smoke when she opened her garage door. Ash and fire rained down on the vehicle as she drove down the driveway and into the main road. Her husband followed in a truck behind them. About a mile down the road, a wall of flames blocked their path.
It was the main way out. She’d never gone the back way — a windy, dirt and gravel mountain road through a canyon.
Some cars barreled through the flames. Others went off the road.
She was uncertain on what to do. If she turned back, would she be met by a raging fire?
That’s when she spotted a Cal Fire truck. The crew directed her to go back through the mountain pass. It was safe, they reassured her. She turned back and drove past her home. She zoomed by her neighbor’s house and saw the cars still parked outside. She wondered if they’d make it out. They had three young boys.
“They have to leave now,” she thought.
Her car climbed up the mountain pass, tailing her husband’s truck. She called him on her cell, asking him to dial 911 to find out what they should do. She just wanted someone to tell her what to do or where to go.
The sky was still full of white smoke. She could see the flames in her rearview mirror. Lojowsky just kept driving, looking forward and keeping an eye on the gravel road speckled with potholes. Her vehicle weaved on a dirt road straddling a dense forest of redwoods, pines and oak trees. She could hardly see the road in front of her.
Ten minutes later, Isabella broke her silence.
“Great news, mom. I can see the moon,” she said. “I can see stars.”
Lojowsky felt relief.
“That’s great news, Bella. That means we’re getting farther away from the fire,” she told her daughter. “We’re going to be safe.”