Back from the fires

By By Ana Breton

By Ana Breton

The Potters were stubborn.

The family — Serena, Franz and their two kids — wouldn’t evacuate their home amid the California wildfires. They didn’t leave during an announced voluntary evacuation, or after authorities warned them that the power in the area would eventually go out. City officials yelled at them from helicopters, telling them to get out of the neighborhood, but they stayed.

“They really wanted us to go,” Serena Potter said in a phone interview from her home in California. “But I said ‘No.’ I told the girls that this was our house and that we were going to stay as long as we could.”

In fact, the parents, who are both U graduates, were some of the last people to be evacuated out of their small community in Crestline, Calif. They were among the thousands of people, including other U graduates, students and families of students, who were affected by last month’s wildfires. The flames burned more than 500,000 acres and left 10 people dead.

“We would see flames on ridge coming closer,” said Serena Potter, who works as an artist. “We just kept hanging out. It was pretty scary. So I said, ‘Let’s go.'”

Potter and her husband rushed into their home, not knowing if they would see it again, and grabbed what was most important: photo albums, birth certificates and their collection of rare books. After all, Serena’s husband, who is an English professor at National University, considers those books part of his career.

Their two girls, ages 9 and 12, grabbed the items they thought were most important as well: blankets, stuffed animals and live pets — their cat, fish and rabbit, including its oversized cage.

The family was told not to bring many clothes or anything they could buy in the store. They decided food was necessary, so they emptied the refrigerator and freezer and stuffed an ice chest with whatever fit but didn’t take it. The rabbit and its cage took up most of the leftover room they had.

“It looked like we were right out of ‘Doctor Dolittle,'” Serena Potter said.

They didn’t have much room for their things anyway, because they were forced to borrow a neighbor’s car to evacuate. They had totalled their vehicle in a car crash the week before the wildfires began.

“It was a little stressful,” Potter said. “But I knew everything was going to be OK.”

She thought of her friend, whose aunt and uncle were “in the thick of helping out” during the evacuation. Robert and Judy Cannon, who live in Redlands, Calif., were not evacuated, but both work for the Red Cross. The two, both U graduates, could not be reached for comment.

Serena Potter’s daughters saw the evacuation as a field trip, but Serena and Franz were worried. They knew that once they drove down the hill on which they lived, they could not turn back. Police officers and firefighters were keeping anyone, including residents, from coming in. Serena Potter said that some of their friends went to work that morning and could not come back home.

Their friends who were not allowed back called them to break their house windows and rescue their pets left inside. They didn’t know if they would see their belongings, their home or their neighbors again.

Neither did the Potters, when they left.

Which is why the family closely followed what was happening with the fires once they reached Franz’s sister’s house, where they were staying.

They watched the news constantly, seeing how fires had spread. They followed blogs that kept track of what areas were being affected most.

They also kept in touch with friends who were affected, some of whom are U graduates. Barbara Snyder, vice president for Student Affairs, is encouraging students who have been impacted by the wildfires or the evacuation to seek assistance from the Dean of Students Office at 801-581-7006 or the U Counseling Center at 801-581-6826.

Three weeks later, the fires were controlled and extinguished, and the family was allowed back into their home.

Once they came back, officials told them to grab a mask and trash bags. Just as they had been warned, the power had been shut off, and food left in refrigerators had been left to rot in the heat.

“It was pretty disgusting,” Serena Potter said.

Their house was covered with ash. The air was practically smoke. Everything was dirty, Serena Potter said.

They decided to drive around and examine the damage.

Their community was not damaged. In fact, their neighborhood was one of the few that were left untouched.

The nearby town, however, was “wiped out,” Serena Potter said. “Everything in the hillside was gone.”

A total of more than 1,500 homes were destroyed in the fires.

The two Potter girls have not yet gone back to school. The school they attended in the nearby town of Twin Peaks was turned into a prep area for firefighters. Its halls and classrooms are still covered in ash and smoke, and local school authorities don’t know how long it will take to clean it so that it is safe enough for the children to return.

“We’ll just hope for rain instead of fires,” Serena Potter said.

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