How I Survived a Wildfire: Jacqueline Lloyd’s Story

On October 25, 2003, the Cedar Fire destroyed 2,232 residences and burned more than a quarter of a million acres. Thirteen civilians died, one firefighter died, and one hundred and four firefighters were injured in the containment of that blaze.

But some were lucky: Jacqueline Lloyd, the author of The Thief of Sacred, lost many possessions and part of her home in the fire but thankfully she didn’t lose everything.

Here is Jacqueline’s survival story:

A Call for Help

“Our” fire, the Cedar Fire, started October 25, 2003 at around 5:15 p.m., by a novice hunter who got separated from his buddies in the Cleveland National Forest and panicked. I’ve been told that I was the first civilian on record to report this deadly fire, and because of that, a lot of people wanted to hear my story.

At around 5:15 p.m., I was in the middle of horse feeding chores and looked directly east, toward the mountains. I saw a skinny, brown plume of smoke scarring the blue southern California sky about ten miles away, and paused. From the vertical and defined shape of the plume, I could tell there was no wind spreading the flames.

The amount of daylight seemed like enough for the fire department to send a helicopter to drop water on the tiny spot, and one drop would probably put it right out. So I continued working, keeping one eye on the mountains, growing more and more uneasy as the sun started to set and still, no drone of a helicopter or plane. Knowing the firefighting aircraft don’t fly at night, I wondered nervously if we had passed the cut-off time.

I finally hiked back to the house and called 911 to report the fire. The official time of my call was 5:36 p.m.

“Yeah, we know about it,” was the curt response.

Then the operator hung up on me. Usually, they ask questions. Usually, they want to know what you’re seeing, where you are exactly, how long you’ve been watching the fire, that sort of thing.

Thinking that was odd, I walked back down to where my husband was fixing a fence. I told him what had happened with 911, then watched the plume fatten up and grow in the dusk sky. It was late October, and our brush was bone dry. I remember saying to him, with a tight laugh, something to the effect of “No point in fixing the fence. It’s just going to burn down tonight.”

I went back inside and turned on the fire and police scanner I bought after the first time I was evacuated from my home ten years earlier. Everyone should have one of these – it saved our lives that night.

For the next five or so hours, I listened to the scanner, hearing hand crews trying to get to the fire in the rugged terrain, chiefs trying to figure out what to do with it once they got there, endless meetings and discussions compounded by the issues caused by outdated communications equipment and the mountainous terrain.

By around 11 pm, my husband and I were glued to seats on our roof deck, clutching binoculars, a phone and the scanner, watching the fire spreading relentlessly in all four directions. We talked in circles, trying to decide whether the fire department would come through for us, or whether we should play it safe and start loading up the animals and our 18-month-old toddler who was asleep downstairs and evacuate to his mother’s ranch on the “safe” west side of town.

Then I heard on the scanner crackle – and I’ll never forget this – the fire dispatcher saying, “Fast moving Santa Ana winds forecast to begin at midnight, and the Marlins just won the World Series.”

She repeated those two facts twice more, then the scanner fell silent.

The fire was directly east. Santa Ana winds would drive it right at us. My husband and I looked at each other and knew.

Fanning the Flames

The next hour or so is a blur. Packing home movies, pictures, our wedding, daughter’s birth, trying to look around and decide what we should take and what we could live without.

Catch the cats, dogs.

Load up the cars.

I remember a glimpse of my husband racing through the house with the running video camera, taping our home, his shop and tools.

Then we went outside and tried to load the horses. They sensed our panic and refused to get near the trailer. At midnight – and I swear it was exactly midnight – the Santa Anas did begin. And they were strong. I remember standing by the trailer, being whipped by the wind, sobbing, pleading with the animals to load, then turning at a horrible noise and seeing a wall of flames that roared like a freight train coming straight at us.

And with that, part of me shut down. The rational, logical, thinking mind just curled up and died. I became purely intuitive and eerily calm, with ultimate clarity in every moment.

Thinking now only of our daughter asleep in my packed car, I made the decision to turn all the horses loose and let their instinct guide them to safety. Promising my husband we would meet at the safety of his mother’s, I got in my car and left, driving through solid smoke and flames, relying  only on my memory of the road to not run off into a ditch.

Half an hour later, I arrived at my mother-in-law’s, a ranch the bottom of a canyon. My sister-in-law, whose home was north of the fire’s origin, had evacuated over an hour earlier. My mother-in-law tried to feed us, to make us comfortable, but it made me nervous to be down there. Couldn’t see anything but the walls of rock, couldn’t see the fire that was running wild to the East of us.

So I went outside and sat on the bumper of my car, holding my scanner, hanging my head, praying for my husband and my animals I had to leave behind. Although I’m not Catholic, I pleaded directly to Saint Francis to protect our animals.

Then, I felt, rather than heard, an odd silence. I lifted my head and looked around. The wind down in the canyon had shifted. Big flakes of ash were raining down. It looked like a snowy, festive holiday. Dimly, I remembered that firestorms, when they get hot enough, create their own wind and weather.

The Final Hours

Again, instinct took over. I ran back inside and told my family sitting around the kitchen table that we had to leave, that the fire was coming. They just looked at me in disbelief. My mother-in-law called some neighbors, but no one else seemed concerned. I knew they couldn’t see any more than we could because of the terrain. Desperate for validation, I called 911 and told the operator our address asked whether or not we should leave. She told us to stay put, that we were safe where we were.

But I just knew we weren’t. As I was loading my daughter back into the car, I heard a report on the scanner that the fire was raging into a road half a mile from where we were. That was the validation I needed.

At that moment, my husband pulled up. His face was blank, black with soot. He met my gaze and said, “We lost everything.” I told him he had to get his mother and sister out of there, that we were in serious danger, that the fire was jumping the road half a mile away. Fortunately, he pushed his mother into evacuating the ranch house she had lived in for over 40 years.

By the time a red dawn broke that morning, that ranch house had burned to the ground. Twenty-five miles away, my sister-in-law’s house had also burned to the ground. As it turned out, we didn’t lose everything, as my husband believed – just all of our outbuildings and part of our main house.

And Saint Francis did his job: of the horses, chickens, birds and pot-bellied pigs that we had to leave behind, not one of them was even slightly injured, not one singed hair or feather among them. They were all perfectly fine, which truly was a miracle.

Officially, the Cedar Fire destroyed 2,232 residences and burned more than a quarter of a million acres. Thirteen civilians died, one firefighter died, and one hundred and four firefighters were injured in the containment of that blaze.

Learn how Jacqueline, her family, her animals and her community recovered from the disastrous fire in this article.