Emily Alvarenga | Tick Fire: Reflections from the fire lines

Nicholas Burgess prepares his home for the approaching Tick Fire in the Shadow Pines neighborhood of Canyon Country on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019. Emily Alvarenga/The Signal
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Working in the media does have its perks.

The occasional media sneak preview at Six Flags Magic Mountain is always popular in the newsroom; there are the interesting and unique people we meet every day; and, we’re the first to hear about breaking news, like when the original alarms sounded of the radio scanner that signified what would become the Tick Fire this past week.

My home in the Shadow Pines area of Canyon Country had been without power since 11 a.m. that morning — the second time in two weeks due to the Red Flag warnings in effect — and my dog Praia was home alone.

Tick Canyon Road is less than a mile from my house, so when the call went out, I immediately stopped and listened. It only took a few seconds of internal debate for me to decide to run home from work, just in case.

Firefighters protect homes in the Shadow Pines neighborhood of Canyon Country as flames from the Tick Fire approach on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019. Emily Alvarenga/The Signal

As I drove away from the office, about eight miles from the fire, I began to see the cloud of dark gray smoke quickly filling the air in the distance. Within about a half-hour, my home would be one of 10,000 that would eventually be threatened by the nearly 5,000-acre inferno that transformed the lives of more than two dozen people who lost their homes and everything inside as the flames roared through Tick Canyon.

It felt eerily quiet when I got to my neighborhood, like the calm before the storm, about a half-hour from the time the first alarms sounded. Many of my neighbors were standing outside, while others had already started to pack their cars.

I quickly packed the few belongings I thought were important into the car, along with the most important one of all: Praia. I had been in the house for only a couple of minutes, but when I came out, things had gotten significantly worse. The smoke cloud that had seemed a safe distance away was now filling the air above my house, turning the sun red.

Signal reporter Emily Alvarenga’s dog Praia. Austin Dave for The Signal

I could hear sirens coming my way to warn my neighbors that it was time to get out as I began driving away.

After dropping Praia off at a friend’s place, I headed back toward home, not knowing if it would still be there when I arrived. By then, my boyfriend Nick had returned from work and together we went back home.

As we drove up our street, I breathed a sigh of relief — our house was still standing — but the danger wasn’t over, winds were blowing the fire toward us and the hill across from us was on fire.

A homeowner hoses down his home as flames from the Tick Fire approach in the Shadow Pines neighborhood of Canyon Country on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019. Emily Alvarenga/The Signal

While I got the remainder of our things, Nick got to work covering the vents on our roof with wet towels. Our house backs up to one of the many hills in our neighborhood, so as we worked, we continued to watch for signs that the hill had caught.

I felt the rumble of a Los Angeles County Fire Department Air Operations Firehawk helicopter flying over my head, and I looked up, recognizing the “15” printed on its belly. I thought to myself that I had recently sat in that very helicopter during an interview, as I watched Copter 15 make a water drop nearby, quenching the flames that were encroaching upon our street.

A few water drops later, we could no longer see smoke on the horizon and the fire trucks that had lined the street were beginning to leave. Just as quickly as it had started, it all seemed to be winding down.

Overlooking the charred hills and canyons in the Shadow Pines area of Canyon Country on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019. Emily Alvarenga/The Signal

Before dusk, we decided to take a drive around the neighborhood to assess the damage and were confronted by the sight of a house burning on a hill not too far from us. “Wow,” was all we could say.

As we drove, I began to notice something incredible. Like a line drawn in the sand, the hills stood black and smoking, as a majority of homes sat untouched. The fire had come right up to the backs of almost every home in the neighborhood before it was halted by firefighters. It was humbling.

Signal reporter Emily Alvarenga walks through the smoke on her street during the Tick Fire. Nicholas Burgess for The Signal

Being a California native and a reporter nonetheless, I’m no stranger to wildfires, yet somehow this felt different. Looking back, it’s almost as if fires had seemed like something that happened to other people, not me.

My story seems insignificant compared to those who lost everything. I was one of the lucky ones, but many others were not as fortunate.

I can only thank the wonderful first responders for doing all they could so I could be that lucky. A simple “thank you” doesn’t seem like enough for these brave men and women who risked their lives to save our homes.

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