Thus far, 31 people have died in the massive wildfires sweeping through California, and thousands of homes and businesses have been destroyed.
ABC News reported that, as of Thursday, more than 8,000 firefighters and first responders were still battling 21 large wildfires around the state, and the bulk of the devastation and loss of life is in Sonoma County, where 70-year-old John Pascoe and his 65-year-old wife Jan once called home.
Having lived in northern California for some 35 years, the Pascoes were accustomed to dealing with fire warnings. But, as Jan told the Los Angeles Times in a chilling new first hand account of just how dangerous and unpredictable this latest crop of wildfires has been, the alerts were not typically urgent and usually involved estimations of how far away the flames were. On Monday, without any warning whatsoever, the Pascoes found themselves quite literally trapped by fast approaching flames. While their home is now unsalvageable and their beloved cat ran away in the melee, it is clear from their miraculous tale of survival, which involved bobbing in a cold pool for more than six hours, that they just consider themselves blessed to be alive.
Jan said that when she and her husband went to bed around 10pm on Sunday there was no sign of what was to come. Around that time, they received a call from their one of their daughters in San Fransisco sharing that their father-in-law’s home in home in Napa Valley’s Silverado neighborhood—about 40 miles from the Pascoes—had burned down. She encouraged her parents to evacuate, and Jan and John agreed that it would be prudent to prepare, so they grabbed towels and gently wrapped two Dale Chihuly glass bowls they inherited from John’s mother and put them in their pickup truck. John, an artist, also took some of his favorite paintings, but the couple didn’t leave.
Around midnight, they received another call from their daughter, this time begging them to get out. The wind had picked up considerably, and when Jan looked out the window, all she saw was a red glow. The couple scooped up their 17-year-old cat and ran to their cars. When they got the bottom of their long driveway, they were met with a wall of flames. There was nowhere for them to go. They drove back up to their mountaintop home and tried to devise a plan.
“We were in survival mode,” Jan said. “What are we going to do? What are we going to do?”
They remembered their neighbors had a pool and took off as fast as they could to get to it. Standing on the edge of the water with trees beginning to catch fire around them, they realized they had two options: freeze or burn.
“The heat was ‘whoa,’” John said of the fast moving flames. Because both the air and water were around 50 degrees, the couple avoided getting into the pool until the last possible moment, but when the railroad tires framing the deck area ignited, they stripped off what little clothes they had and jumped in.
They submerged themselves in the blackened, debris-filled water. They had grabbed T-shirts to hold over their faces to protect themselves from embers when they surfaced for air.
They moved to the part of the pool farthest from the house. John was worried about having to tread water, or hanging on to the side, which could be dangerous with all the burning objects flying around. Blessedly, the pool had no deep end. It was about 4 feet deep all the way across.
To stay warm, they held each other. They stood back to back. They spoke about their deep love for each other and their family.
Jan watched the moon for clues about time passing. It didn’t move.
She waited for the house to burn to the ground, for the fire to pass so they could warm themselves on the concrete steps. The wind howled and the sound of explosions filled the air. Propane tanks? Ammunition? They had no idea.
“I just kept going under,” she said. It was the only way to survive. “And I kept saying, ‘How long does it take for a house to burn down?’ We were freezing.”
She had tucked her phone into her shoe at the pool’s edge. When she saw it next, it had melted.
By first light, the Pascoes had been in the pool for about six hours. With the worst of the fire seemingly behind them, they emerged from the water and fashioned what remained of their tattered clothing and melted shoes into a loincloth. They trudged back up the hill to where their house once stood and found nothing but ashes in its place. At their neighbor’s home, only a life-size statue of a cherubic angel made it through the fire unscathed.
Unable to get in contact with their parents, the Pascoes two daughters spent the night on the phone with local shelters and hospitals fearing the worst. By around 7:30am on Monday though, they received word that Jan and John had survived.
“We started sobbing,” their 32-year-old daughter Mia said.
“I started screaming,” 38-year-old sister Zoe added. “The first thing mom said to me was ‘I feel so bad I wasn’t able to get ahold of you.’ ‘You’re apologizing to me? After all you’ve been through?’”
When the Times met with the couple on Wednesday, they appeared to still be processing all that had happened. Faced with no choice but to completely rebuild their lives, the couple was still able to humbly reflect on how much worse things could have been.
“We lost everything, and we have to start over. We’ve been here for 35 years. That’s a little hard to get my head around, but… we’ll be fine,” John concluded. “We have each other, and that’s something we found really came out of all this: We have each other, and we’ll be fine.”
Read the full account HERE.