With a gentle westerly breeze, the sun high in the sky and neighbors out for a stroll, it might’ve been a normal summer day in the quiet neighborhood of Emerald Hills.
But on Wednesday afternoon, June 22, as West Maple Way wound its way towards the top of the hill, a light dusting of pink could be seen coating everything — the street, the houses and even the bushes — in a distinctly unnatural hue.
Footprints trailed behind a man who stood at the edge of the road, gazing west through a break in the trees. A woman and her dog left another set of impressions in the neon-colored fire retardant. “It got so close,” she murmured as she passed.
These Emerald Hills residents, many only just returning home after a night spent at nearby hotels, had come out to watch the ongoing fire containment and assess how close the flames had come to their houses.
The answer? Very close.
Two brush fires, which erupted Tuesday afternoon in a region bounded by Woodside, Redwood City and Edgewood Park & Natural Preserve, would go on to consume at least 20 acres of grass and prompt evacuation orders for thousands of residents.
“I saw the smoke coming up the back of that hill and I'm like, ‘Oh my god,’” said resident Carey Oberti. “And then the fire department starts showing up … they were on it so fast.”
At 98% containment on Friday morning, June 24, the Edgewood Fire erupted on the first day of summer, bringing an early start to the Peninsula’s fire season which typically begins in July. The blaze reached within roughly 100-200 feet of the nearest houses, according to Redwood City Fire Chief Ray Iverson.
“This is the first fire of that type in decades, where it came to a point where it threatened that many structures and caused that much acreage to burn,” he said.
Shortly after 2 p.m. on Tuesday afternoon, June 21, Oberti said she heard a sudden boom echo through her neighborhood.
“It was not a normal noise,” she said. She wondered whether something had exploded at the nearby power plant, an electrical casualty of the sweltering temperatures. “It sounded really odd. I heard the noise, and then the power went out.”
When she saw the smoke, she knew it was time to act. After checking on some neighbors down the road, Oberti gathered her kids and pet dog, before loading their horse into the trailer.
“I just happened to have the horse trailer hooked up,” she said. “I just grabbed, like, one thing of my grandma's. And I grabbed my thing of laundry, and then we left…I thought, at least we'll have a change of clothes.”
Within minutes, dozens of emergency vehicles were barreling up the narrow, winding streets of Emerald Hills. Redwood City firefighters were some of the first to arrive, with Woodside fire department, Cal Fire CZU and others joining in short order.
As some residents gathered their belongings, others observed in awe from nearby vistas.
“It was crazy,” said Nolan, a local teenager who drove up to the top of West Maple to watch the growing fire and emergency responders. “You could actually see the flames.”
Praising the firefighters for protecting their neighborhood, a woman who identified herself as Tanya H. marveled at the accuracy with which aerial crews dropped water and fire retardant on new eruptions of flames.
“When they dropped the water, we could see this one spot — like, oh my gosh, they have to get that one spot, they need to get that one spot,” she said. “Sure enough the guy came in totally accurate and got it.”
At first, “it was kind of cool,” said another resident who asked to be identified as Cindy C. But then the winds changed course.
“I think the scariest part was when the wind shifted,” she said. “The wind was initially blowing towards Cañada Road, and then it shifted and started blowing this way.”
Up to that point, Cindy had been watching the action from a friend’s deck. “That's when we started evacuating the streets because it was coming right towards the houses.”
Settling back into their homes on Wednesday, the residents of Emerald Hills expressed a mixture of awe and disbelief at what they’d witnessed. Passing each other in the street, they traded stories and shared harrowing videos of emergency aircrafts rumbling overhead.
Many locals are well-aware of the dangers of living near open space and, in the wake of California’s increasingly devastating fires, have begun taking precautionary measures.
Kathy Hibbs, who’s been in the neighborhood for 10 years, maintains a defensible space around her house — regularly clearing out vegetation and preventing dry grass — and keeps go-bags readily accessible. Still, she said, Tuesday’s fire was a wake-up call.
“People are aware of the fire risks, but to have it be that close you realize that you don’t have much time,” Hibbs said.
Others, like Oberti, were taking the week’s events in stride. Even with no electricity to power the air conditioning and keep her kids’ ice cream sandwiches from melting, she was relieved to be home.
“I'm just happy everything's here,” she said. “I'm ready to, like, sit down and put the fan on.”