Home Local Voices Tales From MoTown: Eye Of The Fire

Tales From MoTown: Eye Of The Fire

Photo: Janet Brady

Ed: Sydney Chaney Thomas is a Moraga-based writer and businesswoman with three books to her name, all currently available on Amazon. She is also co-founder of a sustainable sailing apparel company called Ocean SF, and operates a nonprofit that works to reduce plastic waste called the The Trident Project.

Sydney Chaney Thomas

Sydney teaches entrepreneurial marketing at UC Berkeley in their International Diploma Program and, in addition to this column, she writes a popular lifestyle blog, which can be found at sydneychaneythomas.com.

Like many Moragans, she was caught up in Thursday’s fire and resultant exodus from Sanders Ranch. Her thoughts…

Fire, Panic, Friends
Moraga, Calif. 
October 12, 2019

I’m not sure what woke me first the sound of the sirens or the pounding on my front door. My eyes opened to a smoke filled room and the lights of sirens and police cars outside my window. I ran downstairs and opened the door as my smoke alarm went off. My neighbor told me calmly to get out as soon as I could and walked away. As is likely common in these situations I ran to my garage to get a suitcase, but when I turned on the light I was still standing in complete darkness. We had been in a power blackout for four hours. I thought I’ll go upstairs and get my flashlight, but then realized I didn’t have time for that. I pulled a garbage bag from a nearby shelf and ran upstairs.

When I got back upstairs terror and exhaustion overcame me and I crawled back into bed. It was 3 a.m. and a part of me wanted to believe all of this was simply an overreaction. I listened to the cars whizzing by on the street below and watched the flashing lights and heard the wailing sirens as the emergency vehicles went past my house toward the fire. I pulled up the news on my phone and the pictures of engulfing flames confirmed the evacuation. I could completely understand why people waited until the last moment to evacuate because contrary to all evidence it did not seem real. Yet, memories of the news coverage of the Napa and Paradise fires were still fresh in my mind.

I got up and looked out my upstairs window. A fire engine passed in one direction and a row of cars were funneling out in the other. Just then, a deer ran across the street toward my house and the creek behind it. A passing car slammed on its brakes and I watched as the deer cleared the headlights. The car behind, however, crashed into the car that had abruptly stopped to avoid the deer. The car that had been hit immediately pulled over, but the car behind him pulled around and sped on. I watched in disbelief as his taillights disappeared in the smokey distance. All of this happened in less then two minutes. This marked the moment when it became clear it was time to get out.

In the darkness, I pulled on sweats and a turtleneck sweater. Holding a flashlight, I filled the garbage bag with two pairs of jeans, two linen shirts, running shoes, and a tooth brush. I took the framed pictures of my daughter’s Holy First Communion off my dresser and threw them in with my clothes. I pulled samples of my clothing line off my rack, stuffing them into the bag as I went. I doubled back tucking the box with my company’s custom order for Velvet Hammer under my arm and headed down the stairs.

I scooped up my computers and chargers and threw them into a large market basket with my wallet and one can of dog food. On my family room shelf sits a box containing all of my favorite family photos prior to the digital photo age. I took this and my dog and put them both safely in the car and ran back into my house.

For a brief moment, I paused in the entryway asking myself what do I need to do next? Most of my paperwork sits in my safety deposit box at the bank, passports and that sort of thing are locked in a fireproof safe in my office. A decent amount of my artwork is currently on display at the Wilder Gallery in Orinda miles away. When I asked myself what else I needed to take I realized nothing. All of the things we think we value are meaningless in these situations. It never once occurred to me to go back upstairs in the smoke to get my designer loafers or handbag. Ditto for all of the signed and original art my husband had collected and the hand carved boxes my father brought back from different parts of the world, or my own collection of cards and letters, or my vintage watches with leather bands. None of this mattered to me.

Before I left I filled a large container with water and took the few things I packed to my car. I took one last look at my beautiful two story house and drove away. All of this took ten minutes or less.

I followed the other cars silently out of town and then called friends in Lafayette. I arrived and crawled into their spare bed in my clothes with my dog safely beside me. Trembling, I slowly steadied my breathing and heart rate, then I said my prayers. I thanked God for my wonderful neighbors and kind friends and the fact that I was safe and sound.

The next morning, the fire was out, but so was the power. I went home and packed a real suitcase. My house smelled like the Girl Scout Lodge I went to as a girl called Camp Whispering Winds. It smelled like a giant campfire. I spent the next night with college friends a town away with power. That night we sat together in quiet camaraderie eating grilled salmon, drinking wine, and watching the sunset.


  1. Just the most frightening and it could have happened to any of us. I do have a small takeaway bag in our garage — I hope I never have to use it.

    • You’re smart to have that. I had a box when the kids were small for earth quake preparedness, looks like fire is the 21st century threat.

    • The second night the power came on in the evening, but I was too shell shocked to go home and repeat the experience again if another fire broke out. Hopefully this is not our new normal.

  2. I’m so thankful for our smart and quick fire department that read the fire right and got it out for good. All of our neighbors pulled together as usual to help each other. I love Moraga.

  3. Apparently Moraga Police told ABC they are considering the possibility of arson. Someone seen in the area around the time the fire broke out?

    • There is always the possibility of arson. It’s the first thing I think of for outside fires, and I know nothing about fires or arson. A friend of mine is an arson investigator, and his stories are fascinating. It’s something most of us don’t understand.

      Thank you to all agencies for doing an outstanding job, and kudos to the Moraga community for taking care of each other during a time of need. I hope everybody is okay. Fire is so scary. Prayers…

    • We thought an arson investigation would originate with MOFD and they gave no indication that was being considered when we heard from them this afternoon.

    • “Moraga police confirmed on Friday that part of their investigation into the cause of the Merrill Fire includes arson.”

      “A witness claims to have seen a man videotaping the blaze right after it started at 1 a.m. on Thursday, and then saw him again in the Sanders Ranch neighborhood that was evacuated.”

      Just because you’re videotaping doesn’t mean you’re an arsonist, but it is suspicious.

      • Given the number of phones/cameras we’ve seen come out at these incidents we don’t know if we go to “suspicious” or “arson” right away but perhaps they have something we’re not aware of yet.

        • We do live in “get it on film” society, but I think videotaping a fire late at night is very suspicious. If I lived in Sanders Ranch and I saw fire, I’d get the heck out of the neighborhood, not worry about getting it on film. Please stick to journalism (something that you’re very well suited for – you were born to write) and turn down all “side hustles” for investigation and detective work. You don’t have that “inner instinct.” Arsonists are known to videotape their crimes, but you’re right – it could be anything.

          • Career advice aside it appears at least some Merrill Circle residents chose to capture the fire on their cameras – something that should be apparent as some of that video appeared here.

        • It is apparent that Merrill Circle residents chose to capture the fire on their cameras. It’s also apparent that someone thought it was suspicious, or they wouldn’t have called police. It’s also apparent that Moraga police think it’s suspicious, or they wouldn’t include it as part of their investigation. Come on JD, two plus two equals four.

          • Unless things have really changed I don’t think someone videotaping something is “suspicious.” Several people were videotaping out there that morning. If a person has been singled out for investigation hopefully it is for something more than holding a camera.

          • If you don’t think that a man being seen videotaping a fire right after the fire started, and then being seen in Sanders Ranch afterwards will create suspicion in the general public as well as the police, you’re naïve. People bring suspicion on themselves. I hope it wasn’t arson. We can agree to disagree.

          • I think the point here is: exactly what was he or she doing that was “suspicious?” Videotaping by itself is not suspicious and if it suddenly is then it is plain there were a lot of suspicious people out there that morning. Was the person fully dressed? Smell like gasoline? Seen with a fireplace lighter in their pocket? WHAT WAS SUSPICOUS ABOUT HIM OR HER? That’s the question — my neighbor thinks the pool man is suspicious and calls police on him every other month. ANYONE can appear suspicous to someone else who doesn’t think they belong there.

          • What is SUSPICIOUS to me (if I’m reading the quote correctly) is a man was seen in an EVACTUATED neighborhood after he was seen VIDEOTAPING the fire IMMEDIATELY after the fire started.

            So, he’s filming the fire immediately, and he’s in a neighborhood that has been evacuated, and he’s not evacuating (staying behind the scene of the crime, if there was a crime). Why wouldn’t he evacuate? If that’s not suspicious to you, please watch a few episodes of Forensic Files.

            Once again, the person who called it in thought it was SUSPICIOUS. The police are considering arson, which means they think it’s SUSPICIOUS. Unless there is something else going on.

            Again, I’m not the one who posted the Moraga PD, ABC7 reference. I’m not the person who called it in, nor do I work for any of these agencies. I did post the quote. I do have family and friends in Sanders Ranch, as well as Moraga and Lamorinda. I am the person who mentioned suspicion, and I still feel that way.

            The cause of fire could be anything. But all suspicion means is “cautious distrust.” The police have to have cautious distrust, otherwise they’re in the wrong line of business.

            Society stereotypes residents of affluent suburbs… “lacking street smarts.” I’m beginning to see where that stereotype comes from. Wise up.

          • Danielle. I believe you have a point to make and I’m interested in what you have to say but I wonder if you wouldn’t mind toning down the snark. “Wise up” “You’re naive etc.” is aggressive and rude especially when someone has simply posted their opinion and appears interested only in discussing the topic at hand.

  4. Didn’t someone say on camera that morning they thought it was arson because they didn’t know what else it could be?

    • Thanks, J… and glad you made out okay (presuming you came out of this without any loss.) Since the community is gated and a record kept of residents and guests coming and going, we would imagine the police would have a good base of information to work with if we are indeed considering arson. It’s hard for us to wrap our heads around why a resident – if indeed a resident or guest was responsible – would do such a thing. We were still leaning toward “generator.” All best,

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