Mike and Tere Miller stood in front of a black pile of rubble that had once been their home in the San Diego bedroom community of Rancho Bernardo, grateful to be alive and unharmed while mourning the keepsakes and memories they had lost.
And they also reflected on a lesson learned.
“If you even think that something’s going to happen, you should prepare and consider the things that are most meaningful to you,” Tere Miller told TODAY co-host Meredith Vieira on Wednesday.
The Millers have many friends who are helping them out, including one who offered them a rental to live in while their home is being rebuilt. Both are in their 50s with good jobs and good insurance. They know they’ll be fine.
But Tere Miller’s voice cracked and tears flowed when she thought about all the things she might have packed up and taken with them but didn’t.
“Once they’re gone, you can never get them back,” she said. “It’s not always the most valuable things in terms of money, but the things that are important to you that remind you of the memories you have with family and friends. Put them in a box and take them with you.”
The Millers had stayed up late on Sunday, watching coverage of the fires that were racing through communities around. But they’d seen wildfires sweep through in 2003 and their neighborhood hadn’t been touched. They thought they were safe.
Mike Miller went to sleep, but his wife stayed up a bit longer, packing up some important papers and a few other things — just in case.
“I happened to wake up with a start at 4 o’clock and saw the flames coming over the hill that’s behind our house and that started us on this journey we’re going on now,” she told Vieira.
“Tere woke up and said, ‘Get out now!’ ” Mike Miller said. The couple’s adult son, Marek, was also at home. “We grabbed a few things she had previously packed and then I grabbed some pictures kind of on the way out.”
They have two dogs and had to drag one that didn’t want to leave out of the house and into the car. The fire by now was burning directly across the street and time was running out.
No answer at 911
Local public safety officials have made much of the “reverse 911” system they’re using, in which the emergency phone system is programmed to call people in areas that are in danger with recorded messages telling them to get out. The system has come in for high praise by many residents, but the Millers said they never got a call from the system.
Nor were they able to easily reach someone through 911 to check on their neighbor, a handicapped woman who was apparently sleeping as the Millers were leaving their house.
“We were trying to wake her up — get her going,” Mike Miller said. “I was banging on her door and banging on her door and yelling and never heard anything, really — I heard a little rustling in there, but that was it. The fire was right there, right at our house, so we got in the car.”
When they returned to what had been their home, the neighbor’s van was still in her driveway and her house was still standing — only the Millers’ home had burned. Asked if the woman was OK, Mike Miller said, “We don’t know.”
Some 500,000 residents of Southern California had to evacuate their homes and 1,300 residences and businesses have been lost. But as of Wednesday morning, just one death was attributed directly to the fires, which contributed to the deaths of four others.
The Millers went to stay with Tere’s mother, but when they saw flames advance to within a few miles of her house later on Monday, everybody packed up again and moved in with Tere’s sister.
Before getting on with dealing with the aftermath of the fire, Mike Miller repeated his wife’s advice to anyone who knows they might have to evacuate a home for any reason.
“Pack things now,” he said. “It’s easier to take 30 minutes or an hour to unpack things than to come back to your house and see there’s nothing left.”