Everyone has a story, some way more tragic than others but the story that keeps repeating itself is how amazing the community response has been to the fires.
Our humanness always wins. We are more similar than different and when tragedy strikes, labels go away.
The orange glow out the bathroom window was curious. It was 12:00 on a Sunday night and you couldn’t sleep because the gusts of wind every 20 minutes blew redwood tree duff against your bedroom window sounding like your dog was scratching to get in.
Wind is unsettling, the hurricanes were fresh in your mind but this is California and we don’t do hurricanes. Was it nuclear winter? Politics made your mind go to dark places. And what was the orange glow?
You caught a few winks then woke up at 4 to a robocall from the high school saying school is cancelled due to the fires. You make a flip remark about being happy to not go into work on a Monday, not realizing that in Glen Ellen and Kenwood and Santa Rosa and Napa people are losing their homes and their lives.
At 4:15 the power goes out and you decide to evacuate. Your neighbor, a local vineyard manager, stops to tell you that there are fires all over and you should go. You pack in 25 minutes: water, sleeping bags, a few clothes, legal documents, some food, dog, wife, son, and you’re out.
Driving down Arnold you see the orange glow on the Macaymus Ridge. You have seen this before in the Oakland hills fire and you hope that this is different. You pull into the parking lot at Peets Coffee in Petaluma feeling a little safer. You take the dog for a walk around the parking lot and see the stunned look of people parked in their cars, faces illuminated by the glow of technology, unsettled. A woman and her two kids park and get out of a car behind you. The daughter throws up and starts crying, you ask if she’d like some water, the mother says she has some but thanks.
You obsessively search for information only to find little. By 8:30 you decide to return to your home in Boyes Hot Springs to regroup and make a plan. You have learned that Erin’s house is gone, that Cardinal Newman is gone, that Gunlach Bundschu and Nicholson Ranch are gone. You begin to feel the enormity of the situation.
Your house is fine, power is still out, you water the roof and monitor the fires, rake duff from the yard, stuff wet rags under the doors. You pack up valuables: paintings, silver and photos, not much but things that can’t be replaced. Around 2 you’re able to lie down and by 5 you’re feeling almost normal, like things will get better. Hope. You need a change of scenery so it’s back to Petaluma for dinner at Mcnears where you can charge your phone, get a good burger, watch updates on TV, and find a pair of Manhattans for your wife.
You drive back and try to get as far as you can up Arnold Drive. The Glen Ellen fire is your main concern, you have heard it is 0% contained and the evacuations are encroaching. The road-closed signs are now at Hannah Boys Center as opposed to Madrone Road. Your wife takes this as a sign that you have to go.
You know your wife and you know that disagreeing is futile plus what if she’s right? You decide to go check out the high school to see what the evacuation center is like. You drive across town and pull into a full SVHS parking lot. Somehow Kathleen and company have transformed the gym into a giant slumber party, the vibe is upbeat, volunteers ask what you need, there are beds and cots and food and clothes. You smile at the scene but can tell that your son and wife want no part of it. You decide to go back home and take your chances.
8:11 Tuesday morning 10/10 your wife wakes you up with Starbucks coffee (with an extra shot of espresso, she knows you so well) and a scone. She slept all right then went out for a drive, past Gunlach and Nicholson which both are still standing then up to Madrone Road (no sign of fire). You read the paper in bed feeling almost like it’s a regular Tuesday then clean the house and unpack most of the truck. Power is still off but you have the greatest hot shower of all time, appreciating things you took for granted just two days ago.
Your wife heads to work at the Index-Tribune and you head to your classroom to charge your devices and see if you can help. You drive past an elderly neighbor who is having a hard time, you and your son give comfort and promise to return later with some food.
The scene is even more upbeat at the high school. Piles of supplies, lots of food, lots of happy but still stunned faces, Will and Shireen and Jane and Drew and Nicarre and Sydney and Casey and many other staff plus a number of students are all providing help for anyone who needs it. Masks and cots and blankets and clothes and water and food and positive mojo all in full supply.
2000 structures burned, 15 dead, 115,000 acres blackened, 3200 people in 28 shelters, 87,000 without electricity, 27,000 without gas.
And it’s only Tuesday.
8:00 Wednesday morning 10/11. You have landed at the Coral Reef Inn in Alameda. You finally pulled the plug about 5 last night after touring Sonoma and discovering that the ridge above Boyes was rapidly burning. You repack the cars, turn on the roof sprinklers, store your truck and your son’s car (which has Philip the deer head from your son’s wall riding shotgun) in the Kaiser parking lot in Petaluma and head to Alameda where a friend has booked a room for you at the Coral Reef Inn.
You just wanted to smell clean air. You have been wearing a mask for the last 3 days and your wife just completed a story for the newspaper about the air quality being abhorrent. Plus there is a feeling when you leave the valley. A little bit of anxiety is lifted as you drive away.
Alameda was a good decision. Hotels in Petaluma, Bodega, and Novato were full and you were using all your precious cell phone battery charge to search. Friends offered places in Danville, Sacramento, Modesto, Santa Cruz and you thought about going to Chico to see your daughter but the hotel option in Alameda seemed like the easiest and best.
You walk to Starbucks for coffee and breakfast and to walk your dog Sam who you snuck into your hotel room. You breathe deeply as you walk and talk with everyone who walks by. You are wearing a long sleeve SONOMA Old School T-shirt that you slept in but it’s like a beacon for conversation for people passing. Everyone is sympathetic, everyone wishes you well, and everyone is concerned.
You return to the hotel room, which has become a media center. Son and wife are both on their laptops, TV on, phones pinging. The worst is happening, the fire is encroaching, and Facebook is down. You make a plan to head to Santa Cruz.
9:10 Friday morning 10/13. You are preparing to head back in after two days of walking on the beach trying to shake the malaise of the fire. It’s like a coat you can’t take off, uncomfortable, irritating, always in the forefront of your mind, unshakable. You had a couple hours of entertainment with the family watching the new Kingsman movie but then you walked out of the theatre, checked your phone and the coat was right back on.
The decision to go back is rooted in the feeling that you have to do something. You want to help; you want to check on your house, you want to be with your community. You don’t like helpless, in the back of your mind your inner hedonist is telling you to stay in Santa Cruz, wait for the fire to get under control, there’s nothing you can do. But you have to do something.
Driving back you check Home Depots and paint stores for masks, batteries and candles. Highway 1 is beautiful but there is a brown layer of smoke just above the ocean. Your cars are fine in the Kaiser parking lot in Petaluma but you drive nervously through increasing smoke to your house on Cherry Avenue.
The house is fine, the sprinklers have leaked down the chimney and done some living room damage but it’s not something you are worried about. You clean up, get rid of most of the food in the fridge, put the house in order as best you can without power and with a raging fire a mile away then head to Hopmonk for a Mandatory Beer Meeting.
On the way out, Rich walks by with his dog explaining that he has been camping out and things aren’t so bad. Neighborhood Gin Rummy tournaments, sharing meals, listening to the radio, not much to do but wait. “It’s been kinda fun, like living in the olden days.” One man’s crisis is another man’s opportunity.
At Hopmonk everybody has stories. Frank cut his business trip in Germany short and is holding steady without power in his house in Sonoma, family is safe, motorcycles and art are in Novato, he wishes he was a volunteer firefighter so he could do more than just wait. Jack is sheltering his dad whose house in Napa is at the fire’s edge. He tells a story of meeting a group of private AIG firefighters who go from insured AIG house to insured AIG house. Privatizing firefighting, is this the future? Chris has lost three houses he recently designed but is feeling pretty normal in downtown Napa. Jack and Chris are heading to Todos Santos on Sunday, you think briefly of joining but know that is not the answer.
It’s good to see the boys, friends are important in crisis. You finish your tonic and head back to the house to collect a few more things. Another friend has volunteered his mother’s house in Petaluma as she is leaving for a week’s vacation. You head over after sunset grateful to have things like power and Internet and laundry and TV. Winds are forecast to pick up, things are still tenuous. You go to sleep feeling very lucky.
In the morning you head back to Sonoma, things are still very much unsettled. You pass a limping deer crossing Arnold Drive and wish there was some way to help. Your wife checks in at the newspaper while you head to the high school. SVHS is still as positive as ever, you see just as many volunteers as evacuees, you check the needs level, volunteers are registering at the Community Center and most slots are filled for the weekend, you’ll check back tomorrow. You wish there was more you could do but realize keeping the family safe is priority one.
You flee the smoke, back to Petaluma. Check in on Facebook where you have to filter what you read so as to not swim in the excrement pool of some posts. You check your email where the golf coaches are trying to figure out a plan for Monday’s SCL tournament. There is no way you are taking 6 girls to Winsor for an all day golf tournament on Monday. You assert your convictions as nicely as possible.