While firefighters are making great strides in containment, parts of Sonoma County are still on fire. Actually, a lot of California is on fire. And, if you are interested in a global perspective, much of the world is on fire—from the Amazon Rain Forest to the Arctic Circle. Can the diehards continue to deny global warming?
One would think that a fire storm that burned more than 76,000 acres, and displaced more than 180,000 people, would inspire me to write something profound. Instead, I’ve been totally blocked, unable to write anything. Where should I start? How could I do justice to an event so huge, so impactful, so tragic? Tonight, having returned to my home after four days in limbo, I’m ready to take a stab at it.
My mandatory evacuation notice arrived early Sunday morning. I was so sure my area was safe that I’d packed nothing in advance. My son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter, Elise, plus two cats were sheltering with me. They’d evacuated from Healdsburg. I had power. Elise was excited to be spending an overnight at Nana’s house. Emily, my daughter-in-law, shed a few tears from time to time but, overall, we were having a lovely time together. After dinner, we retired for the night feeling pretty secure. However, no one, except Elise, got much sleep. Phone alerts buzzed on and off all night. It went something like this— go to sleep, phone buzzes, back to sleep, phone buzzes. Bleary-eyed, I tried to focus on messages that seemed to repeat the same thing, over and over, about other areas—not mine. Then, at 5 AM, it was mine.
Ethan was repacked and out by six. I was about 15 minutes behind. Our original plan was to go to Oakland and stay with my oldest son, Ben. I’d been on the road about 10 minutes (going nowhere) when Ethan texted a change of plans. They were going to Manteca where Emily’s parents were staying with family. Sitting in gridlocked traffic, Oakland seemed unattainable. I called my friend, Lourdes, in Petaluma. Another friend, Mala, was already there.
“Come on over.”
A drive that usually takes 25 to 30 minutes took me three and a half hours. Nevertheless, I was strangely calm. Everyone one the road seemed calm as well. No hot tempers and blaring horns. Drivers courteously allowed cars to merge from side streets despite the fact that traffic was bumper-to-bumper.
Was I frightened? A bit. Was I really about to lose my home and everything in it? It seemed possible. Yet, despite everything, I was grateful—grateful that on this evacuation, everyone had time to get out safely. Sitting on Highway 12 going 0 to 5 mph, I thought about last year’s fire in Paradise where people sitting in gridlocked traffic had nowhere to go as they watched the fire gaining on them. Eighty-six people died in that fire. And I thought about the Tubbs Fire, the year before, when fire licked at back doors while people raced out the front, often in their pajamas. So, yes, in the midst of chaos, I was feeling grateful.
Mala and I stayed with Lourdes for almost four days. So many people were suffering, sleeping on cots at evacuation centers or staying with friends with no power. There were large families stuffed into tiny trailers. And there I was, sleeping in my own room with a private bath, power, phone, wi-fi, and hot water. I felt both guilty and grateful.
Tuesday night, Mala and I took Lourdes out to dinner. The people at the next table paid for another couple’s meal when they learned they were evacuees. As the restaurant emptied out, I struck up a conversation with the lucky recipients. They told me that they left an Italianate style home in Healdsburg, one they’d rescued from a possum colony many years ago.
“I’m from the East,” I said. “I love old homes.
The man sat a little straighter. He was clearly interested, “Where are you from.”
“I was born in Bethlehem and raised in a little town in Berks County.”
He knew it. He was from adjacent Bucks County. My dad was born in Bucks County. We shared collective memories of the area. The man’s father was probably the Santa on whose lap I sat when I was a tot. Small world. The conversation left us all feeling strangely happy. Grateful, again.
I had an appointment in Santa Rosa yesterday, so I decided to stop at my house. Everything looked so normal. A neighbor informed me that many people never left. I wanted to stay myself, but I had business back in Petaluma. I needed to pick up all my stuff there anyway and, being a dutiful citizen, I decided to wait for the evacuation order to be lifted. However, seeing my home sitting there safe and sound finally dissolved the knot at the pit of my stomach. I was no longer concerned for myself—simply concerned about others not so fortunate. No more fear. Lots of gratitude.
I no sooner returned to Petaluma when I got the message—evacuations removed for Santa Rosa, Windsor and Healdsburg. My friends’ homes were safe. My kids could go home, and so could I.
So here I sit, putting the finishing touches on my blog and thinking about everything that’s transpired. I’ve been touched by the kindness of strangers and gained an even greater appreciation for the comfort and camaraderie found in friendship. I can’t thank the firefighters and peacekeepers enough. They saved us. I was reminded, yet again, that when the going gets rough, Sonoma County comes together—Sonoma County strong. My friend, Laura Carr, summed up the past week as “equal parts adventure, tumult, chaos and gratitude.” I couldn’t have said it better.