Fire! And Its Aftermath

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

Note: I had written this essay before Rachel posted hers on the fire last Friday. Great minds and all that! My recounting of the fire unfolds more of the events, and I reflect on how the fire affected me. As I keep repeating to each person I talk to in our town, “Everyone has his or her own story about the fire.” Here’s mine:

“We lost our innocence.” That’s how one of my friends summarized the effect the fires that descended on Santa Rosa October 8 had on our community.

We’re all still processing what happened to us that first night when the 70 mph winds, appropriately named Diablo, licked the fire through a mountain range. Then the flames reached Santa Rosa and its populace, which was snoozing through a Sunday night. The fire moved so fast that it engulfed a couple of wooded neighborhoods, leapt over a six-lane freeway to destroy Coffey Park neighborhood, and then bounded through more hills to gulp up another neighborhood–all within the first couple of hours.

How we found out.

Most of us were alerted to the danger by a sharp-eyed neighbor, who happened to be walking the dog late at night, or someone who got up to go to the bathroom and looked out the window to realize a fire was 20 feet from the house. The fire moved so fast, no other warnings were sounded for the majority of those first touched by the flames beyond a phone call from a friend or family member or a neighbor pounding on the door.

Unscathed? No.

I was relatively untouched by the fire. I remind myself of that every day. Because, regardless how I dice it, the experience was traumatic.

That first night, two phone calls, one right after the other on my cell phone, prompted me to wake from a deep sleep. I looked at my clock, only to realize the electricity was out. Then I noted that the wind was ferocious, and the smell of smoke was acrid–and wafting into my house from the windows I’d left open.

“We’re next.”

Before I could look at my phone, I thought I heard someone outside calling my name. That was spooky. While checking my phone to see who had called me (it was Rachel, who was warning me to wake up and check if the fires were bearing down on my  house), my phone rang again. A neighbor, who is a retired sheriff, was outside my front door. She had been listening to emergency calls (it’s a “thing” for retired law enforcement) and following the fire’s rapid pace. She was calling me since I hadn’t responded to her pounding on my door. The winds were causing such a ruckus, I didn’t hear her efforts to rouse me, including calling my name. She told me that fires were raging and mandatory evacuations were taking place a few blocks west of our houses, and we were next to be evacuated.

Dazed but now wide awake, I responded, “I guess I better get dressed.” I checked the time on my phone: 2:30 a.m. I went out on my porch and could see significant smoke to the west in a sky glowing from flames. Then I went out on my deck and looked to the east. More smoke, with the horizon aglow from fire.Later I learned that seven fires were burning around our city, and my area had flames coming at us from east, northwest, and south. (I couldn’t see the southern approach from my house.)

After gathering whatever items occurred to me, I was on my way out the door. As I left, I took one more look around my home and said goodbye to my belongings and my house.

How did we spend our evacuation time?

The rest of the week for me was all about evacuating from one place to another as the fires spread. Each move was fraught with tension. Sirens wailing, helicopters and planes flying low overhead, and fire engines rushing around added to the frantic feel. And when your street is evacuated? Police cars rush in with sirens and lights ablaze,and police officers use bullhorns to tell everyone to get out immediately.

For some that’s more challenging than others. One family in my daughter’s neighborhood, where I stayed before they were evacuated, owns a 600-pound pet pig, which started out miniature but never stopped eating. But that’s another story…It took most of the men from the surrounding houses to heft the door the pig was strapped to into the family’s car.

As evacuees, we spent a fair share of our time and energy online, seeking information about what was happening. Was my house safe? What about Rachel’s and Michelle’s? My two daughters’ homes? Friends’ homes? We learned early on about restaurants, shops, wineries, and gas stations the fire ate up.

Every day we breathed thick smoke, we kept a wary eye on the sky, we wondered what would burn next and whether another evacuation was in the lineup for that day. Most of all we wondered how long the fires would have the upper hand and what would be lost.

I’m still pondering what I learned from it all. Here are a few takeaways:

The best rises to the surface.

One caretaker, who discovered the fire was breathing down on the house he shared with his full-time patient, realized he had two choices: try to out-race the fire by wheeling his charge down the street in her wheelchair or heading across the street to a park where the green grass might provide enough safety. He chose the park. For three hours he battled embers and burning debris–including cars hurled through the air by the hurricane-force winds the fire generated–before help arrived. His patient was uninjured, but the caregiver had burns on his arms and face.

The worst rises from others.

Quick-thinking robbers threw eggs at the windshields of those fleeing the fire, knowing each car held a family’s most precious items, including electronic equipment, jewelry, cash, and identity papers. The thick smoke and the dark of night (no street lights were working) made it hard to drive, but the added mess of eggs on a windshield forced drivers to stop–and be robbed.

Refugees suffer horribly.

I moved eight times in the ten days I was evacuated, as the fire kept me from being able to settle into any sort of routine. I used the hashtag #nomadlifestyle on Facebook. But the touch of humor hid the reality that I had only what was in my car, the items I had grabbed in those early morning hours. I thought a lot about what refugees suffer as they take only what they can carry on their backs and leave home for a foreign country, knowing the possibility they’ll ever return is slim. Their plight is so much more poignant to me now.

Whatever you lose in life, your loss is significant.

While I count myself blessed to have all my possessions, I lost my sense of safety. My trauma wasn’t one of losing a house, or a loved one, or a pet, or the items I’ve carefully collected over the years. But the security I feel when I’m in my home is a false one. We all know that in our heads, but that knowledge has moved to my heart.

Time will heal wounds but leave scars.

Ten years from now our city will look back on those weeks of October with a sigh and a bowed head. We have a long way to go to begin to recover, and while the hills will turn green again, houses will be rebuilt, and the fire barriers bulldozed into the hillsides will be covered over with vegetation, the real scars–the ones in our hearts–will remain. That’s how life works. We go on after a significant event, but we move on changed.

In Santa Rosa, we still tell each other our stories from the first night. Last week I had a plumber, whom I’d never met, come to fix a leaking toilet. He told me of his customers in a luxurious neighborhood who all lost their architecturally gorgeous homes. The last house he had a job in before the fire had a glass floor on the upper level that gave a bird’s eye view of the lower floor of the house. Even though the plumber didn’t lose his house, he lost the beauty of those homes he used to take care of. And he feels the loss each family suffered. He needed to talk about it to me, a stranger who happened to share in the fiery experience with him.

I asked a bank teller how the fire affected her, and she told me about her rescue of her two parents, in their late 80s. She drove into the fire to bring them out since neither of them can drive any more. They lost their house. Her parents don’t have the capacity to rebuild. She thinks they should go into assisted living. They can’t bear the thought. Then, her eyes big with tears, she said to me, “So they’re living with me. And will for the foreseeable future.”

The stories abound, the heartache is real, and the grieving goes on. Don’t forget to pray for our town, which was the hardest hit by the fires, but also for our county. Our journey to healing is only starting. Thanks for reading.

Next week I promise to be all professional in my post.

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