At the Quarterly Employee Recognition Event at work a couple of weeks ago they were handing out collapsible water containers for emergency preparedness, which mostly made me think of earthquakes and that yes there’s some things I should do to be more ready for those. That might have been in the back of my head when Eric and I got back from a ride of mildly inappropriate distance last Sunday night, in the midst of an unsettling crazy dry wind that made me wonder “is this what they call earthquake weather?” I didn’t even think of fire, although that’s another common, perhaps more common than earthquakes, event here in California.
We woke up to the heavy smell of smoke on Monday morning (October 9). I didn’t have cell signal on Verizon, Eric had some on AT&T, and between that and the radio we were able to get an idea of what was happening. Fire. Big Fire. Close. Parts of town – Santa Rosa, CA – burnt down. Hospitals evacuated. Neighborhoods evacuated. Not my neighborhood, but everything to the north and somewhat to the east, the boundary a mile to two away in the closest spots. I realized the thumps I’d heard in the early morning must have been propane tanks or transformers exploding.
We had been planning to go to Eric’s place in San Francisco anyway, but the circumstances made it a bit surreal. It was after daylight, so I never saw any orange glow or flames, but the sky was very smokey. Neighbors were out in the street, discussing the situation. One had a friend who’d had to evacuate. It sounded like his neighborhood was burned out.
So instead of doing laundry, I was packing up “the essentials.” What does that even mean?! (notetoself make list) For better or worse, I had the luxury of time. What’s important? OK. Practical – some clothes and toiletries. Then documents. Then… well, it’s “just stuff.” Photos, items of sentimental value. How do you choose? It made me realize how much I have. Too much, but I couldn’t/didn’t want to think of it all being gone. Everything I took might be something I wouldn’t have to replace. No, don’t think about that.
I started to spin out a bit, Eric encouraged me to wrap it up so we could get on the road, and helped me load up the van. We had our bikes, so regardless we’d be mobile. We decided to go the scenic route, out through west Sonoma and Marin counties, to avoid the 101 corridor. (I later heard from one of my printshop mates that it had taken her 3 hours to travel the 40ish miles from Santa Rosa to San Rafael – an hour of that for the 7 miles from Petaluma Boulevard North to Petaluma Boulevard South.) The van needed gas, so we stopped before we left town. I was worried the closest station would be mobbed – there was a line and a bit of a wait, but people were pretty well-mannered. The line at the other station we passed before Sebastopol had a longer line so I was glad we were topped up.
After being on the bike for four days, being at car speed was a little disconcerting, and traveling roads we usually cycle was another layer of surreality for the day. (In case you’re wondering, Middle Road is much easier with internal combustion. Of the not the burrito variety.) Eric asked if I was hungry. I couldn’t tell if the feeling in my stomach was hunger or nerves. But yes, life goes on, I should probably have something to eat. Alas, the bakery in Tomales was closed, so we continued on to Pt. Reyes Station, which was surprisingly busy.
The smoke followed us into Marin and out to the coast. Not until southern Marin did it clear. Skies were also clear in San Francisco, and – if one didn’t listen to the news or get on social media one could almost think it was all a bad dream. I tried to not incessantly check for updates.
I woke up to the smell of smoke even in San Francisco the next day – Tuesday 10th, and went to work that day and the rest of the week – which was in some ways a welcome “normality” and distraction, but in other ways seemed like – fiddling while Rome burns (ugh, too literal?) – but yeah, that feeling of what is the point?! What am I doing here when my town is burning down?! It was a little difficult to focus, especially when there was an advisory evacuation notice which was within a few blocks of my house. I hoped it was just that they were erring on the side of caution. The advisory notice was lifted later in the week, as were some of the mandatory areas, and it seemed that perhaps the tide was turning towards control of the fire, but then we woke up Saturday morning to more mandatory evacuations.
Throughout the week the smoke was better or worse, depending on the weather. There was a fear of more high winds, which fortunately didn’t materialize. Help streamed in from all over. The Press Democrat started a banner with bar graphs of fire containment percentages, today, Sunday October 15, The Tubbs Fire is at 60%. The word is cautious optimism. OK, I guess that would be words.
All week I’ve had tightness in the head and chest – hard to tell what is the mental overhead stress of the uncertainty, the grief for the community and trying to not cry and what are the physical effects of the smoke. On Tuesday I heard about the fire moving into Annadel State Park, where I mountain bike, and then saw a picture of the Round Barn engulfed in flames – both things, which, in the grand scheme of things, where people have lost their homes and lives – are almost insignificant – and yet it was such a gut punch as far as the magnitute of the fire, consuming icons – the things that make Santa Rosa such a special place to live.
And other landmarks damaged and destroyed, and hearing about friends losing their homes, and the death toll rising. Everyone is someone who is directly affected – losing a home or business, or knows someone who is. In some ways it’s hard to get my head around the magnitude of this. The outpourings of support are amazing, but this is not even the start. The fires are not contained yet, that will certainly be a happy milestone. The Nixle alerts will stop, the news cameras will go away, but there will be a long long road of rebuilding.