It was 4:30 a.m. and I awoke to the sound of my husband Miles, telling me that Santa Rosa was on fire and we might have to leave. Adrenaline replaced caffeine as I quickly became alert, sat up in bed, struggled to take in what he was saying and then raced into the shower, dressed, and tried to wrap my mind around what was happening. Miles gave me the number of Nixle, the warning system that sends text alerts about voluntary and mandatory evacuations. Text messages immediately began coming through, citing locations that needed to evacuate.
Frantically, I began throwing clothes into a bag, not sure what I should take, grabbing a little bit of everything.
An hour later the house went black, as our power went out, just in case we hadn’t taken the situation seriously enough. We continued to pack in the dark using flashlights until dawn arrived. Outside, the air was brown and smoky, as I walked back and forth from the house to my car, carrying suitcases and bags of belongings. I had no idea how long we would need to be gone or where we would go. After packing a few changes of clothes I started grabbing other things at random. A good pair of walking shoes, sleeping bags, blankets.
Our toilets still flushed, and since the gas was working there was hot water for showers, so we decided to stay at home for as long as we could. With three dogs, taking off would not be easy, so we chose to postpone it for as long as possible. Our mobile phones stopped working once the cell towers burned down, so after the initial news, we had no way of knowing what was happening. Occasionally a text message would manage to slip through from a friend asking if we were safe, but when I replied I received notice that my message failed. So frustrating!
We were afraid to leave the house and go downtown in search of WiFi because we didn’t want to leave our dogs alone in case the fire suddenly began to engulf the house. The previous night there had been fierce winds that tore through town at about 70 miles an hour. It was like the opening scene in the Wizard of Oz, powerful enough to blow down trees, power lines and spread a wildfire for many miles. We didn’t know it at the time, but the fire had already traveled over 20 miles and was blowing in our direction, already devouring neighborhoods near us. Depending on the intensity and direction of the wind, the fire could reach us very quickly.
We needed to be ready to flee and take our dogs with us. I continued rushing around, looking for things I should bring and shoving them into the car. I went through my filing cabinets pulling out important documents like my passport, birth certificate, insurance papers, mortgage papers, trying to think of what I should take. I shut down my laptop and put it in a carrying case. I grabbed a canvas grocery bag and filled it with cans of dog food. Miles picked up the large bag of dry dog food and put it in his car.
More and more supplies were put into the car. Rawhide bones for the dogs. The book I was currently reading. As the hours passed I added more things. An adjustable back scratcher I’d recently received s a gift. The thought of losing everything filled me with a combination of shock, disbelief and panic. A bag of dark chocolate Dove promises went in next. Then a bag of almonds.
After so many other places around the country had had huge environmental disasters we were now having ours, and at the moment I had no idea how bad it was. Food and clothes were my immediate concern. I like my comfortable clothes. I didn’t want to have to buy new ones. I hate shopping for clothes.
With the electricity out that meant stores and restaurants would be closed so I started gathering together food that didn’t require preparation to eat. I packed crackers, cheese, peanut butter, nuts, energy bars. I had been drying figs that had just been picked from our backyard tree, which lay on the food dehydrator which had turned off once the electricity died so I pulled the partially dried fruit off the trays and put them in a Ziploc bag.
George, our friend and housemate, had been awake since 3:00 a.m. and was already showered by the time I woke up. He was hurriedly leaving to go to work several hours earlier than normal, to his job at our daily newspaper, since it was clear that something big and newsworthy was going on and he would be needed.
Around 7:00 a.m. I walked out the front door. It was just beginning to get light and a few neighbors were coming out of their houses in shock, like us. People were standing outside, talking about the fires. I walked across the street and joined a few people who stood talking. We gave each other hugs and shared whatever information we could. I saw a big orange wall of fire beyond the smoke. We weren’t sure at what point we, too, would be required to leave.
For the next few hours I stayed outside, frantically sweeping the porch and cleaning the walkway while Miles hosed down the house. The winds had blown a terrific amount of debris everywhere. Leaves were piling up. So I swept, not that I was accomplishing much. Mainly it was something to do with the ferocious anxiety and energy that was pouring through me. Yes, I’ve lost my mind. The world is burning down and I’m scrubbing the sidewalk.
I had watched hurricanes in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico and now the dark hand of catastrophe was here in Sonoma County. It was our lives on the line this time.
When Trump became president in January, I felt a horrible dread. I didn’t know what or how, but I knew that terrible things would happen. I knew I would go through something hard but had no idea what or when that might be. I had been bracing myself for an unknown horror since the day he took office. I had read about the destructive policies he wanted to pass, the protections he want to eliminate, all the ways his cabinet wanted to turn us into a desperate third world country, where only the rich could afford healthcare, where the air is hazardous to breathe, where food is so expensive it takes everything you have just to eat.
For months I had lived in a state of dread. How long before it would affect us? When would we start to notice the results of their actions? Would we have to flee the country?
Not that these fires had anything to do with our president or our government. But I had been braced for something terrifying to happen and now it had.
Around 6:00 p.m. George came home after more than 12 hours at the newspaper with stories about the fire. How the fierce winds had spread it throughout four counties, decimating neighborhoods, devouring acreage, businesses and landmarks and was only 1% contained at this point. We heard about entire mobile home parks that had burned down to the ground. Places where we shopped, including my beloved Trader Joe’s had burned. It was surreal. Nothing like this had ever happened. Earthquakes were the disaster we worried about, the danger that we prepared for. Not a massive fire.
We kept thinking the electricity would come back on soon. It had never been out for more than a couple of hours. In the meantime, we could take showers, we could cook on the gas stove. We could cope.
The second day, the power was still out and we decided to drive downtown and find a coffee shop with WiFi. Occasional texts continued to pop onto my phone, but attempts to reply were getting very frustrating. I really wanted to be able to contact my friends.
We drove a mile into the downtown area and parked. It was eerie getting out of the car and walking towards the main street. No one was there. Nothing was open. Through the thick, dark smoke we only saw deserted streets. No cars were parked in the spots where it was usually impossible to find a space. It looked like the scene from a post apocalyptic sci fi movie. Or a war zone.
We walked down Fourth Street, the main drag, somewhat in shock as we passed Starbucks, Peet’s, all the usual places to congregate and get coffee and use WiFi but they were closed. There were no people anywhere. After a block we saw a sweet shop open. Inside, a woman was standing by the counter, and it was almost like seeing a ghost. She smiled and greeted us, made us tea and gave us the WiFi password.
We sat down and were finally able to text with friends, check the news and get a grip on what was taking place. The fires were going strong. We realized we should probably leave for a few days.
I posted about our situation on Facebook and people began offering us places to stay. Thing was, with three dogs it would be a big imposition. As kind and generous as my friends were, I couldn’t imagine showing up with all of our baggage for an indeterminate amount of time. I also knew that hotels were out. Even if it weren’t for our pets, by now all the rooms would have been taken. By now there was a massive exodus taking place. I didn’t know where to go or what to do.
Then a friend of my husband’s offered us a place she called an artist’s retreat space, someplace separate where we could just be ourselves. That sounded good. We said, Yes.
Now we had to get ourselves ready to leave. I had to face the fact that I may never see my house again, so I kept adding items to the already over-packed car. I grabbed all of my sweaters. Coats. All my hand-woven scarves. Winter was coming. At least I would be warm during the apocalypse. I packed pillows and more blankets. I had no idea what we would be facing in the days and weeks to come. Perhaps this was not going to be for just a few days. We may not have another chance to see any of our things. We took photo albums and our wedding album. Miles walked around taking photos with his phone to document everything of value in case we had to show our insurance company what our belongings used to be. I packed a scrapbook I had made of stories and photos from our first trip to Italy and France. Miles went through the bookshelves pulling out copies of signed books from his heroes.
I folded up the seat in the rear of my Honda Fit, which opened up a large space. Placing several blankets on the floor, I lay one of the large dog beds on top. Then I brought my two whippets out. The dogs didn’t know what the hell was going on. We had never taken them on a trip like this. I knew they would feel more at home on the bed that smelled familiar that they would identify as theirs.
Afterwards I walked around my house, trying to figure out what else I should stuff into yet another grocery sack, sure that I was forgetting something terribly important. I thought about how much time time it would take to shop and repurchase everything I owned, even if we did get money from our insurance company. All my cooking tools. The pottery I’ve collected from a lifetime of art shows and craft fairs. Beautiful pieces of art. The stained glass lampshades that made our living room so warm and cozy. It had taken most of my life to acquire these things. And now it might all be gone.
“I have to let go of attachment,” I sighed. I sat down, slowly taking in all of the contents of my home. This is the ultimate Zen moment, I thought. These were the things that created a life that looked like me. That felt like me. And I had to let them go. I had to let go of everything. My life had been so well planned and now I had to let it go.
I stopped looking at all my things and turned back to the process of getting ready to leave. I frantically went through closets one more time, grabbing more odd pieces of clothing, hats, socks, jewelry. There was no order to the packing. More like a crazy person running through a house looting. It was totally disorganized. Same with the food. I didn’t know what we would find once we left, so I kept pulling things out of the cupboards, anything that didn’t require any preparation, rummaging for more canvas bags until the car was completely full.
It broke my heart to drive away, to leave the solar panels I was so proud of, the bushes full of ripe raspberries, the fig tree, all my flowers. I left George’s sleeping bag out and I packed him a bag full of clothes, so if he got evacuation orders he could also leave quickly.
Fortunately the tanks in our cars were full, since, with the electricity out, all the nearby stations were closed. Keeping a full gas tank was an emergency practice I had maintained since Hurricane Katrina. Then we took off, heading south down the freeway. Miles drove ahead of me with our greyhound, Maggie, and I had the two whippets, Grace and Spencer, in the back of my car, curled up on their bed as frightened as I was as we headed to our refuge. We had no idea what would happen next but were soon to learn that this was the worst wildfire in California history.