From the Ashes We Will Rise – part two – the evacuation

(To read part one, the beginning of this story, click here.)

These signs appeared everywhere.

This is what it was like being refugees from the Northern California wildfires.

My husband Miles and I arrived in Sausalito as guests of a friend of his, someone whom he had only known online. They had never met in person, but after many years of exchanging ideas in various political forums they felt very comfortable with each other. She told us there was a vacant artist studio we could stay in, which I had somehow pictured as a bare room in a commercial space in town. But as I drove behind him, up a steep windy road that led sharply up a hill I saw that it was, in fact, an apartment attached to her house.

We were very grateful to have a place where we could unpack and regroup, which began with pulling the dog beds out of the car and setting up a place for them in the living room. Our biggest concern was that our three dogs behave themselves and not mess up our host’s house. We have a greyhound and two whippets who are used to being able to go through a dog door into our backyard whenever they want. They are not accustomed to having to wait to be walked in order to take care of their needs. This was going to be very different for them. But I was so grateful. Had we evacuated to one of the shelters, we most likely would have had to keep them on a leash 24 hours a day, which would have been very hard on them and on us.

Before unpacking anything else we walked the dogs down the long driveway.

They kept sniffing around, looking for a patch of dirt or grass to squat on, but there were no places like that. We then turned down the road, but every surface was either paved, planted or built upon. Eventually they crouched on the pavement and we pulled out the bags to scoop it up. As we returned to the studio, Maggie, our greyhound who is twelve years old, stumbled while walking up the steps to the door and almost fell over the edge. She is at that stage in her life where she is having difficulty maneuvering her body and I realized I needed to walk her separately from the whippets to make sure she didn’t trip and hurt herself.

Our cars were crammed full of bags, so I just brought in a small overnight bag that had a change of clothes and toiletries, as well as our bag of food. We were very fortunate. This place had a bedroom and a small kitchen.

The dogs looked at me anxiously and I thought I better give them rawhide bones to chew on so I went back to the car, looking for them. I knew I packed them, but I couldn’t find them at first as I dug through several canvas grocery bags. No, they weren’t in the bag with the cans of dog food. Nor were they with the kibble. I definitely remembered packing them. Eventually I found them nestled with my dark chocolate Dove promises. I guess that was during the second round of survival packing, when I grabbed treats.

As we tuned into the news websites on our phones we realized how lucky we were. Many people had been forced to flee in the middle of the night, wearing only their pajamas. In some cases their pets panicked and took off, forcing them to leave without them. And there were some people who didn’t even wake up and didn’t make it out at all. Elderly people who used hearing aids didn’t hear the bullhorns at 3:00 a.m. telling them they needed to evacuate. Some couldn’t move fast enough. Trees had been knocked over by the wind, blocking the roads. All of this had happened so fast it was more than our first responders could initially manage. By now it was three days later and reinforcements were coming from all over California but initially it took everyone by surprise. The wind was fierce, blowing down power lines, which sparked and the sparks got carried further, and within a very short time, miles of land, including large residential areas caught fire.

Maggie

I checked the website that was tracking the progress and saw that containment of the Tubbs Fire, the one closest to us, had only gone from 1% to 4%. There were national headlines that wine country was on fire. This was the big news. We were beginning to piece the story together. It was bad, much worse than we thought. And it was far from over. The wind was the wild card that could either give us a break, and enable firefighters to contain the fire, or spread it more widely. Our home was still in danger. Nothing was under control and the wind could blow the flames right down our street. As it was, a neighborhood just a mile away from ours had burned to the ground. One block from us was the border of a mandatory evacuation zone, which meant we could be receiving our orders at any moment. Again, I thought about my belongings, about our home that meant so much to me. Was letting go of everything some spiritual lesson I was supposed to learn?

“I forgot to pack my massage certificate, “ I told Miles, fretting.

“That’s the least of your problems,” he said.

We ate energy bars for dinner and walked the dogs again. Grace, our female whippet, sniffed and sniffed the ground but refused to pee. She’s going to want to go ten minutes after we get back to the studio, I thought. Sure enough, at midnight, after we’d gone to bed she was crying, needing to go. This became a pattern. We walked the dogs about four times every day, but no matter what we did, they woke us up in the middle of the night needing to go again. Just like us, their routine was completely disrupted and they didn’t know how to act.

The next day, after Miles and I ate a breakfast of crackers and peanut butter, Jennifer, our host, asked if there was anything she could pick up for us at the store.

“Can I come with you?” I asked. The long driveway was very narrow, so our cars were blocked in and it wasn’t easy to get in and out, so I jumped on the opportunity to go to a grocery store.

We drove to the Good Earth market and I started thinking up possible dinner menus I could make for Jennifer and the other people living at the house as a way of saying thank you. Walking through the grocery store was somewhat similar to the way I ran through my house, grabbing items at random to put in the car. I didn’t know how long we’d be staying in Sausalito so I started reaching for all sorts of things to put in my basket, trying to think in terms of meals. I’d be halfway across the store searching for tofu and come scurrying back to the produce aisle because I remembered I wanted to put sliced oranges in the dish. I went to another aisle to pick up a bottle of wine and then thought I should go back and get some fresh ginger to spice up the stir-fry. Once again, I was halfway across the store when I suddenly thought I should get walnuts to toast and put in the salad. I wanted to make tasty food, to show my gratitude. But my mind was anything but organized. I was getting lot of exercise running all over the store, worried that I was forgetting something I would want once I started cooking. Once I finally got through the checkout, Jennifer was patiently waiting for me outside.

When we got back to the house it was time to walk the dogs again. Miles took the whippets and I took Maggie. We walked up and down the driveway, three or four times until the dogs finally squatted, both of us keeping track of who had done what, so we had a sense of who might still need to go out later.

I got busy in Jennifer’s kitchen, opening drawers and finding my way around. I made a marinade for the tofu, started toasting walnuts for the salad. Cooking kept me busy and I really needed to be busy. I was so frantic I hardly knew what to do with myself, so this was good. Cooking helped me feel slightly normal. I have a Bluetooth speaker I always travel with, that syncs with the music on my phone and enables me to fill a room with music. I managed to find it among my things and soon we were listening to jazz. I think this helped calm everybody down. We opened the wine. I got the food prepared and we all sat around the table, eating and sharing stories.

I learned about modnomadstudio, this place that Jennifer created to invite artists to do retreats, and met a woman who was currently an artist-in-residence who was living there and going to school. Jennifer had all sorts of creative ideas about ways to bring people together to change the world, to be activists, and to use their art to make statements. She had spent many years as an editor, working for the publishing company Chelsea Green, among others, and was now doing less of that and had time for other pursuits. I was impressed by the way she not only had great ideas, but also knew how to make them happen.

As dinner began to wind down Miles said he wanted to check on the dogs. We didn’t want to leave them alone for too long. It wasn’t just that they might need to go out, but also that they were out of their element and we didn’t want them to act out from nervousness and cause a mess or break something.

The following morning as I got ready to take a shower, I realized my overnight bag didn’t have any more fresh clothes, so I needed to get some more from the car. Besides, I needed my nutritional supplements. I didn’t understand why I hadn’t put them in the same pocket with my sleep herbs and wasn’t sure where to find them. I also didn’t know which bag had my t-shirts. They must be in my large suitcase, I thought. I pulled the heavy bag out of the back of the car and muscled it up the steps into the studio. When I opened it, all I found were sweaters and heavy clothes. Where had I put my t-shirts, I wondered? And where was my underwear? I felt really lost. The car was so filled with layers of canvas bags and I had no idea where anything was. I stood in the driveway, pulling them out, rummaging frantically for a pair of underpants and a clean t-shirt. Why was there no order to the way things were packed? What was wrong with me?

We were able to keep up with friends and hear about new developments through Facebook. Friends from around the country continued to contact us to see if we were okay, and expressed concern about our situation. But while thousands of people were in shelters, facing the enormous loss that we dreaded, we were momentarily safe and comfortable. The anguish of witnessing the devastation to our community was all around us, not knowing if we would be next. As Miles wrote in one of his Facebook posts, our best-case scenario would be survivor guilt. Indeed, we could already feel that.

As delightful as Jennifer’s house was in beautiful Sausalito, we wanted to get back home. The dogs woke us up in the wee hours every night and either Miles or I got up to walk them. I figured no one was going to see me at 4:00 a.m. in my pajamas, so who cares, as I walked up and down the driveway with Grace until she felt comfortable enough to relieve herself. But this lack of sleep was getting to us. We felt anxious being away from our house. Miles, who works from home, needed to keep working, problem solving for his organization and logging in for video conferences, doing his best to keep up, but it was hard.

One of my neighbors was on vacation in Boston when the fires occurred and she called to ask me to pick up her mail, as she was expecting something important. I knew I needed to get back. As uncertain as everything was, we needed to return to as much of our routine as we could.

On the evening of our third day away, George called and told us the electricity had come back on, so we decided we would go home the next day. I made roasted ratatouille for dinner that night, with pasta and sautéed cannellini beans and we enjoyed one more meal with Jennifer’s household.

The following morning we packed our car, got the dogs positioned where they would be most comfortable, and said goodbye to our magnificent hosts. How strange, we said, that it took a catastrophe for us all to finally meet.

Then we headed back up north to Santa Rosa, unsure what we would find.

 

 

 

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From the Ashes We Will Rise – Tubbs Fire; part one

These signs popped up all over the city.

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.