Fires Everywhere!

The love in the air
Fire Station in Sonoma 11/14/17

How the world changed with a door bell ringing at 3AM on October 9, 2017.  I was told I was surrounded by fire and to get ready to evacuate.  How could I be surrounded by fire; it truly made no sense.  So I turned on the TV to find out that Santa Rosa hospitals were being evacuated.  But, that was MANY miles away.  Then the power went out and was to stay out for 8 days. 

I called and texted my son in SF and when he asked if I was okay, I said NO.  His phone had been exploding with the various news apps giving updates.  He was to be my conduit to the outside world for the next several hours.

I discovered that the villages of Kenwood and Glen Ellen were on fire and that the fire was 2-4 miles from my house.  The neighbors helped open my garage so that I could get the car out and I set about to pack some belongings.  What to take – I had no idea, but started with electronics, some clothing, my current bag of knitting and for some reason ALL my knitting needles (which were to be stolen from my car a few days later).  I learned that all roads were closed due to fires literally everywhere with the exception of the highway heading to Hwy 101 via Petaluma.  I decided to stay at home until I had more concrete information.

It was an extremely windy night and the conditions had been dry for some time.  This was the catalyst for so many fires starting and not being able to be contained.  At the time I thought that our neighborhood was safe and that the fire wouldn’t cross Hwy 12.  I later discovered it had crossed  Hwy 101 (6 lanes and a medium divide) and destroyed in an instant several neighborhoods on the west side of 101.  And, just a couple of miles north of my house the fire did indeed cross Hwy 12 and spread across to Arnold Dr. threatening even more areas.

Trinity Cavedale 10.10.17
Photo taken by Leo Merle is the Trinity/Cavedale area above my house on 10/10/17

I was surrounded on the NW, N and NE and  now being threatened by fires just a couple miles away on the E and SE (at this point the fires were ZERO % contained).  On Wednesday after securing the house and watering it down the best I could, I evacuated feeling I would be a hindrance if I stayed; I really had nothing to offer. The fires were so close and I was in an Advisory situation, I knew that nobody would really be able to say it was time to leave.

I returned home on Friday to check on everything and clean out the too full refrigerator and again water everything down.  Several homes had sprinklers set to their roofs on timers.  There was concern of more winds and worsening conditions.  Downtown Sonoma was being threatened and evacuated and they were bringing in the big planes, huge bull dozers, helicopters with water and an untold number of firefighters, national guard troops and law enforcement from the greater Bay Area and many states.  There were many unmarked vehicles patrolling as well.  This was to go on through the weekend when I think the containment reached 10%.  This was seven days later.  Seven days of being on alert and not knowing what was going on and fearing for the worst. Not able to do anything pro-active. It came down to wind direction in so many instances.  I studied the wind charts from the Sonoma County airport by the hour (in reality, they probably had nothing to do with my area) and kept updated with satellite fire maps (which are only updated with the satellite rotation).

10.16.17 Depot Park
Photo taken by Leo Merle 10/16/17 in Depot Park

The air quality was abysmal; several times I could barely see people standing next to me and  you could see smoke and flames in the not so distant landscape. Fire lines were less than a mile away. The SF Chronicle had an article that the air quality in SF was worse than in Beijing.  It was clear and sunny there – I can only imagine the after effects this is going to have on so many people.  Over a month later I still smell that campfire smell .

There were so many  local heroes including several neighbors who stayed with their generators to protect their homes and the neighborhood.  Not only was fire a concern, but looting and just general mistrust.  Every one was on alert and still are as so many scams have surfaced.  Several people asked, why isn’t everybody evacuating?  This article might help answer that. There simply was not enough official help.  It all happened too fast, spread too quickly and covered such a vast area.  Had these folks not stayed this entire valley could have burned and the fires spread even further.

I returned home again on Sunday and got power back on Monday.  I was one of the lucky ones.  28.3% of Sonoma Valley was burned along with 652 structures.  There still isn’t an estimate of houses that burned in the valley.  I did read over 10,000 persons were displaced in Santa Rosa (could that number be correct?). It will probably take years to sort all this out. Driving through these burned areas is very sobering. I have only addressed Sonoma County; next door in Napa County fires (Atlas and Partrick) were equally devastating. Possessions don’t matter; lives do – that is a no brainer, but it is so hard for me to put my head around what happened and to understand what those who lost everything are actually going through.  Although it is just possessions they are “your” history and memories and that is devastating. The animals – I cannot even go down that path……  I weep for so many.

Many people reached out to me and I am forever grateful.  I will actually get around to responding to you all.  I went on radio silence for while as every time I got a text alert I jumped.  Sleeping through the night is a challenge still.  Neighbors tell me they are still dreaming of fires. Disorientation is still rampant maybe in part due to the smoke inhalation and emotions are raw and on the surface. There will be emotional scars for a long time as all of our lives have changed forever suffering from loss and trauma.  Sadness, anxiety, anger and guilt are just some of the emotions being felt.  There is a collective PTSD in every plant and animal cell in our greater wine country.

The Love in the Air is Thicker than the Smoke.  These signs were seen early on then posted on the NASDQ billboard in Times Square. Posters showing gratitude sprouted up everywhere yet no words are really there to express the appreciation and gratitude that was felt toward the first responders who did so much. BE OUR GUEST was the mantra as the culinary industry teamed up to feed the evacuees and first responders.   Our communities have rallied to help one another.   There is a strong sense of neighborhood and generosity.  I want to think we are unique in some way, but we are not.  It is the American spirit. I saw it during the 9/11 crisis and recently in Houston and Florida with their hurricanes.  I just now understand it firsthand.

What I learned.  I was totally unprepared and had no plan.  Sure, I had the requisite flashlights, lanterns, water, a full gas tank (by luck) and some cash.  But, as I stared into a closet not knowing what to take I realised I just had too much stuff.  It is time to declutter (see another blog post in the works?).  I learned that vineyards apparently don’t burn, that Sonoma County has an awesome Sheriff who isn’t afraid of the Feds and tells the ICE to back off and that dozers are HUGE pieces of equipment. I also learned that it is time to update the home insurance policy to be in line with actual replacement costs in this area and to to find out why the reimbursement to me of $500 for  spoiled food coverage could possibly raise my insurance rates.   It’s time to propel into forward motion as I am constantly reminded that we live in earthquake territory.  #SonomaStrong

Times Square
Times Square, NYC 10/19/17