Last Sunday night, my wife and I were up a little later than normal, trying to catch up on Ken Burns’s Vietnam series. It was a windy night in Santa Rosa, our California town — debris kept striking our windows. I was worried about stuff blowing around in our yard, so I stepped outside to take a look at about 11 p.m. Nothing to see.
But around midnight, I went outside again. Our house is on the top of a hill, and this time, I saw a glow coming from the other side of the mountains to our north, nine miles away. A fire, clearly, but nothing that worried us too much. We lived in a certified fire-safe neighborhood — we’d had a wildfire risk assessment completed and an action plan drawn up to earn the designation.
Within the hour, the glow was bigger and brighter. A wide stretch of the mountain crest was now lighted up. It almost looked like an erupting volcano. My wife and I wondered whether we should pack. We hadn’t received an emergency alert from the city. (Later we would learn that officials did issue an alert; it didn’t go through.)
Were we being overly anxious? There were miles between our house and the ridge. We have all this technology, we reasoned. We have people to fight fires. There’s a brand-new fire station three blocks from our house. This isn’t going to get to us. But we started to pack a few essentials, just in case, as if we were preparing for one night of camping: toiletries, a change of underwear, some bedding.
But we kept going back outside and looking north. By 1 a.m., the flames were peeking over the mountain ridge. They must have been more than 100 feet high, and they had gotten wider. They were coming down the mountain.
We began to pack more earnestly. I packed my laptop, sleep apnea machine and accordion. My wife started to gather her mother’s artwork — she was a prolific and talented painter; we have hundreds of her paintings. But it still didn’t seem possible that the fire would actually take our home.
Then, around 2 a.m., came a knock on the door. It was our neighbor, a firefighter. “You should get out,” he said. “I already sent my wife out.”
Now we knew we weren’t overreacting. Fifteen minutes later, we got the dog, got in our cars — an old van with a quarter-million miles on it that I use for hauling things, and our Chevy Bolt — and went.
I’m not sure when the fire reached our neighborhood. One of our neighbors later told us that she woke up at 3:30 a.m. to find a firefighter standing in her bedroom, telling her she had one minute to escape her house. The flames were now racing up our hill.
We stayed at my office that night, sleeping on the floor for a few hours. It was completely unreal. There were only questions. What’s going to happen? What will the next day be like? I’m a family practice doctor, and I was scheduled to see patients that morning — what about them?
Everything since the fire has been confusion and disorientation. Our town is destroyed. Losing our home is one thing — but the entire community? Thousands of structures are gone. Two hotels burned to the ground. There are three hospitals in Santa Rosa; two were evacuated. The air quality is atrocious. How are we going to take care of people when two of our three hospitals are closed and so many doctors are dealing with their own lost homes? You can’t turn to your neighbors, because they’re homeless now, too. Even that new fire station was destroyed.
The smoke is everywhere, filling your nose, making your eyes water. You can’t walk outside without clearing your throat. Our dog is sneezing. People are sitting in their cars in parking lots, with nothing else to do and nowhere else to go.
It’s hard to look back and think of the million things you would have done differently. We had thought about this before — what we would do if we needed to evacuate. But you can’t really prepare. Our computers were backed up, but we forgot to bring the hard drives. Now they’re surely melted, along with our photos, music and financial records. There were so many things I pulled out to pack, but they didn’t quite make it into the bag — like the more-efficient charger for our electric car.
I can’t even think about the objects we left behind. I’m the one in my family who has always been interested in genealogy and family photos; they’re gone. I had thousands of books. My musical instruments, the guitars, the piano. The baby clothes we had saved for our grandchildren. The chair we rocked our kids to sleep in. All but 10 of my mother-in-law’s paintings. It’s all gone.
And now we have to rebuild our lives. The most basic things we do not have; the most basic routines we can no longer follow. You need a towel; you look around and find no towel. Where do we wash our clothes? I wonder. And what do I wear while I wash them? At one point, I thought, “Man, it would be nice to have a spoon.”
After a night at the house of friends in Marin, away from the chaos, we headed back north to Santa Rosa to take the first steps toward re-creating our lives. The support has been so wonderful — we lost the solidity of our house, but our family and friends are keeping us steady. (Though when people offer us stuff, I say thanks, and then wonder where in the world I’ll put it.)
We’re trying to function, but it’s difficult when you lived in one world, and now it’s totally different. There’s before, and there’s after. My wife and I are two active and directed people, but we find ourselves sitting and staring in confusion. When everything is lost, what do you do? What are the rules?