Growing up in a community that is nearly on top of the San Andreas fault, you hear talk about earthquake weather every now and then. Warm, gusty winds and sunny fall days are often seen as a premonition of tectonic activity, though I’m not sure this has ever been confirmed by science. What they don’t tell you is that this so called “earthquake weather” is actually the perfect mix of conditions for wildfires to run rampant.
Last Sunday night I went to bed after hearing news that a friend of mine was being evacuated from their house nearby Silverado country club in Napa. After sleeping soundly most of the night, I awoke to my roommate’s voice at 4 AM saying that we needed to pack a bag and get ready to leave- the fire had spread, and it had spread fast. By this point, most of Santa Rosa and large areas of Napa were already ablaze and the fire was approaching the hills of Sonoma with frightening speed from multiple directions. Winds of over fifty miles per hour had blown this wildfire across multiple valleys, overtaking entire neighborhoods and leaving nothing but ashes and ruins in it’s wake.
Although we didn’t end up evacuating that morning, I will never forget those early moments- looking around my room wondering which items I should pack, what to leave, if I would see any of it ever again. When we momentarily stopped packing to watch the news, we found little to no information about our town, as the press was focused on the areas where fire was most actively burning. The days that followed were long and full of uncertainty as evacuations continued and fire lines expanded. How long would this go on? Would we need to leave? I packed and unpacked and re-packed my car several times before eventually leaving it full.
Like many Sonoma residents, I wanted to find a way to help out, so when I heard the local high school turned evacuation shelter needed volunteers for their night shift I signed up to be there for the early hours of Tuesday morning. Most of the evacuees at that point had fled the fire as it overtook Kenwood and Glen Ellen, many of them from a pair of live-in care facilities for the elderly. Along with the other volunteers, I helped them up for the bathroom in the middle of the night, navigating traffic jams created by multiple walkers in a small, 3-stall women’s restroom and a room full of cots. We made sure they were comfortable as they attempted to sleep soundly in the gym, pavilion, and library at the high school. The feeling of unease and disorientation was palpable inside each space as volunteers reassured evacuees that everything was going to be fine, despite our own feelings of uncertainty about where the fire might move next.
As the week progressed local efforts to distribute food and information grew and took shape. A new normal was established. Teams of chefs and restaurant owners from around the valley began distributing food for the first responders, and Facebook groups became our most reliable (and simultaneously unreliable) source of information and updates. The fires that threatened downtown Sonoma and the bordering neighborhoods inched closer and evacuation borders continued to expand, displacing more people every day. Groups of cars gathered at road closures to watch the fires progress across entire mountain ranges, with people hoping and praying that their home and the homes of their friends were not in the fire’s path. Even the slightest breeze was enough to make everyone’s hair stand on end- as we all knew that wind was our worst enemy with the blazes now surrounding the valley. Each text message that was not an evacuation notice from the Sherriff was met with a sigh of relief, as everyone waited for it to be their neighborhood or their home that was in danger. Most conversations started with, “Is your house okay?” and ended with “Be safe, I love you.”
Every time it seemed like one part of the fire was under control, it popped up in a new area. Firemen from across the country flocked to the region in droves, and the sound of choppers and fire fighting aircrafts became normal, even comforting. I have never been so happy to see our streets filled with policemen and vehicles from the national guard, knowing that our local teams were finally getting the support they needed to fight the largest wildfire incident the state has ever seen.
I returned to my Mom’s house in Agua Caliente mid-week when the fires appeared to be headed in that direction to pack up our albums of family photos that she had left behind in her haste to get our pets out safely. Her neighborhood lost power on the first day of fires, and had been evacuated to let dozers up the hill to clear lines in the thick foliage surrounding the homes in that area. Looking around my childhood home, I was overwhelmed trying to decide what I should put in my car, wishing I could ensure the safety of a place that held a lifetime's worth of memories. I have never felt so many emotions at once. Fear that I might never see this house again, followed closely by guilt that I had the luxury of taking the time to pack up our most prized memories when so many people did not. I forced optimism as I pulled out of the driveway, trying to convince myself that I had nothing to worry about, the fires were still at least a mountains distance away. Fear, again. Guilt, again.
It has now been a week since the fires started, and we are still waiting. Each day brings with it a new set of concerns- moving fire incidents, lost homes, the worst air quality the Bay Area has ever seen. I’m not sure my words can accurately capture the roller coaster of emotions and exhaustion that this week has held, or that the days ahead of us hold. As an economy that relies heavily on agriculture and tourism, a fire like this has the potential to destroy more than just structures- it is quite literally burning the livelihood of winemakers, farmers, and all of their employees.
I don't think there is any gesture that will adequately thank the first responders that have worked tirelessly to protect our town, at least in my mind. Local fireman and law enforcement worked for almost 100 straight hours before being relieved, and I know they would do it all over again if it ensured the safety of Sonoma and its residents. Their bravery and relentless efforts are not without recognition and I would like to extend my sincerest gratitude to each and every one of them. We quite literally owe them our lives, and our town. I know I will do my very best to make sure they know how grateful we all are.
Like everyone else, I am trying to process how we move forward from here. The fires are certainly not out yet but I can't help but look forward, surveying what the next step might be. Those of us who are lucky enough to come out of this unscathed have a great deal of responsibility placed on our shoulders to help those who were not so lucky. Remember that any degree of loss cannot be compared- each person is experiencing their situation and their loss is the only one that they can fully understand. Be compassionate, there is no competition in grief. From what I have seen this week I can say with great certainty that the communities of Santa Rosa, Kenwood, Glen Ellen, Sonoma, Napa, Calistoga, Yountville, and everywhere in between will come out of this with great strength. I have already witnessed immeasurable generosity from so many, and am sure that this will continue in the following weeks. Please do not forget that for those people who have lost everything, the hardest part of this journey is only just beginning.
Please consider donating to a local fund, that will make sure that 100% of the money raised will go straight to local relief efforts. The Rotary of Sonoma has set up an online donation page, which you can find here, and is a great way to ensure that your money is staying in the local community. But above all else, spread kindness and compassion. Listen to people and what they need. Hold onto the feeling of unity and understanding for one another that has been created in such a trying time.
I know I am not alone in saying that I am forever changed by the events of this week. I have seen people summon impressive strength in the face of adversity and great loss. I have a new appreciation for the amazing, resilient, supportive community that I reside in. I have immense gratitude that my family and friends are safe. But, come September and October with their balmy, windy days- I will never call that earthquake weather ever again.
My sincerest condolences to anyone who has experienced loss of any degree this week. All of us are here to support you. #SonomaStrong