The evening of October 8 began strangely – we went outside and remarked on the warm, high winds. That night, the deadliest fire in state history blazed throughout northern California, awakening residents of multimillion-dollar homes as well as mobile homes – some well into their 80s who ran for their lives, some never to escape. Windstorms overnight had started or exacerbated fires in eight counties. Somehow, it’s two weeks since that horrific night; the fires continued burning into last week (but are now largely contained, thanks to light rain and the tireless efforts of first responders and volunteers). This, following terrible hurricanes and the devastating Mexico City earthquake!
B. and I woke up the following morning to smoke-filled skies a nightmarish black. Messages poured in from everywhere to check if we were okay, and inquire about others. Parts of Santa Rosa were evacuated as the fires encroached; indeed, the entire Mayacamas mountain range separating Napa and Sonoma counties seemed swallowed by fire. A couple miles from the evacuation zones, we were among the lucky, but over the week remained terrified, ready to leave as the winds changed and fanned the flames. Like everyone else here, we checked on our neighbors, struggled with headaches and lung pain from smoke inhalation, learned to wet down our roof and garden, and stayed glued to the newspapers and social media.
Ominous signs continued over the following days: sunsets in a burned-orange sky, shifts in the wind, burned leaves blown into the yard, a fine layer of ash coating our vegetables. As Santa Rosa mayor Chris Coursey said, we’ve all been undergoing this trauma. So many have lost everything, and I remind myself again and again how fortunate we are. Haunting me are the words of a woman who lost her mother to the fire: “Hug and kiss your loved ones extra-hard tonight.”
As the courage, kindness, and generosity of people near and far away emerged in the first hours of this terrible conflagration, providing rescue, food, shelter, clothing, child and pet care, and comfort, so did the stories. I got in touch with loved ones I hadn’t spoken to in years. My in-laws arrived for an already-planned visit, worried and wanting to help. We all volunteered at an evacuation center’s donation site – the warehouse of a local family business, and met donors who came from all over California: Russians from Concord (my people!), a van full of volunteers from Fresno, folks from Oakland and San Francisco. Later, a food truck all the way from San Jose fed us delicious food (and provided fantastic salsa music- both of which lifted our spirits). Other volunteers joined in, of all backgrounds and ages, from seniors to those who brought their kids to help, to folks who only spoke Spanish and followed instructions from translating friends. I’ll never forget the tearful young mother who’d come with two little boys to pick up supplies: she was clearly overwhelmed – must’ve lost her home, and one volunteer opened her pockets and pressed some cash into her hand, enveloping her with hugs. (The best disaster relief sites I’ve found: Redwood Credit Union North Bay Fire Relief fund, UndocuFund, Rebuild Sonoma fund; and Mexico earthquake relief, Direct Relief for hurricanes.)
The days pass, as they do even in times of devastation, and along with stress appear signs of hope: crows continue to bury and unearth nuts in the ground, fat towhees kick up bark in search of insects. Egrets soar through a smoky gray-blue sky and cedar waxwings jet across the yard. Mockingbirds screech in the trees, and butterflies and bees still go about their pollinating business. From the donation center I recall the bag of new baby clothes knitted and crocheted by hand.
It’s still so early, and crucial to take time to grieve; Kate Frey’s lovely piece in Santa Rosa’s Press Democrat mourns some of the beautiful landscapes we’ve lost. As the community begins to rebuild, a historical perspective is key, as Gaye LeBaron pointed out in her recent Washington Post article on the role of development, and another Post piece on the role of climate change, in the massive destruction of the fires. Recovery will likely take a very long time, and it may help to remember words from experts like those at the California Native Plant Society: nature can and does recover from such disasters (and even needs them, for example redwood cones that open and seed in fire). And we will regenerate our community.
As a part of nature, humans are stronger and more resilient than we realize. One day the air, clearer every day, will again be redolent of evergreens, of fall’s fragrant walnut leaves and sage; and at night, the stars.