Fire Stories and Signs of Hope

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.

Egret sculpture at Glen Ellen, CA’s Bouverie Preserve (photo courtesy of Press Democrat)



About thislittleplot

Writer, hiker, loafer
This entry was posted in Birds, Climate Change, Conservation, Family, Garden, Mental Health, Nature, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Fire Stories and Signs of Hope

  1. utherben says:

    So glad to see your post, my friend. <3

  2. mfreeman706 says:

    It’s fantastic to read this so soon, Irene. I’m so sorry for you and everyone that had to endure this, especially to all those who lost their homes and, it’s hard to even say, loved ones. The writing here as always is spectacular, foreshadowing the beauty you mention that will – eventually – rear out of this. You seem so composed, a great testament to your strength. Nevertheless, this, as I’m sure you know, will live with you for the duration. Try to take care and seek help when you can. Your equinox piece, by the way, I loved, and the description of the whales you saw earlier was, I think, among your best. I wish the best to you and Bill (Willimantic! That’s great. I love it there. Hope you guys visit, we’re sixty miles away!) in your recovery, especially as you help mend the community’s spirits after having lost so much. I hope, too, that you post frequently after this, not just because we all enjoy your writing so much, but I imagine it will be quite therapeutic, as will refurbishing your garden.

    • Thanks so much, Mike! I always appreciate your encouragement, especially since I admire your writing so much, as well as the love of nature that we share. But I’m even more grateful for your kindness and support during such a time (and would love to visit you and meet your family sometime soon!). Let the healing begin!

  3. owlwoman says:

    Relieved that you are ok, despite everything. And your optimism is inspiring.

  4. marmysz says:

    I’m glad you guys are came through this safely and that you were able to help others by volunteering. Grieve, yes, but also feel good about the fact that you live in a community where people care about one another.

  5. Shonna says:

    I finally sat down to read this post. I’m just so grateful for you & B., grateful to have had you in my life for the last 30 years & to have the opportunity to grow closer as time passes, along with Chris. The thought of what your souls endured as tragedy was spreading through your world made us wish we could be there in person to help you & your community. Thank you for your timeless and beautiful writing Irene. Thank you for sharing. Thank you for your love. And, thanks to you, B. & your visit to our place last August, we are composting every day and hope to do you proud!

    • We’re both so appreciative of all your love and support, as well! We’re so lucky in your friendship, and in coming thru this crisis with so much intact. Lots of love and talk soon!

  6. chris stevens says:

    I was hoping for the day that you would be able to (safely) process what had happened. An ongoing effort, I’m sure. We are so glad you and B. are safe.

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