Thursday, October 12, 2017

Sonoma wildfires update

As many of you know, I live in Sonoma County just outside Santa Rosa. If you've been watching the news the last few days, I don't need to tell you what has been going on here. The truth is, you probably know more about what's going on than many of the folks who live here. A strange thing about this sort of situation is that, for those in the thick of it, useful information is nearly impossible to come by. For example, I live in a neighborhood that has been only moderately affected. Even so, we have been without internet and gas service since this began on Sunday night. Our cell service has been so spotty that our only way of communicating with friends and family was to send a text message and wait for it to eventually work its way through the system, which might happen in ten minutes or might take all day. Keeping track of people, trying to find out what's going on and where the fires are headed, is simply impossible.

It all began for me at 4 a.m. Monday morning, when my 17 year-old son came into our bedroom and told us what was going on. My wife and I had been entirely unaware, and my son wanted to let us sleep. He had stayed up all night monitoring the situation. When it got bad enough to worry him, he woke us. A quick look at our phones verified the severity of the situation. I told my wife to start making an evacuation list while I drove across town to assess the damage.  The local AM radio station announced while I was driving that there were about 60 separate fires burning in the area. Minutes later, I was on a hill northwest of Santa Rosa looking at a wall of flames three hundred feet high. I knew then that we were in trouble.

I called my wife and told her to keep packing while I went to fill the car up with gas. I reached the nearest gas station between 4:30 and 5:00 a.m. . There were at least 50 cars in line, waiting to fill up. I left, and went to another. I eventually ended up at a gas station in a small town called Healdsburg about 20 miles north of Santa Rosa. There was a line here, too, but much smaller. I only had to wait behind 5 or 6 other vehicles.

The waiting took about 20 minutes. Several cars eventually pulled away, and the rest of us moved forward. Finally, I was at the front of the line. I was waiting for the next pump to open when an elderly Mexican man appeared, wandering around in front of me. I couldn't tell where he had come from or what he was doing, and I was worried about him. I thought he might be confused. To my surprise, he picked out a pump that he liked and gestured to the car behind me to jump ahead in line and take it. That pump would open up next, and he had decided they would just go ahead and steal it.

I was flabbergasted. The woman driving hesitated, and he started speaking to her in Spanish, words that I could only assume meant "Just do it, we will be fine." As the car began to pull around me, I rolled down my window and made a gesture of "What are you doing?" with my hands. The woman, who was probably the old man's granddaughter, averted her gaze. I asked the old man what he was doing, and he wouldn't acknowledge me, either. Obviously, he was taking advantage of the fact that nobody was going to beat up an old man over a gas pump.

As luck would have it, this was the point at which the pumps slowed down. I sat in that spot for another 20 minutes, waiting for a vehicle to move. When none did, I eventually got out of the car and walked up to one of the pumps. I asked the young man there if the pump was broken and he informed me it was working, but "really, really slow." The middle-aged man in the next vehicle over told me he had been pumping for more than 20 minutes and didn't even have half a tank. I got in my car and left. I don't know what happened to the old man and his granddaughter. I don't know if they got gas or not.

As I drove back home, the phones were no longer working, so I was unable to call my wife and inform her that I was coming back and we still only had a 1/4 tank of gas. I tried to remember how much fuel my boat in the garage might have. I thought I might be able to siphon 10 gallons or so. I also keep a tank of fuel for the lawnmower, and that might give me a couple more.  As I drove onto the highway, I saw flames climbing up the hill north of town. That was when I realized just how far this thing had spread. There were dozens of fires, stretching across three different counties, popping up without any rhyme or reason, and there was no way to fight them all. Already, the land was filled with smoke and the sky to the south was ablaze with flickering orange light.

This was how my day began, and pretty much how things went for the next two days. My neighborhood evacuated on Monday, sometime in the afternoon. We had bags more or less packed by then, and we had been in a holding pattern. We were mostly concerned with just trying to get messages back and forth between loved ones, keeping track of each other and making contingency plans for where to meet in case we had to evac. I was upstairs when I saw a neighbor out in the street, looking towards the field behind our subdivision. I hurried down, and saw a column of thick black smoke pouring into the sky right behind us. It was coming our way, fast. I told my wife, my son, and daughter to start throwing our packed bags into the car. I drove around the block to check the damage, and saw another wall of flames bearing down on our subdivision!

Two minutes later, we were ready to go. The police were cruising the neighborhood, using their PA speakers to tell us all to evacuate. We had been ready for this, and the entire neighborhood cleared out in less than five minutes. I took my family across town, to the home of a relative who hadn't been evacuated yet, but expected to at any time. We were listening to a police scanner and A.M. radio, which had been our only method of getting any info on what was happening. To the south, Santa Rosa was in flames and the roads in that direction were all blocked. To the west, the roads were filled with refugees fleeing Santa Rosa and the towns nearby, headed for the coast. The freeway to the north was clear all the way to Ukiah, where it had been closed down due to additional fires. There were other fires along the way, in Healdsburg and the Geyserville area. How big they were, which direction they were moving, or if the roads remained open, we could only guess.

Our friends have a big 5th wheel trailer, which they had already packed and hooked up for bugging out. We thought it might be possible to get to the coast, but our best bet would probably be to head north and look for safety in a parking lot somewhere. Not yet, though. Not until we had to evacuate.

Fifteen or twenty minutes after our arrival, my wife wandered off to check on the animals and everyone else disappeared. I found myself alone with my 11 year-old daughter in the living room. She was sitting on the couch. She was sitting up straight, looking very brave and composed, and I felt very proud of her. I sat next to her and said, "You know everything is going to be okay, right?"

She looked up at me and melted. Tears streamed down her cheeks, and she started to bawl. I pulled her close, wrapping my arms around her. She said, "It's just so crazy, I can't believe this is happening. It's just so crazy."

I assured her that it was fine, that everything was going to be fine, that we were on an adventure and no matter what happened, we had each other. Our things didn't matter. Our house didn't even matter. All that mattered was that we were all safe. I told her she was very brave and that I was proud of her for how well she had handled everything. She said she understood, but she was worried about the fires. She didn't know who would light them, and what if he was still out there? (We were, and still remain, convinced that some of these fires were deliberately set.) After a minute or two, my daughter realized other people were starting to come back into the room, so she wiped away her tears, straightened herself up, and took control of herself. I asked her if she was too old to cuddle with me, and she informed me that yes, she was. We both laughed.

Later that day, we were able to return home. The fire in our area was under control and more or less just smoldering. Regardless, we kept our things packed and stayed on high alert all the way through Tuesday night. At one point, I went to the grocery store for a few items. It was busy, as I had expected it would be. So busy in fact that there were no shopping carts, and I ended up borrowing one from the pharmacy across the lot. Though the store was busy, I noticed a general air of optimism and calm about the place. I saw a few people pushing shopping carts so overloaded that they would hardly roll, but that was only two or three people out of hundreds. Though some of the shelves were empty, the store remained fairly well stocked, and most of us were content to just grab the few things we needed and get back home. Their were no fights, no panic, and other then the couple of folks I already mentioned, nobody acting like greedy a-holes stocking up for the apocalypse. It made me feel good about this community, and justified in the sense of calm that I tried to maintain throughout this experience.

It was that evening that the wind shifted and the cool coastal air came gushing into the county. The smoke lifted. For the first time in two days, we could breathe outside without it hurting our lungs, and we could see stars in the sky. We slept with the windows open and the scanner turned off.

The weather was cool and foggy that morning, and the air clear. The internet came back on, and our phones seemed to be working again. Other than the minor inconvenience of no natural gas -hence, no hot water or stove- our lives had been only moderately affected. As of this moment, the fires are partially under control , and moving in a direction away from us. It seems, for us at least, that the danger has passed. I am grateful for the fact that we still have our home and our loved ones are all okay. My heart goes out to those around us who have lost so much, and who still might. The sad news is that every shift of the wind puts someone else in danger. While we may be safe for now, that could change at any minute.

Entire neighborhoods are gone and thousands of people have been displaced. Many are still under evacuation orders and will go home to find their lives permanently changed. Many local landmarks are gone, their place in history reserved now to old photographs and memories. I have friends who have lost their homes or apartments and others who still don't know. I have friends who still have their homes even though everything across the street from them is gone. It will take years to clean up and rebuild, and none of us will quite be the same going forward.

I learned the value of that police scanner that has been sitting mostly unused on my shelf for years. It allowed me to hear bits and pieces of what was going on at the front lines, so I could better understand how, where, and when to get my family to safety. I also learned the value of a good portable AM radio. I used to have one of those small radios that can run off of a hand crank or solar power. Unfortunately, it fell apart and I never replaced it. I desperately felt its absence. I will be buying another ASAP. Another valuable item that was rarely used until now but suddenly invaluable is the small propane camp stove we own. When you're without gas and electric power, it could be a lifesaver. Aside from cooking, it can even heat water for a shower, which doesn't sound important until you've gone a few days without.

Thankfully, we have many evacuation centers up and running. They are well-stocked, and more than capable of handling this mass of people. The county, state, and federal governments have worked tirelessly together to make sure everyone's basic needs are met, and safety has been a priority from the first minute. The police, fire, and other first-responders have worked through this with courage, determination, and efficiency. Many fought this battle for two or even three days without any sleep, knowing all along that their homes could be -or had already been- burned. I'm proud of -and grateful for- people like this in my community. I hope when the time comes, I will be able to help them if need be. They are a stark contrast to the old man at the gas station, or the two or three people at the grocery store trying to grab everything in sight.

I should also point out that some looting has occurred, but the police have been patrolling fire-ravaged neighborhoods on the lookout for these creeps. Also in some areas, neighbors have banded together with a handful of firearms to patrol against looters. Together, these approaches seem to be quite effective. It seems in times of trouble -or any time, really- there are always a handful of scumbags looking to profit from other's misery.

Still, I will try not to harbor any malice towards those people that I personally encountered. I have no idea what was going on in their lives or what drove them to behave in that way. Maybe they were in a state of emergency or panic that I didn't understand. Maybe their situation was truly desperate. Regardless, it's not for me to judge. I choose instead to focus on the heroic and self-sacrificing acts I have witnessed over the last few days. We're not out of the woods yet, but I see a bright future ahead. This county will rebuild. While there is no way to rationalize the lives that were lost, I am grateful that the number is relatively small compared to the size of this disaster. This too, is a credit to the bravery and tenacity of our police, firefighters, and other responders from this and surrounding communities. I hope that those poor people who have lost homes and possessions will be blessed with more than they had in the first place, and I believe we'll all move forward a little wiser and a little more prepared.