Friday, October 16, 2020

For the Love of the Land


It is still hot here, but our latest fire is almost completely contained. The air quality has improved considerably and it is wonderful to be outside again. I did some nature hikes in our beautiful county that showed me once again the loveliness of this place.

Some of you have asked why we are still living here when we know that these fires occur every year and are getting worse. I wonder whether people living in places where hurricanes hit over and over again (and getting worse as well) or who live in Tornado Alley are confronted with these same questions. 

They probably have the same answer as many of us in California have.

In the end it comes down to this: for the love of the land.

These questions are not asked by people who live here. Sure, we talk about it with friends and neighbors, and there are even a few people who actually move away. but most stay, even rebuild in burnt out areas (that is sometimes difficult for me to understand). Whenever there is a fire close by it's the talk of the day. We call each other to see that everybody is safe, we look after our neighbors. We pack our bags. We grab our phones at every "ping" checking for new alerts and warnings. We sleep in our clothes. Yes, it sounds terrible and it sure is no walk on the beach. - But -

This is our home.

Sonoma County is incredible beautiful. We have mountains, wine country, large meadows with sheep and cows, rolling hills, dense forests of century old redwood trees, a rugged wild coast, and of course the vast Pacific Ocean.

There is an abundance of wildlife. When I lie awake in the night (way too often unfortunately) I can hear two Western Screech Owls "talking" to each other; there are foxes barking, the howling of coyotes, the call of the Great Horned Owl and I even once heard the chilling scream of a mountain lion. That is something you hardly forget! On my hikes I can watch deer, skunks, coyotes and bobcats, not to mention all the birds. And I'm pretty sure the mountain lion has seen me!

All of this would be very hard to leave behind and I'm not ready to do that.

There is also this: I am my mother's daughter. My mother lived through the bombing of Berlin. She never thought of leaving the city she loved until she was told to. She would completey understand why we are staying.

The most important reason beside the love for this land is - my friends. I have some wonderful friends here - not many, but these people I can trust. They are the ones with whom I can be open and honest, the "real" me. Those who lend a shoulder and who can lean on me. The ones we can laugh with. 

Friends are so important to me. And at our age it is not that easy anymore to make new friends, to find the people that are our tribe. I have found my tribe. Why would I go away? 

For the time being we're staying. The outcome of the election might make us think about this again. But as terrifying as they are, the fires are not a reason to leave this beautiful part of our planet.

I love Sonoma County. We are Sonoma Strong.


Friday, October 2, 2020

Covered in Ashes


Are you getting tired of my posts about wildfires and bad air?

I do.

But here I am writing yet another post about a raging wildfire in our county - the second one this season - and bad air. Well, that's an understatement. It's downright unhealthy air, in some places even hazardous.

Last Sunday evening at 8:27 our cell phones suddenly started to vibrate and make annoyingly loud dingdingdings alerting us about the Shady Fire making progress from Napa Valley where it originated over the mountains into Sonoma County toward the Eastern boundary of Santa Rosa. It soon merged with the Glass Fire that had also started in Napa and both fires were quickly renamed to just Glass Fire.

What worried me were the words "fast moving". Since 2017 we are well aware what "fast moving" means when it is attributed to a wildfire.

We also live in the Eastern part of Santa Rosa.

So we did what we were doing the past three years - moving our two grab-and-go boxes closer to the garage and packing our bags. We still went to bed, but around midnight our neighbor called telling us that they are getting ready to leave because the fire was apparently getting much closer. The evacuation zones were approaching the evacuation zone of our neighborhood (since the 2017 fires the neighborhoods in our city have designated evacuation zones that can be evacuated in an orderly and timely manner). While the next zone over was only an evacuation warning (which means "get ready", whereas the evacuation order means "leave now") the evacuation orders expanded with great speed. It was getting uncomfortable.

I got dressed and went outside, checked in on my elderly neighbors to make sure they were ready (they were). There was an orange glow on the Eastern horizon, a sky I only know too well and remember from the October 2017 fires. The constant high pitch sound of sirens was loud and clear and there were more cars than usual driving through our neighborhood at this time of night - people evacuating. It was enough to set me on edge.

I packed everything in the car and then went back to bed in my clothes. The evacuation orders went on throughout the night, but thankfully we never got one. The fire burned through some neighborhoods in the East while destroying several homes and damaging more. It's the district of my high school and again many of our students' families had to leave and some of them lost their homes.

This is not new to us. But it never becomes routine.

The next day ashes were raining down and covering everything. When I ventured outside - with my N95 mask - I saw that we not only got ashes but also all kinds of burnt debris including a lot of  charred leaves. Everything in our garden was covered in ashes - the tables, the seat cushions, all the plants.

How do you clean up this stuff? Very very carefully.

Now, five days later, the fires are hardly contained, but many evacuation orders have been downgraded. There was a change in the wind a couple days ago which pushed the fire further into Napa County. The entire city of Calistoga had to evacuate, followed by the evacuation of Angwin. The fire has been contained only 6% or so. We have a red flag warning with high temperatures and high winds which makes the work for the firefighters much more difficult and dangerous.

Then the wind changed again and blasted unhealthy air to us. It is awful. Our air filters run day and night and the Geek built a couple more out of our fans and filters for the heater. He's a smart and handy guy. Let's hope the power doesn't get shut off!

And in case you were wondering - I still love living here.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Fresh Air


After 28 straight days of bad, unhealthy air we finally got a breather! The air quality had been so bad here on the West Coast, a by-product of all the wildfires that are burning in California, Oregon and Washington. At the beginning our air became poor when we had two big wildfires here in our county, started by dry lightning. But then those wildfires became more and bigger, and not all of them were the result of natural causes but unfortunately were started by the carelessness of some people. Who needs gender reveal parties and why? 

When we said goodbye to Kaefer on Tuesday of last week and went back home, the Golden Gate Bridge looked like this:

We are used to see this bridge in fog often, but this is soemthing we had never seen before. If you think this looks unhealthy you are very right.

But the following day was much much worse.

I took this photo at 8:25 in the morning. The greyish-orange hue never disappeared throughout the entire day and it never got light. It was a foggy day with a thick blanket of smoke on top of it that prevented the sun to break through. It felt rather apocalyptic. We stayed inside with doors and windows firmly shut. I had never experienced something like this in all my life. It looked like the end of the world was near.

We took to our N95 masks again - it seems to be an annual recurrence. The news about the fires were horrific. Entire towns in Oregon burned down. My good friend Jo who moved to Portland, OR a few years ago said that the air was terrible (I think their air quality index was over 500). 

But then after 28 days of staying inside and only going outside when we really needed to the wind changed, the sky showed a faint hue of blue and the air improved by the minute. On Tuesday afternoon there was no way I would stay in the house. I grabbed my knitting and sat outside under the privet tree, sipping my iced coffee. The birds in the tree were singing like there was no tomorrow - I guess they were just happy about the fresh air as well.

Yesterday I moved my office outside (i.e. my laptop) and prepared my German lessons in my garden under the watchful eyes of Otis, one of the neighborhood cats who like to hang out in my garden. I was surprised how much I got actually done - I had thought that I would be too distracted, but I wasn't. I got my entire lesson plan done and created some worksheets that my students will get as their homework.

And today - I went to the lake. For the first time since the beginning of the shelter-in-place in March.

It felt so good! I was a bit hesitant because I thought that too many people would be there since it is a very popular spot. Yes, it was crowded, but I usually don't walk along the popular paths anyway and prefer the smaller nature trails that weren't crowded at all. I watched a Green Heron for some time who didn't feel threatened by my presence at all. I visited one of my favorite places, looking for cairns and when I didn't see any I built one. For a while I sat on a bench writing in my journal. And I simply enjoyed breathing fresh air and enjoying nature around me.

This is supposed to be only a short breather. Over the weekend the air is going to be poor again. But for the time being I am thankful for the on-shore winds that brought us the great gift of fresh air.

Never will I take clean air for granted.

Friday, September 11, 2020

Away She Goes


Last Tuesday Kaefer started the next chapter in her life. She boarded a Lufthansa flight to Munich where she will pursue her Masters in epidemiology. 

After she had graduated from UC Davis in June she stayed the summer with us, which was a big gift since we had so much time to spend with her before she left for her next adventure. During those months she tried to sell a lot of her things, was looking for a flat in Munich online (and found one), applied for a student job at her faculty (and got it) and also did a lot of fun stuff like playing cards and Rummikub. She and I went to the beach and hiked in our regional parks and tried to make the most of these restricted Corona-times. I'm so glad that we have all these beautiful memories.

On Tuesday afternoon, after a last round of Rummikub, we put her luggage in the car and drove her down to San Francisco Airport. It was the first of the eerie days (but by far not the worst) when the fog and smoke were hanging low and the day presented itself in a mustard-yellow hue - not particularly appealing. Kaefer was very quiet during the drive, looking around and admitting that it felt a bit odd to see all these familiar sights for the last time.

The international terminal in San Francisco was eerily empty and when I asked I was told that there were 193 seats left open in the plane that Kaefer would soon board. I was quite relieved to know that the flight wasn't full, and indeed no one sat next to Kaefer and she had the row to herself.

One restaurant in the food court was open, so we had some dinner and took the last family photos afterwards.

Then it was time to say goodbye. It was hard and my heart was heavy. At the same time I am so excited for her - that she got into this program (they only accept 30-40 students worldwide), that she got the job and that she has the opportunity to live, work and study in another country - her native country.

She arrived safely in Munich, got tested within 10 minutes after departing the plane, took public transportation to Marienplatz where she met the cousin of a friend of ours who had the key to her flat (and had bought some groceries for her to survive the first few days of quarantine until she receives the result of the test) and then made her way to her flat which she said is cute (and tiny). Today we will Zoom with each other - I do look forward to that.


Thursday, September 3, 2020

Hot August


August was the hottest month we have had so far this year - and also the smokiest. There have been so many wildfires burning all over California, most of them caused by dry lightning, that the air quality became extremely poor in most of the state - and many parts of the country since the fires in California haven't been the only ones. Half of the month we stayed inside with the windows and doors shut because it was too unhealthy to venture outside. Two of the fires are burning in our county and we had many evacuations orders which were all reduced to warnings (which means be ready to evacuate any time). The fires are close to the Russian River which is an important water source for us, and in order to keep enough pressure for the firefighters to battle that fire we were all asked to conserve water as much as we can. I stopped watering my garden (except for the veggies) and once again felt relieved that I had the foresight to plant a drought tolerant garden. So far I haven't lost a single plant, and two nights ago we even had a little rain. The past few days have been foggy with much better air yesterday. However, the weekend ahead is supposed to bring another heat wave with temperatures up to 106F - I hope the garden can take it.

I missed spending time in the garden. I was lucky to get in some hikes in our beautiful Regional Parks, some of them with Kaefer. We went early in the morning to avoid the midday heat and enjoyed nature, saw wildlife and had some good conversations while hiking the trails. She is leaving in less than a week, my heart is heavy, but I also know that I will be okay after a few days when I know that she has arrived safely, has moved into her flat and hopefully doesn't have to quarantine too long. She will be tested at the airport and the result will be back within 48 hours, so hopefully she can go outside after two days.

Work at the high school started the first week of August. It has been rather quiet in the beginning and I could finish some of the things that haven't been done since March when the schools closed down. The school year started on August 17th and of course it's all distance learning. It is very strange to be back on campus without any students being there. This week we're distributing textbooks which is a huge undertaking (we will be done tomorrow evening) for almost 1600 students. Even though I felt bone tired every evening, it was so nice to see the students again. Sure, we were all wearing masks, my colleague and I were working behind Plexiglas, but nevertheless, there suddenly was life on the campus. I hadn't expected that I would enjoy these five days so much.

In order to stay sane I knitted a lot - several hats and socks and I also finally finished the sweater for Kaefer that took forever to knit up (mainly because I had to unravel parts of it again). I was quite busy with my Etsy shop selling socks and photo cards which, of course, was very welcome, too. The positive and the negative pretty much balanced out this month.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Sitting in the Lavender


When I think of summer, I think of lavender - purple, blue, white, even pink lavender. We are fortunate here in Sonoma County to live in a Mediterranean climate and therefore can grow a wide range of lavender. 

There are several lavender gardens and farms nearby. The newest addition is Bees N Blooms which features a lavender labyrinth that I still have to write about. My favorite place over the years has been the lavender garden of Matanzas Creek Winery that I wrote about here and here. It is still my go-to place if I want to experience the beautiful sight and the wonderful scent of lavender.

The nice thing is that all of these places have benches or chairs to sit in and enjoy the lavender, even read a book or write in a journal.

The chairs at Matanzas Creek Winery are pretty deep - it's not easy to get out of them again gracefully!

They're scattered throughout the garden and there are even spots in the shade.

Of course it's also a great spot to take graduation photos!

The lavender bloom is over for this year, but next summer you will probably find me in one of these lavender heavens.

Friday, August 21, 2020

Days of the Red Sun


When the sun looks like this it is a pretty sight, but it is not a good sign at all. We call this sun either the Red Sun or the Fire Sun. The intense color results from heavy smoke in the air, and the smoke, of course, originates from wildfires.

Last Sunday and Monday we had a series of bizzare thunderstorms, or should I say lightning storms since we only received a minimum of rain that didn't help much. These storms happened amid triple-digit temperatures, our first serious heatwave this year. The last time it had rained was back in May, so everything has been extremely dry.

We were worried all through these two days and sure enough soon the first warnings about wildfires came in. These were in Napa County which is our neighboring county. Most of these fires occurred along Highway 128, the route I usually took when I drove to Davis. But then we heard that there was a fire in the Austin Creek area in our county (the Walbridge Fire) - a heavily forested area with narrow and winding roads which makes evacuation difficult and dangerous. This area hasn't burned for decades and has enough fuel to feed a huge fire. Fire also produces its own winds and even fire tornadoes that makes the already bad situation even worse and less manageable. Evacuation orders were put in place as well as rather extended evacuation warning zones to get people ready to go if the need arises.

Shortly after that another fire north of Jenner at the coast was spotted (the Meyers Fire). All of these fires were started by lightning strikes and added to the already high amount of wildfires we had all over California before that. 

Nixle alerts were pouring in, but thankfully the night was quiet with no new evacuation orders. Yesterday our view from the second story of our house looked like this - you can see a wall of smoke moving in, and soon after that the sun disappeared, the light became an eerie yellowish and the air quality was horrible. We stayed inside, shut down the house, had the air filters running and trying to make the best out of this situation. Even if you try to stay calm and reasonable, there is so much anxiety because we had experienced the October 2017 fires and know how quickly a dangerous situation can become a disaster. I certainly don't want to see anything like this again:

The remains of our old home after the Tubbs Fire- thank fully we hadn't lived there anymore in October 2017

This morning the air quality had improved, but not for very long. It is horrible again. I really have become hateful of the smell of wildfire smoke. It triggers bad memories for everyone here.

The mandatory evacuation zone was extended this morning. The people in the area that used to be under evacuation warning now have to leave their homes without knowing whether they will still be there when they are allowed to return. There are evacuation centers available, but other than in 2017 when people were sheltered in big buildings, these centers now are mainly huge parking lots so that people can isolate in their cars.  COVID-19 makes everything so much more difficult.

If we had to evacuate, where would we go? I have no idea.