It's been a harrowing 10 days.
Thank you to all of you who sent their love, thoughts and prayers for my town and my county. Your kind words, your checking in on Facebook and your emails have been a light in the gray thickness of the past days. Thank you, thank you from the bottom of my heart.
I don't even know where to start. The past 12 days are partly crystal clear and partly a mere blur. I'm not sure I remember everything in the right order. I don't know whether I will get through writing this post without crying. Everything is still very raw and we're just beginning to get out of this.
On Sunday, October 8th, we were visiting Kaefer in Davis. While it was rather calm here, it was extremely windy in Davis. The air was dusty and the dust seemed to settle everywhere. But I wasn't really worried - this is a very flat part of the country and Kaefer often told me that it is very windy.
When we drove home in the evening we took the back roads - it was such a lovely day, the forests, hills and vineyards were covered in the beautiful glow of the evening sun. We took the very same road that only a few hours later the Tubbs Fire would take. I remember how much I enjoyed this peaceful drive.
Back home we relaxed a bit, and then the wind picked up. It was pretty crazy. I remember that I once thought that this wind would feed a fire, but I still wasn't worried because this is California and we have wildfires every year. They don't get into urban areas.
We went to bed and slept well until around 2:00 am when the house phone rang. It is in another room and we knew that we weren't quick enough to pick it up, so we let it go. The Geek went back to sleep, but I was a bit restless. I smelled smoke. So I got up, walked around the house - everything was fine - and looked outside - nothing but darkness. I went back to bed. It was 2:22 am by then - I remember that so clearly because I looked at the clock by the Geek's bedside and loved the combination of the numbers. Then I noticed that there were cars driving by our house, one after the other. That was unusual. This is a very quiet neighborhood, and so many cars at this late (or early) hour didn't bode well. I also heard popping sounds over and over. So I got up again because I thought it might be a good idea to check my cell phone. I saw a text message from my close friend Lyz which said "Are you guys safe from the fire?".
That's when I realized we were in trouble.
I woke the Geek, and we went downstairs, turned on the local radio station and heard what was going on. The neighborhoods on the hill, Fountaingrove, were burning. The cars that I heard were coming down from there (it's just up the hill from us). The fire was burning up smaller neighborhoods at the slopes and bottom of the hill, then jumped the six lanes (!) highway and burnt down another entire neighborhood, Coffey Park. There was no stopping the fire.
I grabbed our "grab and go" box and we packed our bags with some clothes and things we deemed important, sleeping bags, and put them right by the front door. I rolled the car out of the garage and parked it in the driveway. We were ready to go any minute if they told us we had to leave.
Then I went outside to take a few pictures. The photos are all blurry because I was shaking, but I still decided to include them.
Right across our street:
And up the hill a bit further down the road:
Then I went back upstairs and took a shot out of our bedroom window:
We constantly heard the popping sounds when transformers or propane gas tanks blew up. I remember that I ran to those of our neighbors' houses that had no light on to wake them up. We told the elderly couple next door to pack a bag and put it in the car. Just in case...
At daybreak there was thick smoke, an eerie light with no chance for the sun to get through.
At seven in the morning our phone rang. It was my friend G who had to evacuate at 1:00 am and had been sitting in the Safeway parking lot since two in the morning. She came to our house where we fed her and brewed a big pot of coffee. We would need it.
From then on, things start to get blurry. The three of us were glued to both the TV and the local radio station. One of the stations had to stop airing when the fire burnt the trees in the backyard of their building. Later they would be back on the air, just working with a generator and some very basic equipment, but they informed us all day, every day.
We saw the first pictures of Coffey Park - devastation (the picture is in my last post). It was hard to believe our eyes. I have friends and aquaintances in Coffey Park. It is a normal middle class neighborhood. They had to leave in the middle of the night, often with only 10 or 15 minutes to spare. What do you take when you have to leave so suddenly? For many it was only the clothes on their backs and some important papers and documents. Some didn't even get that.
They not only lost their house, but their home with everything in it.
Later that day Kaefer's old kindergarten teacher posted photos of what used to be her elementary school:
This was the first time that I cried.
We used to live very close to that school. I walked Kaefer to school every morning, it was just a 10-15 minutes walk through our old neighborhood. We knew so many people here - we had lived there for 11 years before we bought our current home. We went trick-or-treat, sold Girl Scout cookies, had block parties, chatted with neighbors walking by while I was working in the front garden.
G stayed with us. She was shaky - she is 75 years old and only two years ago lost her husband, and now, it seemed, her home, too (we would later found out that by some kind of miracle her house survived). Lyz, who had sent me that email in the night, had lost her home, in G's neighborhood. The neighborhoods on Fountaingrove were gone. A retirement mobile home park was gone. Two hotels and the old round barn and many businesses were gone. Two hospitals were evacuated. Nurses were transporting patients in their personal cars with the IV sticking out the window.
The following days were mere chaos. The amount of misinformation was immense. We heard of more and more friends, colleagues and aquaintances who had lost their homes. We learned that at one time there were 17 fires burning (or even more, I can't remember) all over Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino Counties. The newspaper reported about the fires for days - and we really weren't interested in anything else.
But there were inspiring stories as well. The owner of Safari West, a wildlife preserve, saved all his animals while his own home was burning down. A cat was rescued from a drain (and is now in the UC Davis veterinary center). There were a lot of stories of true heroes.
For the first couple days we didn't dare to separately leave the house. We only have one car, which was packed with our important belongings, and we were absolutely certain that the mandatory evacuation order would come when one of us was away in the car. So we did everything together. We weren't the only ones who drove around town with a fully packed car - everybody seemed to do that. Some of them actually lived in their car because they didn't want to go to one of the many evacuation shelters. We didn't sleep particularly well; I was getting up several times during the night to check that there were no new fires in our vicinity. We ate a lot of chocolate and drank wine (we were not going to leave the wine for the fire!). We didn't make any plans because we had no idea where we would be the next day. We were living from moment to moment. On Wednesday night we received the order for voluntary evacuation. I remember we were sitting in our neighbor's house, drinking wine when the Nixle alert came (we had signed up for every alert system that was available for our area). The women became restless, the men were cool... there were some very tense moments. In the end, almost the entire corner of my neighborhood decided to stay. We slept in shifts. I spent the night on the couch in the living room to make sure that I would hear the police when they were banging on the door.
Fortunately this call never came.
One day a German friend of ours who had lost his home called us. His Koi fish had survived, but the person who was supposed to bring them to a safe pond didn't turn up. So the Geek and I jumped into the car to rescue his fish. This may sound weird, but if you have lost everything, those fish are everything you have. The fish were in a huge bucket, and they were wasting away. They needed oxygen. So the Geek, practical as he is, took a protector sheet from our folder with the documents, rolled it up and used it as a straw, blowing air into the bucket. There we were by the side of the road right next to a burnt down neighborhood, trying to rescue fish. Completely crazy and insane, but these were crazy and insane times. The fish, by the way, made it.
Everywhere people were helping each other. The community really pulled together. Yes, there were some bad apples in the form of looters, but the kindness of people was overwhelming. No one in this community has been unscathed by this inferno. Everybody wears some kind of scar from this disaster, some bigger, some smaller.
On Friday evening our evacuation order was lifted. There was still a big fire burning and I was still restless. And indeed, on Saturday morning at 4:40 my cell phone exploded with Nixle alerts. There was a new mandatory evacuation order for some neighborhoods to the east. And this is what it looked like from our bedroom window:
Fire and smoke. I was rattled.
The air had been bad all week. Whenever we had to go outside we wore our N95 masks. We couldn't open our windows. It was hot and stinky. Ashes were raining to the ground. But everybody was still helping - donating clothes and food, collecting school supplies. Everybody stepped up.
In between there were sparks of humor. The Tubbs fire was renamed to Chubbs fire because we had all been stress eating. The statue of General Vallejo in Sonoma was wearing a N95 mask.
People were partying. I now fully understand the people in London during the Blitz who were partying like there was no tomorrow. And for many there wasn't.
For quite some time we didn't know whether we still had a job. There were rumors that the Geek's work was completely destroyed (the company is smack in the middle of the fire zone). Someone said my high school had burned down. Days later we found out that none of this was true. While it will take a long time for the Geek's work to return to their damaged site, he can work remote from home or go to the building that they have rented as an interim solution. My school started today with a staff meeting, and on Friday the students will return. About 145 students in my school alone have lost their homes.
The fires are almost completely contained. Entire neighborhoods are destroyed. Over 40 people have perished in the fires. 6800 structures have burnt down, most of them homes. Now we're moving into the hard time of rebuilding and recovery. It will take a very long time.
And we will never forget the true heroes in this disaster.
The Redwood Credit Union, our local paper The Press Democrat and our State Senator Mike McGuire have set up the North Bay Fire Relief Fund where every donated dollar goes directly to aid relief efforts and help the victims of the fires.