I am typing this at my desk in my place in Napa. Pups and I got back here Sunday afternoon after a week of being refugees from wildfires at my friends’ place further south in Marin County. We left in a scary whirlwind of ashes and smoke on the night between Sunday and Monday, October 8th and 9th, when all hell broke loose up here in the California Wine Country.
It was extremely windy that Sunday night, and while in bed I kept hearing sirens from fire trucks and other emergency vehicles. I did not pay attention at first because I hear them all the time, given that there is a fire station just a couple of blocks from our place. Then I started smelling smoke, and noticed the sirens were way more than was normal. Around 11:30 pm I got up and decided to take a look outside. Maybe I should have, but I did not expect what I found. The wind, smoke and ashes were eerily intense, but, as someone who no longer lights real candles and triple checks that everything is off before leaving the house for an hour, what got me was seeing flames somewhere out there from my front porch. Later I found out those flames belonged to the fire across the valley, but in that moment, in the dark, I could not tell how far they were, and they felt too close for comfort.
One of my neighbors was out with her dog, so I went to talk to her. What is going on? What should we do? She had just talked to another neighbor who was also uncertain on what to do. The neighborhood was otherwise quiet. Everything seemed normal, but did not feel normal.
I went back inside, and figured I would begin with getting dressed again. Then I started packing up my new computer and all hard drives, just in case. Then I added cables, chargers, passwords, camera gear, passport and a few other documents. As I did this, the feeling of urgency increased, but I managed to stay focused enough to also pick up my supplements, the pups’ food, and a pair of slippers beyond the boots that I was wearing. By the time I entered the bathroom, though, the urgency had increased further, so all I ended up picking up was toothbrush, toothpaste and a hairbrush.
Six years of living in a Honolulu apartment where the fire alarm would go off for no reason 4-5 times a week, sometimes in the middle of the night, had prepared me in a way I had not expected. I had gotten used to keeping clothes nearby, dress fast, and prioritize: pups & I, gear, documents, clothes & shoes, and purse, which always contains all my keys. And though Sunday night it was not a false alarm, but the real thing, I did not panic. After an initial surge of fear, purpose and determination set in. I guess it helped that the fire was over the hills and not in my house. Besides, the advantage of living in a small apartment is that you don’t really have to search for stuff: it is all right there.
The walk to my car is not long, maybe 30-40 yards, but it became so much longer as I went back and forth a couple of times carrying relatively heavy stuff. Breathing became difficult, especially because the extra effort of carrying required deeper breaths, so more oxygen than was available with the smoke. I decided not to wait for things to get worse, as there was no way I would want to get trapped. I saw my neighbor again and told her we were leaving and where we were going, and that she and her dog were welcome to come with us. But she said she would see how things were and then, if needed, she would drive down to her mother’s place in Vallejo, which is about 30-minutes-drive south.
I went back inside, picked up my purse, leashed up my pups and looked around my place, wondering if I would be seeing all my piles of stuff again. I recommended it all to my invisible gang, locked the door and headed back to the car. The pups kept wanting to stop to pee, while I was eager to get them into the car so they would not breathe in too much smoke. Wind, smoke and ash were getting worse by the minute as we drove through Napa to get to the highway that would take us south to Marin. I became concerned about trees and poles falling, then chose not to stay with that thought but focus on being safe. There were some vehicles about, but not too many, and I saw even less on the highway.
As we drove past the Carneros area, I could see the fire up the hill to my right, not near, but not all that far either, and very scary. I found out later that they had evacuated the Carneros Inn, even though now I know it has been spared. I knew my friends who live down Cuttings Wharf were out of town, so I passed on the notion of stopping in to check on them. The fire was too close for comfort now. I knew I had made the right decision and kept on going. I found out later that, had I waited even one hour, I would not have been able to get past the junction with Napa Road coming from Sonoma (old Stornetta Farm junction for us locals), as the flames had jumped the road and everything was on fire.
As I drove I acknowledged the incredible combination of events of having to get new tires and a new, much lighter and easier-to-carry computer within just a few weeks from each other. These were expenses that had caught me unprepared earlier in the summer, but turned out to be a blessing in the not-so-much-longer term. When you are in an emergency, the last thing you need is car trouble. And can you imagine if I had had to pack up and load my old big and heavy computer? Talk about panic!
We reached our destination in Marin County in about forty minutes, unchallenged, with hardly any traffic on the road, and very grateful we had a safe place we could escape to in the middle of the night. I did not know it then, but in just a few more hours, the highways would become jammed with people escaping from Santa Rosa and upper Sonoma Valley.
The wind was strong down there as well, and the smoke and ash had followed us all the way from up north. My pups were troopers. They were totally fine about going for a car ride in the middle of the night and thought nothing of it. Of course, they were with me, and I am sure it helped that we went to a familiar place. But they are overall good about traveling.
I slept a total of three hours that night, as I kept checking my phone looking for sources of information. But details did not start to really trickle in till morning, when I discovered how bad and how widely spread the fires were, and especially what was happening in Santa Rosa and many other places in the upper Sonoma and Napa valleys, where entire neighborhoods were burned to the ground in just a couple of hours, sometimes in minutes.
It has been a week of Nixle updates, Tweet notifications from several fire departments, and scouring all social media for reliable sources that would provide us locals with more up-to-date and clear information than the news stations, who kept running old (to us) footage that told us nothing. It has been a week of back-and-forth messages, calls, texts and Facebooking with friends. Where are you? Are you safe? Do you have to evacuate? Is your home safe? Two friends made it out of the house with their dogs around 2:30 am with just minutes to spare. Two others, after their house hung on all week, saw it burned to the ground on Saturday.
It has been a week of sorrow and many, many sad and sometimes horrific stories, but also of so very many acts of heroism, compassion and love. And the helpers are everywhere. The wine country community has come together fast and in incredible numbers in support of each other.
For me it has also been a week of sudden surges of fear so strong that I would have to run to the bathroom several times a day; of lack of sleep for checking updates, sending out light to everybody, looking out the window and scanning the horizon to make sure that no new fires had started nearby. Because, like much of California, even Marin was on red flag alert.
I tried my best to not let my Mum find out what was going on because I know she is a major, major worry-wort. But on Tuesday she heard about it on the news, as was inevitable. I had to tell her where I was and why, while I had originally only told my brother. She took it fairly well, though I am sure it helped that I was FaceTiming with her from a safe place.
As the first glimmers of containment reached me (I was happy with even just 5%), I began to breathe more freely and also going within. Thoughts, lots of thoughts, some clear, some waiting to become clear, went through my mind. The latter are still in the waiting room and I am leaving them there for now. The clear ones will define the coming months, and run along the lines of: trim off the metaphorical dead wood, clear out the debris, strengthen the structure and complete what is in front of me. I can only get there from here.
In the practical day-to-day this translates to:
- clear out a deeper layer of stuff from The Pile, and fine tune what I intend to keep;
- clean up my computer and hard drives and back everything up twice: once on more external hard drives, and once into a remote cloud (Dropbox);
- clean up my to-do list and narrow it down to what really makes me happy – no time a-wasting;
- take particularly good care of my body and health, so that I have the energy to take all the necessary steps – even just one at a time and a little every day – to move myself towards where I really want to be, again no time a-wasting!
The blurry thoughts that are still in limbo will then have space to come forward and become clear, and, along with them, also my next step. I must admit that I cannot help jumping forward sometimes, and try to work out in my mind the wheres, whats and whys. But each time I do I get frustrated because I cannot feel anything clearly, especially at this time. So I return to the present and do my best to be happy with what is right now.
On Wednesday (October 11), after a thorough and careful evaluation, and after making sure the roads were all open, I dashed back to Napa to pick up some clothes and a few other basics like lotions, shampoo et such. Immersed as it was in a thick layer of smoke, Napa felt surreal, as if suspended in time. Yet there was more activity than I had expected. Most of my neighbors had decided to stay and ride it out unless they received the evacuation order. The ones I talked to were in as much of a daze as the town was in a haze.
I waited the whole week before returning home because, even when it became clear that Napa was relatively safe and only under advisory, there was still the possibility that the winds might turn, and the air quality was really bad. I could easily have worn a mask, but my pups couldn’t, and I had to think of their wellbeing, too.
I felt so frustratingly helpless from my out-of-the-way safe place, and felt physically and emotionally tired all the time. Given that I had everything with me, I tried to do some work, but I did not manage much. I did, however, prepare the happy images you see in this post. They are from a beautiful pumpkin patch just outside Napa city limits, at the junction between CA-29 and Ca-12/121. And yes, the patch was spared. There was no way I would share images from the wildfires. I don’t have any, and in any case, you can get as many of those as you need from social media and news channels.
As I was driving us home this past Sunday afternoon, even as I saw the burned down buildings and scorched mountains, I felt so much gratitude. I felt so very grateful for:
- all that was spared;
- for my pups and I being safe;
- for my home, neighborhood and town being safe;
- for having a safe place we could escape to and know that we would be welcome;
- for hearing that all my friends were/are safe, even though for two couples their homes have not survived;
- for the incredible dedication of so many first responders, firefighters, coast guard and other groups who ran towards danger in order to protect the community, some even coming from other counties, states and even countries;
- for the many, many acts of kindness and heroism that have been happening all around;
- for each new miracle reported, where someone who was lost was found, and animals who had run away scared had survived against all odds and reunited with their families;
- for the amazing support this community are showing towards each other;
- and also for the fact that, though bad, things could have been way worse, but weren’t; that those who lost their lives were many, but could have been many more, and weren’t, and I hope won’t be.
My neighbors have talked of a stressful week, as being on advisory meant being in constant ready-to-go mode. I could see signs of lack of sleep and intense stress in some of the faces. But overall there is an eagerness to “get back to normal”, whatever normal will be now. But we are not complaining. We are the lucky ones, even though I know luck has nothing to do with it.
I am still physically and emotionally exhausted, and I can only imagine what all those thousands of people in shelters are feeling. Their “normal” will be a while in coming. Earlier I was watching a video by a firefighter from Berkeley whose team had been sent up to Santa Rosa early Monday morning not knowing what they were going to find. It showed night scenes of the fire and of one of the neighborhoods that had already been burned down. In tears I watched the devastation and listened to the story of how they found a street where one side was still burning, while the other was intact, and they managed to “draw a line” there and save those homes. That was later called the “Line of Sorrow”.
My heart aches for all those people who have lost everything, including loved ones and pets sometimes. But it also aches for the mountains, the trees, and for the wild animals and birds that are now as displaced as many of us. Our Sugarloaf Ridge Park, home of our many Shinrin-Yoku walks and training, is still burning and it is not the only one.
I am still checking all the notifications I get, and my heart is a little lighter as I see more and more containments, with numbers like 65%, 70% and higher, and not just here in the wine country, but also up in Ukiah and other areas around California that did not receive as much coverage because they are less famous. I look at fire maps and see the lines of containment everywhere, and the red dots are fewer and fewer. Now I am waiting to hear from my Sonoma friends that they can return to their homes.
A lot is being done by many, but a lot remains to be done for some time to come. If any of you wish to help, here are a few links where you can make donations that will actually reach the fire victims:
https://www.redwoodcu.org/northbayfirerelief by the local Redwood Credit Union;
http://www.sonomacf.org/sonoma-county-resilience-fund/ by Sonoma County Resilience Fund;
https://www.gofundme.com/jennifer-and-jay-michaels-fire-fund a Gofundme campaign opened for my friend Jenny and her husband who lost their home on Saturday, and who were unable to get fire insurance because of the location of their home, so for them this will be a total loss;
http://www.napavalleycf.org by Napa Valley Community Foundation.
The other thing you can do to help, when things have settled and the fire department deems it safe, is to return to the wine country, stay for a while, enjoy the sights, the food and the wine, and buy some of that wine to take home, especially from the small family wineries. Or you can buy it from a store wherever you are.
After a couple of clear days, it has been a smoky one again today. I am still processing all of this, it will take a while to digest what happened and what that means for me in the long term. I will close with saying that I learned a lot this week, and that I am grateful to be among the safe ones.