Saturday, October 26, 2019, 5:30 pm – The Kincade fire, a two-hour drive north of me in Sonoma County, is spreading and the wind is beginning to get crazy here in Contra Costa County. No scheduled power outage for my zip code…yet. We’ll see what tomorrow brings.
Our New Normal in California consists of fires raging throughout the state during the fall. Dry terrain, high winds, and a utility company that has been unable and unwilling to keep their wires in safe condition, apparently combine to form a perfect storm of flaming disaster.
Sunday, October 27, 2019, 8:03 am – I wake up to intense wind. It has not died down overnight as hoped. Two large fronds from my Queen Anne palm tree have been blown off their trunk. I live in a fairly windy neighborhood. We’ve had wind before. Palm fronds have never, in the sixteen years I’ve lived in this home, been torn from this massive tree.
10:15 am – I smell a hint of smoke. Just barely. Not sure where it’s coming from. I turn on the news, wondering if the smoke from the Kincade fire has reached us, or if there’s something burning closer. Crockett, the next town west of me on Hwy. 4 is being evacuated. Apparently there’s a fire on the Carquinez Bridge, part of Interstate 80. Crockett is at the base of this bridge, and the winds, as I’ve said, are fierce. A single ember can travel a long distance. It’s dry everywhere.
The Kincade Fire continues to rage in Sonoma County in Geyserville. It is creeping south, threatening Windsor and Healdsburg – towns just north of Santa Rosa, where only two years ago, the Tubbs fire leveled entire neighborhoods.
12:34 pm – I call my friend B.H. whose home burnt to the ground in the Tubbs fire. She and her husband lost everything, except – thank God – each other. Only a few months ago they moved into their new home, constructed on their former lot. As this massive fire spread, closer and closer to Santa Rosa, they packed their suitcases, their two dogs and one cat into two cars and drove east to stay with friends. They’re going to wait out the fire season. Two years ago they barely got away with the clothes on their back, as they watched their home be engulfed by flames in the rearview mirror. This time they had time to consider what they would take with them. They’ve already decided that if fire takes this home, they will leave the area for good. Their younger son is a firefighter. The irony.
Earthquakes used to be the worst Mother Nature could do to us here in the Bay Area. I had made peace with that possibility. Fires have now jumped to the #1 position in terms of threats.
1:50 pm – The Lafayette fire starts. People driving on Hwy. 24 can see flames right there on the edge of the freeway. I traverse this stretch of multi-lane road frequently because it connects me with the more metropolitan areas of Berkeley and Oakland. An entire tennis club burns to a charred skeleton of its former self. The smoke from that fire is visible from my neighborhood.
Just last week, I was informed by people who have their ear to the ground about such things, that insurance companies are silently abandoning homeowners in California, abandoning California altogether, because an annual fire season is becoming a regular, predictable occurrence. Homes are going to be lost. It’s inevitable. And insurance companies don’t bet on inevitabilities.
Shortly after 3:00 pm – A two-acre, multi-alarm fire starts in Martinez. I live in Martinez. I turn on the TV just in time to hear an evacuation alert, “Leave now if you are in Martinez in the areas between Alhambra Avenue and Morello Avenue and between Vine Hill Way and Sunnybrae Drive.” These are names of streets that are super familiar to me. I live off of Morello Avenue. My dog’s vet is on Alhambra Avenue. Too familiar. I have to check a map to be certain this fire is still far away enough.
From my backyard, I can see smoke in three different directions. By some stroke of luck, these three fires closest to me are all moving away. I can’t smell smoke. This is reassuring. If I can smell the smoke that means the wind is pushing the fires towards me. Nevertheless, I decide to pack because I don’t want to have to evacuate in a rush. The winds could change.
It’s an interesting process. What to take? What will I need in the next few days? What can’t be replaced? I decide these are my criteria and I make a list:
- Toiletries, meds and only clothing that actually fits me.
- My dog’s bed, food and medications. Maybe a few toys. Don’t forget the dog!
- My tall, rubber rain boots, in case I have to climb through the hosed down rubble of my home.
- My laptop. It contains much of my life, my writing, my photos.
- The urn with my son’s ashes. I’m planning to leave a fire zone with ashes. The irony.
- An original painting that’s worth some money.
- My camera and lenses.
- A handful of books I haven’t read yet.
- My pillow, because I can’t take my bed.
- A few bottles of wine. And a corkscrew.
- My late sister’s important documents. I’m the Executrix of her estate, and not everything is resolved yet.
- MY important documents – the deed to my home, proof of my homeowner’s insurance, my birth certificate and passport.
What am I leaving behind?
- Boxes of photos and photo albums that haven’t yet been digitally scanned.
- A conversation-piece dining room table and matching credenza which were custom-made. They are my most valuable (dollar-wise) possessions (after my home and car). I rarely I wish I owned a truck; I do today.
- Many pieces of art collected over decades. I know some of the artists personally.
- My piano.
- So many books and way too much fabulous wine.
- Boxes of yarn from my knitting days. Knitting saved my life after my son’s death and when I was battling cancer, so these skeins of yarn represent much more than unmade scarves; they represent survival.
7:00 pm – The fire in Martinez, my most immediate threat, is out. It’s unlikely I’ll be evacuated tonight. Relief. The Crockett and Lafayette fires also seem to be contained. However, the biggest fire in the state right now – The Kincade Fire – is still a beast. As I write this, the wind could change overnight. Smoke and air quality may force me away from home by morning.
There is no rest for the weary. A friend in Santa Rosa, a social worker for Sonoma County, has been on call for the past 48 hours. She’s having trouble getting her people to show up for work because they’re feeling re-traumatized themselves. None of them have homes in the evacuation zone…yet. She has to be a hard ass and order them to work. This is what they signed up for.
Monday, October 28, 2019, 3:28 am – I made the mistake of leaving one of my bedroom windows open when I went to sleep, and five hours later the wind is now blowing in the direction of my home. The air I’m breathing is thick with smoke, and visibility is low in my backyard. I don’t know how long I’ve been inhaling this dirty air, with the additional help of my C-Pap machine, which draws air from the room and forces it into my nose so I don’t stop breathing while I sleep. Again, the irony. I’ve probably inhaled an extra dose of noxious air. I urgently look out my windows in all directions to see if the sky is glowing nearby. It’s not. I’m satisfied I’m safe for a few more hours of sleep. My car is still packed and ready to go. I shut the window tight and go back to sleep, already feeling a headache coming on.
My friend B.H.’s son is still fighting one of the many fires blazing up north while he undoubtedly wonders whether his parents’ brand new home will be spared this time, unlike the home of his childhood which is forever gone. First responders all over the state continue to run towards the danger when everyone else is running away. Heroes. Simply put.
Thursday, October 31, 2019, 8:00 am – Here in Contra Costa County we are in the clear, although the winds picked up again late last night for a few hours. I’m experiencing some symptoms – headache, nausea, dizziness -which my healthcare professionals tell me are most likely a consequence of environmental toxins. They’re seeing this a lot in fire/smoke-affected areas throughout the state. The fires nearest to me are out. The smoke has dissipated. I unpacked my car. Things have mostly normalized. For now.
The same can’t be said for other parts of the state. The Kincade fire, which has burned over 76,000 acres, is only 30% contained. In Los Angeles, the Getty fire continues to be fueled by the strongest Santa Ana winds ever, and a Simi Valley fire threatens the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and the surrounding neighborhood. We’re not out of the woods until it starts to rain. Hopefully, sooner than later.
Here’s what I know: we are in a new climate era. Deniers be damned.
Here’s what else I know: For the most part, stuff can be replaced. There’s some comfort in that. People, however, are irreplaceable, so when it comes right down to it, you and your loved ones are the priority. I am willing to leave the stuff behind to ensure my safety.
Here’s what I know for sure: I love California. No matter where one lives, there are bound to be dangers unique to one’s corner of the globe. California is where I belong. I felt it the first time I landed in L.A. in 1983. I felt that undeniable “belonging” feeling again when I moved back to California, to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1990. I’ve lived in and visited other parts of the world, and other parts of this country. I haven’t felt that immediate sense of being home anywhere else. It’s almost as if California has been a part of my heart since before this lifetime.
I’m staying put. The earth may shake, the fires may burn, the muds may slide. As long as my house is still standing, California will remain my home.