Last Saturday night, my husband and I went to my sister’s house for dinner. Our youngest was at the homecoming at her high school. By 2am Monday morning … both places were gone–burned to the ground, along with a huge swath of my hometown.
It’s hard to wrap our heads around the last week here in Santa Rosa. I mean, I’m in the middle of Pitch Wars 2017. The most stressful thing on my plate is supposed to be getting through a full revision, right?
But my reality has changed. Dozens of families we know have lost their homes. 136 families just at our small school. 3,500 houses burned. 6,700 structures. 50,000 evacuated. 95,000 acres burned. 41 dead (though the fact that this number is not far bigger is a miracle).
Here’s how the events unfolded for us.
Saturday, October 7
6am I send my husband and daughter off to her volleyball tournament. I hate to miss watching her play, but I’m in the throes of Pitch Wars 2017 and I have to get some serious revisions done.
8pm After dropping our daughter off at Homecoming, I sit at my sister Kim’s cool square dining table–the one her sister-in-law gave her–catching up with my nephew, home from college. Their rambling ranch-style house is quirky and imperfect. The view west towards the ocean is all oak trees and vineyards and rolling hills. I grab a wine glass from their 50+ year old cabinets, rinsing it before I pour in my favorite Hanna Sauvignon Blanc (wine snob that I am). We eat my sister’s famous lasagna and send this dorky snap to my daughter at UC Davis to tell her we miss her.
10:30pm My husband and I wait outside Cardinal Newman High School, watching the students–all dressed up for the Homecoming Dance–leave the gym. We giggle some of the girls walking out–all knees and ankles like teenage giraffes in too-high shoes. Our daughter finally shows up at the car, smiling and sweaty and talking a mile a minute in her cool way-too-expensive Free People dress.
Sunday, October 8
A boring Sunday, like any other. I’m at my computer, banging away at the keys. I blow off going to the grocery store in favor of getting through a few more chapters. (This I will regret later.) We have takeout–again. (Getting to be a regular Pitch Wars problem.) Lauren complains about her homework.
8pm My eyes bleary from edits, I finally crash out on the couch for our nightly family binge of Grey’s Anatomy (we’re in Season 5). We miss having our older daughter lounging there with us–she’s in her third week of college. We get through a few episodes–noticing that the wind has really picked up outside. Weird.
10pm By the time we go to bed, the wind is howling like I’ve never heard it in Santa Rosa before. I hear it was gusting up to 80 MPH that night. We hunker down in bed–always wary of the oak tree that hangs over our house. Darryl falls right off to sleep, but I stay awake reading, every once in awhile glancing up to laugh at the bullet-like hailstorm of acorns that bombard our roof.
Monday, October 9
12:00am I’m still awake reading when Lauren comes into our dark room. She’s just seen a post that her friend has been evacuated from her house on Riebli Road & Mark West Springs because of a fire.
Wait a minute.
That’s not that far from here. And even closer to my sister and parents. And right next to my friend Dani’s house. Her husband is out of town.
I get out my phone. Call my mom. She’s up watching news. Tells me to call Kim. I consider calling Dani. Am I overreacting? I don’t want to wake everyone up.
The wind outside howls some more. I smell smoke. Screw it. I’m calling.
12:18am Call my sister. No answer. Text my sister:
She’s up watching the news. Does not realize fire is so close.
Darryl falls back asleep. Thinking I’m overreacting (which, to be fair, I often do). I go out to turn on the TV. A fire started in Calistoga and is headed our way. I look outside, where the trees are whipping back and forth in the wind.
12:40am I decide it’s better to wake Dani up. Call Dani cell. No answer. Call Dani home. Text Dani:
No answer. Very worried now.
We get an evacuation call on our landline for the hill behind our house. We didn’t even know an “evacuation call” was a thing. The city considers our house part of the hill behind us. I guess they’re right. If it goes, we go.
Back on the phone with my sister–they are now up. They can see smoke and a red glow. Panic ensues. They run around throwing random valuables in bags. They got away with computers. Her makeup. Some jewelry. The photo albums. The dog. They couldn’t corral the cat. They head in one car up their driveway, leaving two behind. At the top of the drive an ominous red glow is cresting their hill and car after car is heading down and out.
Instead of following the line of cars to safety, they take a right turn to head for my folks’ house. My parents are 76 and 78–young and healthy for their age. But still. She helps them gather up a few things. What do you take? No one cares about the china or silver in cases like this. Empty the safe.
1am With a few possessions thrown in the car, my parents and my sister and her husband and son are on the road, trying to get to my house. They have me on speakerphone. A cry wrenches through the phone. My connection cuts off. My panic reaches epic proportions. They call back. On the hill to the east, my sister’s house is on fire. The whole hill is on fire. They change course and head north.
1:42am I finally hear from Dani. They have fled their house, driving through flames licking up either side of their driveway. They cannot find their beloved cat.
It’s hitting home that this fire is on the hill that connects Dani’s house to ours, and it’s moving fast. I start packing up our valuables. Then I start to learn the meaning of the word “valuable”. Turns out, it has almost no relation to how much something cost. I am one of the few who has time to really pack–and I walk right by things I thought were valuable and my only thought is “I can replace that.”
I pack the car with my computer, photo albums, birth certificates, a odd assortment of clothes, some blankets. Then more clothes (wondering if I’m going to have to clothe my sister and mother). I stare lovingly at my baby grand piano, then pack my flute and guitar. We crate the cat (thank God she’s inside). I send a copy of my latest manuscript to my CP Deborah. Just in case.
We are ready. We are not ready.
3:00am Everyone’s up. The smoke is thick, the wind still whipping around. My entire neighborhood is standing out on the street, looking up at the hill behind us. The smoke roils up in a giant, ominous cloud. Reflected in it is an eerie orange-pink glow. We don’t know how far away it is. (This isn’t my photo–but this is what it looked like)
3:30am The smoke is getting thick and I evacuate with my daughter down to my husband’s office in downtown Santa Rosa. He stays to protect the house. (It’s funny, I heard this scenario again and again. The women’s instinct was to evacuate the kids; the men protected the houses.) My parents and sister can’t reach us–the wind has blown the fire across the freeway and it’s burning on both sides now. My in-laws show up. Darryl finally comes down. We have an odd assortment of dogs and kids and food and blankets. No one knows what to say. Our town is burning. I wonder if my house is burning. We have no TV and don’t know where to look for updates.
The kids sleep. The adults stay up.
5:30am The dawn starts to break and we pray for the sound of fire bombers. The sound doesn’t come. The smoke is thick and acrid. The wind has finally died down.
We head back to our house. Our neighborhood still stands, the hill behind us intact. Once again we stand on the sidewalk with our neighbors, staring at the smoke in the distance. Have you heard anything? Is everyone OK? We all know families whose homes are already gone.
We evacuate once more that afternoon, back to downtown Santa Rosa. But our house survives the week. The fires continued to burn. The wind whips up again. My parents sleep in my oldest daughters’ room, wondering if their house still stands.
We learn what Nixle updates are. We follow every social media account of city and county services. We obsessively watch the red dots on the fire map. We start every conversation with “are you still OK?” and end every conversation with “stay safe.” We sleep with half an ear open, clothes set at the ready. We leave all the valuables packed in the car. We shake our heads at reports of looting. How could they?
Eventually, we learned that the fire came within 1.2 miles of us that night (see the blue line). If it had jumped that last road, it’s unlikely the houses on our hill would have survived. Though my parents’ house is just .8 miles from my sister’s, it survived. The wind decided that night who burned and who didn’t.
Walking through our old house, I suddenly love every quirky, imperfect thing about it. The cabinet that shuts crooked makes me smile. The sticky slider is a blessing. We’re lucky to have laundry piles.
Here are just a few of the images that will be etched in my mind forever:
Cardinal Newman High School–where both my husband and I attended. One daughter graduated last year; one is a sophomore there now. Half the school burned. 25% of our students lost their homes in the fire–136 families.
photo credits: The Press Democrat
Our favorite restaurant –where we took our daughter for a special dinner before she left for college. The owners live down the street from us. Their home survived.
photo credits: The Press Democrat
What’s left of my sister’s amazing view of the Santa Rosa plain:
Our friends’ neighborhoods:
Where my husband asked me to marry him:
Though that first night was battled with limited resources, a huge thank you to the hundreds of first responders who came from all over California and neighboring states to help us.
It’s been eight days since all hell broke loose in my hometown. How will I ever finish revisions on my contemporary romance? It’s set in Sonoma County wine country, which has just burned around me. It’s surreal to go back to something light and uncomplicated, but I’m so grateful to be sitting in my home at my computer, ready to slip back into the story.
*Some photos above were found online with no credit. If you would it removed, or would like a photo credit added to the photo, please comment below or contact me here.