On Sunday night, my wife and I were up a little later than normal, trying to catch up on some TV. (I wanted to watch Ken Burns’ Vietnam series.) It was a windy night in Santa Rosa, our California town — debris kept striking our windows. I was worried about stuff blowing around in our yard, so I stepped outside to take a look around 11 p.m. Nothing to see.
But the wind continued, and around midnight I stepped outside again. Our house is on top of a hill, and we’re surrounded by mountains far to the north. This time I saw a glow coming from the other side of the mountains, many miles away. A fire, clearly, but nothing that worried us too much. We lived in a certified fire-safe neighborhood.
But within the hour, the glow was brighter. And it was getting bigger. A wide stretch of the mountain crest was now lighted up. It almost looked like an erupting volcano.
My wife and I wondered whether maybe we should pack. We hadn’t received an emergency alert from the city, though. (Later we would learn that the city did issue an alert; it didn’t go through.) Were we were being overly anxious? There were miles of expanse between our house and the ridge. We have all this technology, we reasoned. We have people to fight fires. There’s a brand-new fire station three blocks from our house. This isn’t going to get to us. We started to pack a few things just in case, as if we were preparing for one night of camping: toiletries, a change of underwear, some bedding.
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But we kept going back outside and looking north. By 1 a.m., the flames were over the mountain ridge. They must have been over 100 feet high, and they had gotten wider. They were coming down the mountain.
We began to pack more earnestly. I thought, I should pack my laptop. My wife started to gather artwork – her mother was a prolific and talented painter; we have hundreds of her paintings. Only briefly did it sink in that the fire really could take our home.
Then, around 2 a.m., came a knock on the door. It was our neighbor, who is a firefighter. “You should get out,” he said. “I already sent my wife out.”
Now we knew we weren’t overreacting. We had to leave immediately. Fifteen minutes later, we got the dog, got in our cars – an old van with a quarter of a million miles on it that I use for hauling things, and our electric car – and we went.
I’m not sure when the fire reached our neighborhood. One neighbor later told us she woke at 3:30 a.m. to find a firefighter standing in her bedroom, telling her she had one minute to escape her house. The flames had come down the mountain and were now racing up our hill.
We stayed at my office that night, sleeping on the floor for a few hours. It was completely unreal. There were only questions. What’s going to happen? What will the next day be like? I’m a doctor and was scheduled to see patients that morning – what about them?
Everything since the fire has been confusion and disorientation. Our town is destroyed. Losing your home is one thing – but the entire community? At least 1,500 structures are gone. Two hotels burned to the ground. There are three hospitals in Santa Rosa; two were evacuated. The air quality is atrocious. How are we going to take care of people when two of our three local hospitals are shut down and so many of the town’s doctors are dealing with their own lost homes? You can’t turn to your neighbors because they lost their houses, too. Even that new firehouse was destroyed.
The smoke is everywhere, filling your nose, making your eyes water. You can’t walk outside without clearing your throat. Our dog is sneezing. People are sitting in their cars in parking lots, with nothing else to do and nowhere else to go.
It’s hard to look back and think of the million things you would have done differently. We had thought about this before, what we would do if we needed to evacuate. But you can’t really prepare. Our computers were backed up, but we forgot the hard drives. Now they’re surely melted. There were so many things I pulled out to pack, but they didn’t quite make it into the bag. I can’t even think about the objects that were left behind. I’m the one in my family who has always been interested in genealogy and family photos. They’re gone. I had thousands of books. My musical instruments, the guitars, the piano. The baby clothes we had saved for our grandchildren. The chair we rocked our kids to sleep in. My mother-in-law’s paintings. All are gone.
And now we have to rebuild our lives. The most basic things we do not have; the most basic routines we can no longer follow. You need a towel and look around, and there’s no towel. Where do we wash our clothes? I wonder. And what do I wear while I wash them? At one point, I thought, Man, it would be nice to have a spoon.
After a night at the house of friends, away from the chaos, we are headed back north, to stay with Santa Rosa friends and take the first steps toward re-creating our lives. The support has been so wonderful — we lost the solidity of our house, but our family and friends are keeping us steady. I’m trying to figure out what to do about insurance, but we haven’t even been able to go back to the house to confirm that it’s destroyed, even though other people say it was, and images of the neighborhood I’ve seen online make it hard to pretend otherwise.
We’re trying to function, but it’s difficult when you lived in one world, and now it’s totally different. When everything is lost, what do you do? What are the rules?
Michael Carlston is a doctor and author living in California.