News of the Camp Fire that spread in one hour from 1,000 to 5,000 acres and by the end of the day had wiped out an entire town became too much for me. I noticed I felt compelled to avoid images, and especially video, of flames and people fleeing in terror. The mere mention brings me to tears and makes me feel unsafe and depressed. I want to run and hide. I want to live somewhere wet. I feel trapped by circumstances outside my control. And pouring salt on these wounds is an American President incapable of empathy.
The day after the Camp Fire raged, I received an email from the Northern California Fire Lawyers acknowledging the pain this news must be causing to survivors of the most destructive fires in the state’s history last year–which has now been topped. Their email suggested that we find ways to help today’s survivors by sharing our stories, our recommendations, our experience about how to cope, how to face the reality that your community has been destroyed, your home is gone, and your nerves are frayed and you feel fragile, yet decisions are bearing down on you every hour of the day. At the time that email arrived, it was too much to ask of me. I could not even bear to think about it. I moved the email immediately out of sight, set it aside in my “Relocation” folder.
Now, a few days later, unable to escape the images and news of Paradise, Thousand Oaks, and Malibu, I feel capable of sharing some insights that may be helpful to today’s survivors.
How did I do it? How did I move through the decisions that had to be made? How did I find the mental and emotional strength to sort it all out? The answer to that is that when you have no choice but to put one foot in front of the other and there is only one direction to go, you do that. How was it so clear to me that we had to leave Santa Rosa? I want you, dear reader, to know how much I loved Santa Rosa. I still cry. I cry not only because I loved living there, I cry because such a beautiful little city was decimated. I cry because the senior community of Journey’s End was destroyed and we can’t recreate it. I cry because I know how much it hurts my former neighbors to lose what we had.
We fled in the middle of the night. Flames were everywhere, not licking at our car windows like the videos I’ve glimpsed of people trying to get away from a Paradise in flames, but it was terrifying nonetheless. We saw glowing red, orange and yellow everywhere, the wind whipping it into a frenzy. We saw neighbors’ homes engulfed, we couldn’t tell whether it was two or three homes, it was a big fireball fueled by wicked winds. We saw a charred car on the side of the 101 highway and still burning–nobody was in it, and a police officer was present, directing evacuees around that lane. We evacuated early, so we were not trapped in traffic. I can’t imagine–I don’t want to imagine–I know how terrifying it was and my heart breaks for them.
So how did we go from that terror, sadness and chaos on October 9th to closing escrow on November 22nd? In large part, it was me. While members of my family seemed to be a little lost in hope that there was some reason to stick around, wait it out, see what happens, every molecule in my being shouted to my brain: Get out of here!
#1 – The smoke polluting the entire region was toxic. I have a health condition that puts me at higher risk, but even without that, it was really bad to be breathing that smoke day in and day out. The smoke wasn’t going anywhere. Sonoma, Napa and Lake Counties were on fire and it took weeks to get it under control. We had to get away from this and the only thing that made sense for us was to head south, to be near family in southern California.
#2 – Immediately file a claim with your insurance company and with FEMA. Immediately figure out how to do that and get it done. Fortunately for my family, I am a very organized person and I was able to pull it all together. Keep every receipt, take a photo of every receipt as you go along, and upload the photos to a secure folder in the cloud.
#3 – Get back to work as soon as possible. For people whose employment is local, that is a much bigger challenge. My husband’s job was impacted. My situation was more flexible, since I work online, I can work anywhere as long as I have a laptop and internet access. My boss told me to take it easy, time time off, do what we needed to do–but for those first few days, there was really nothing we could do other than wait…wait for access to our personal belongings…wait to meet an insurance adjuster…wait for FEMA to come through. So working was a relief.
#4 – Avoid the news. Avoid hearing and seeing the devastation over and over, all day, every day. Give yourself a break! Shut down. Unplug. For Californians, thankfully, we have access to dispensaries that provide non-narcotic relief from anxiety, insomnia, and depression. I bought some tinctures in the days after the fire.
#5 – Realistic expectations are vitally important. Set them early and reset them as you go along. It was unrealistic to hope or wish that utilities would be restored to our homes–our homes were damaged but still standing–but the infrastructure, the underground utilities–all of that was completely melted. Our mobile home park was served by an onsite well. The pipes and pumps were destroyed, and the well was contaminated. I did not need to know that before I made a decision to leave Santa Rosa. The smoke was so bad, and the recovery would require years–it was painfully obvious–we could not stay there. There was nowhere to live! We couldn’t stay indefinitely in a motel. We couldn’t leave our cats in a kennel indefinitely. We simply had to start over!
#6 – Someone has to be decisive. In this crisis, it turned out to be me. The pivotal reality was that I had to get away from the smoke and I had to get back to work–my family’s welfare was on the line. It was not necessary to get hysterical or manic, it was a painful realization that was stated quietly and firmly, with sympathy. My mental health had to be preserved so that I could function. So my priorities were what they were: self preservation, people are depending on me. I had an obligation, a duty, to my children, to my mother, to myself. Sanity is paramount. Be realistic. Take care of yourself.
#7 – If you can withdraw money from your 401(k) to invest in a new home, do it. I did not feel so bad raiding my retirement account, knowing that real estate is usually one of the best investments you can make. I searched for a condo that would be easy to sell in a few years. This was a strategic purchase–not intended to be a permanent solution, but rather an immediate solution with a likelihood of paying off later when we figured out where we really want to retire–if we cannot go back to Santa Rosa, then where?
So this is my little contribution to today’s survivors who may be looking for clear advice. Every situation is unique, but these things apply to all. Get it together, solve the immediate problems of where to stay while you figure it out, then figure it out and try to make the best of things.
Above all, what gets you through it is the gratitude of the fact that you did survive. That gratitude got me through a lot. We escaped. We escaped a firestorm. A year later, that gratitude still lifts me up above the sadness.
Wishing you a year filled with kindness, grace and gratitude.