After The Fires

15 Oct

It is 7:56am Sunday, October 15, 2017, as I begin the next phase of recovery after the fires in Santa Rosa nearly put an end to us.  There are so many friends and extended family members who want to know what happened, what we went through; I can’t tell this story over and over, it’s traumatic.  So I will tell it once, here, and share the link, and I will try to post weekly updates here, I’ll make it a minor goal to write a little each Sunday morning until we rise like the Phoenix.

My husband, Oliver, arrived home from work around 10:30pm last Sunday, October 8th.  He is a driver, part-time.  His primary goal is nearing the finish line, and that is to complete the final rendering of Cerebus Film.  It is an independent animation project he has been producing/writing/directing since before we met in 2009.  He works with a team of over 200 artists worldwide, all of them doing it in their spare time on their own computers, a labor of love by skilled and talented Cerebus fans.

It was too late to catch up on our favorite shows, so we got ready for bed.  We both remember saying it smelled like a camp fire.  “There’s a wildfire in Napa,” I’d seen some news about that.  I thought of my boss, Terri, who was visiting her friend in Napa last weekend, and hoped the fires there would not affect her.  (It burnt to the ground, we learned a few days ago.)

We fell asleep easily with our three cats nestled at our feet and next to us and on us, as they usually do.

I woke to the sound of voices outside, yelling, in a fog I think I heard the word “evacuate” and I reached over and my husband wasn’t there.  A moment later he was in the doorway, shining the light of his phone into the bedroom and saying in no uncertain terms, “Honey, we have to evacuate.  There’s a fire in the park.”  (Our mobile home park, Journey’s End, you may have heard about it in the news, it’s the one located next to Kaiser Hospital, which was evacuated in the middle of the night, like we were.)

It was dark, power was out, inside our home the air was breathable, it only smelled like danger, but when I opened the door to look outside, the air was ghastly.  My brain yelled, “Get out!”  It didn’t stop yelling at me to obey that command until we were well south of Santa Rosa on Hwy 101, the main artery between San Francisco and the North Bay cities.

“The kitties!” I shouted, “We have to get the kitties!”

“I can’t see them!  Where are they?”

“Where are the carriers?” I said aloud and I remembered, they were outside, somewhere in the shed.  The red glow of flames nearby said, “You can’t do that.  You can’t risk your lives breathing that smoke and take time to find the carriers and try to find the cats and try to push them into the carriers.”

“What about–should we let them out?”

“No!  It’s too smoky and chaotic, they’re more likely to get hurt out there.”

Split-second decisions had to be made.  We rushed out with the clothes we threw on and our phones and keys.  I managed to grab my purse and meds.  “Get out!  Get out!”

We had to get Oliver’s Mom, Inger, a few doors down.  He ran over there, I got the car and met him.  He was out in that toxic smoke banging on her home to wake her and get her moving.  Her neighbor, Louise, came outside in her PJs and robe and we took  her with us.  They piled into the car and I drove carefully through the dark, smoky park toward the only exit, where we saw police cars parked with lights on, we heard sirens, but there was no sign of a firetruck, and plumes of yellow and red flames and black smoke consumed at least two homes at once.

“Get out!”  I obeyed.  Hyper focused on driving at 3:38am, turned onto Bicentennial Way.  Many cars, but not a jam, many people evacuating.

The entire hillside above Journeys End, the Fountaingrove area, was consumed.  And there were no firetrucks there and none on the road.  The entire county was going up in flames.

The wind that night was noticeably worse than memory recalls ever hearing in California, and we are used to the winds that kick up every year–known as the Santa Ana winds.  “It sounds like it could blow off some siding or the awning,” I had said before going to bed.

Once we got onto the 101 South, I drove the speed limit and watched other cars carefully to avoid an accident, getting away from the smoke was all that mattered.  Everything else was blocked out.  Drive to safety, that was my job, like a robot.

“Louise, do you have your medication with you?” I asked because she was understandably in a mild state of shock and panic.  She is 84 years old and takes heart medication.

“No, I didn’t get my purse or anything!”

“Okay, okay, we’ll stop at a hospital and get your medications.”

“I can get them at Tuttles.  They have all my records!”

Tuttles, her usual pharmacy, was probably not going to be open in the morning.  It’s in Santa Rosa.  There was a car consumed by flames on the side of the road, police nearby, doing what they could to help mitigate the dangers and steer people away.

We approached the next little city, Rohnert Park, it was dark and smoky.  “I don’t want to stop here, I don’t want to have to evacuate again, okay?  I’m going to keep driving until we get out of this smoke!”  All agreed.

We passed Petaluma, also smoky.  We found local news on the radio and heard that Novato had fire alerts and Hwy 37 was closed.  So there was no point looking for a hotel in Novato either, but we saw a hospital open, and took Louise to the ER to get checked out and get an emergency supply of meds.  They weren’t allowed to give her pills to take with her, but they printed out her prescriptions, so we could get them from a pharmacy first thing in the morning.

The only hotel that was not swarmed with evacuees was in San Rafael and it was $264, so we decided we might as well go all the way to San Francisco.

By 5am we were safe and in a comfy room.  We turned on Kron4, the best local live news channel, and were horrified.  “The mobile home park next to Kaiser Hospital has been completely destroyed.”  The news crew was on top of the Kaiser parking garage, directly behind our homes.  Their cameras were aimed downward and all that was visible in the black of night and smoke, was twisted metal in a wall of flames.

“Oh my god!” Louise said over and over again, and burst into tears. “Oh my god!  I hope everyone got out–how will we know?  Oh my god!  We’ve lost everything?”  By “we” she meant everyone in the park.  It has been her home for 37 years.  She’s the sweetest little lady.  It broke (and breaks) my heart.  I hugged her and told her we’re going to get through this, “You’re not alone, we’re all going to help each other get through this!”

“I don’t have any insurance!  I can’t afford insurance!  I’ve lost everything!  Everything!  Oh, I wish I was dead!” she cried.  And we held each other and comforted each other.

Louise doesn’t have a wireless phone, and she couldn’t remember the phone number of her friend Lois or her niece Ann.  It was hours before she remembered a phone number, and it was for Ann’s husband’s phone.  So that was a relief, to get word to her family that she was okay.

Resigned to our losses, we found a Walgreens open in the morning and got the meds Louise needed.  We picked up some clothes at a Good Will Thrift Store, and went to IHOP for some comfort food.

I couldn’t bear the thought that my husband had lost 9 years of work.  The rendering computer was gone, the backup drives, gone, all of it gone.  How much of it might be in the cloud?  Not much.  Was the project dead?  I could not bear to ask him this.  Besides, Louise was already so fragile and distraught, we did not talk about our losses.  We focused on the positive.  We were safe and well.  We had each other.  Her family knew she was in good hands.

After breakfast, my husband said he had to go back and see it with his own eyes, he didn’t want to believe it.  Maybe it’s not “completely destroyed”.  Maybe the kitties got out, maybe the hard drives survived.  I did not want to go back.  I did not want to see it.  I believed what we saw and heard on the news.  I felt sick, and besides, we weren’t supposed to go back to the evacuated areas–the City and Police were telling everyone to stay away.  He had to, and his mother wouldn’t leave his side, and Louise wanted to go too, so they went.  I stayed in the hotel and cried.  After a while, I called my son and told him the horrible news.  He didn’t want to hear the details.  No sooner did I answer his question about the kitties, that they didn’t make it, he hung up and texted me that he did not want to talk about it.  I knew he had broken down in tears and was angry that I did not let them out.

It took hours for them to get back to Journeys End.  They had to park at the hospital and walk into the park.  It was smoldering, there were still plumes of smoke rising, but the police did not stop them.  It must have been amazing to see the homes on the south side of Sahara Street still standing, barely damaged, and the north side demolish, black and smoking.

I heard the news and wrote a quick email to my team at work, “Our home is still standing!”  Wow.  Talk about a silver lining!  “The kitties survived and they seem fine!”

That’s all I can write today.  It’s been a harrowing week, but we are all safe and well.  More good news to come, no doubt.  More silver linings.

Thank you to everyone for your support and caring and donations and prayers and for the peace and comfort you are giving us knowing we are not alone in this marathon.  We are deeply moved and uplifted by the support of my Red Hat manager and team, who set up this donation page to help!  https://www.gofundme.com/simonsenfamily

Thank you!!!  We’re all glad to be alive, even Louise–she’s been reunited with her family.

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Special thanks to my daughter, Chelsea, in Utah, who found this helpful post on Facebook… another silver lining…

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This article pretty much says it all: http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/2-big-wildfires-prompt-evacuations-in-Napa-County-12262945.php#photo-14325373

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