This Time It's Personal

This Time It’s Personal : The Night My Town Caught Fire

Warning: Posts in this segment may contain language that is inappropriate and/or offensive to some readers.


The Night My Town Caught Fire

It’s funny how you can just go along in life and take things for granted, nit-pick on the little things and never see the bigger picture. Never, that is, until something drastic happens.

I had just posted the last entry in this Blog on October 7. I was giving an overview of my living area and complaining about the lack of space among other things. I was in that complacent place that we all tend to get to when things are “status quo” in our lives and we are always striving for something bigger, better, faster, nicer… you know, all that crap.

It’s really hard to even begin to tell a story like this. I still have difficulty believing it happened to me, to my town and to so many others in my area. So the only place I can really begin, is the beginning.

It was the night of October 8, 2017. I was in full-on 1950’s mode, thinking about how I could continue to re-decorate my room to make it more Mid-Century modern. I was laying in bed frowning at the dusty brown blinds that cover my windows. Those blinds have been there since 1978. And ironically, to someone who loves vintage, that seems way too long.

I jumped back on eBay and began searching for “Vintage Curtains 1950’s”. Yes, that’s right. Replace the 1978 blinds with some dingy, vintage tapestry that’s even older. That makes perfect sense. But… I guess it’s all about what you’re passionate for.

I sifted through the listings, not too shocked at the ridiculous prices people were asking for old, yellowing curtains. Nothing really looked super “1950’s” style-wise, but their conditions were shoddy enough to date them back 6 or so decades. I was griping away to myself about how I can’t afford to totally re-vamp my bedroom in Mid-Century furniture and curtains. The new reproductions are often as costly as their authentic, aging counterparts.

I gave up on curtains and began looking at TV Lamps. In the 1950’s, they were very big on ceramic lamps in the shapes of jaguars and siamese cats. Who knew? This intrigued me since I like cats of all kinds. But alas, these lamps, now deemed “antiques”, were also out of my price range. I decided to give up on decorating for the night and go to bed.

That whole evening had been unusually windy. Wind gusts were up to 50 mph and it sounded like a hurricane out there.

At about 11pm, we were getting word of a wildfire in Napa. That was not too surprising since October is always “Fire Season” in California, due to the dry grass and sometimes high temperatures.

With Napa being a good 30 minutes away from where we live, I didn’t think much about it and went to bed.

I was completely unprepared for what was about to happen next.

At about 1:00 AM I woke up because my white noise machine was going on and off (I use a white noise machine to dull out sound as I am a very light sleeper) I also noticed that my DVD player was flashing “No Signal”. I knew it was because the winds had knocked out the power and it kept going on and off. I could hear the winds and they sounded even stronger than when I’d gone to bed, and that was making me nervous. The air felt weird and extremely dry.

I fell back to sleep for about 40 more minutes, when all of the sudden, I was awoken by an ENORMOUS banging. It was rhythmic, like someone was hammering. I knew it wasn’t the wind. I thought it was my father, maybe boarding up the windows. I got up out of bed and yelled out “What’s that noise?”

Well, the power was out. There was NO light from the downstairs room, halls, electrical devices or anything. It was PITCH black! I stumbled across my room towards the banging, calling out to my family, (who at this point in my life, I once again live with.)

“What’s going on? Mom! Dad!?”

No answer.

Finally, I heard my Dad saying: “It’s Robert!”

Robert, our neighbor from next door, was banging fiercely on the front door. I heard him yell out: “JOHN! John there’s a fire! We gotta get the hell out!!”

My Dad yelled to me and my mother that there’s a fire and we have to go. As soon as he said that, I could smell the smoke. I yelled back “I can’t see anything! The power’s out!”

My mother was half-asleep and stumbling around. She finally managed to get a battery-operated lantern and turn it on. The wind outside was howling fiercely. My Mom was trying to get dressed and I began yelling at her to hurry. She wanted to pack some things and I said “No, no— we have to go NOW!”

We had no idea where the fire actually was at that point. We all thought it was right up against our homes, but it was actually a lot further away, thank God. However, the winds were SO strong that it was anyone’s guess where the fire would ignite next.

So here we were, thinking we only had seconds to get out! No time to pack, nothing. I used the lantern to see and I grabbed my lap-top computer, two t-shirts, and I shoved my feet into my ’50’s dance shoes because they were the very first shoes I could grab.

In the dim light of the lantern, I could see Buddy’s picture on the cover of my 3-CD set of The Very Best of Buddy Holly and The Crickets. Impulsively, I shoved it in my purse. Like that was gonna help!

Then I ran back to my parents’ bedroom. I was tugging at my Mom’s arm and yelling at her not to pack, because we had to GO NOW! Just then, Chelsea, our family’s 19-year-old cat came by to see what the fuss was about. I grabbed her and shoved her under my arm. “I got Chelsea!” I exclaimed.

“Give her to me!” My Dad said and grabbed her and told us to come down to the car immediately.

All I remember when I was leaving is looking up at the night sky over the hills. It was a bright fiery orange to the west. It looked like the whole world had been set a-blaze.

We all piled into the car and my Dad began down the driveway— without shutting the garage door (no power) and without locking the house! As we were pulling away, my Mom cried “Where’s Chelsea?” and my Dad said “In the back!”

I looked down at the floor of the back seats, but no Chelsea. I said, “ I don’t see her! She escaped!”

And my Dad said “For God’s sake, she’s in the TRUNK!”

Now, putting a cat in a trunk might sound like it could classify as Animal Cruelty, so let me explain. We were actually in a hatch-back that has a big gap in it– big enough for Chelsea to get plenty of air. And fortunately, the gap was not big enough for a cat to escape out into the danger of the night.

The winds were so bad, the car was hard to control. Several of the neighbors on our street were all pulling out of their driveways. The time was just after 2 AM. We had no idea where to go. Highway 12 was full of broken branches that my Dad had to swerve around. To make matters worse, he was using his smart phone to try to call our neighbor across the street to make sure that she and her family were awake. I was yelling at my Dad to put the phone down while driving… The streets were full of frantic drivers and when we got to the grocery store parking lot, we realized the store had no power either. Slowly, I began to realize what was happening here. Our neighborhood was not the only place threatened: The entire town was on fire. 

Now, to the average person with no wildfire experience, (which up until that night included me) it might sound like I am exaggerating. But no. I am NOT exaggerating. Not even a TAD! The whole town was, indeed, either on fire or being threatened by fire. And soon, I realized it was not just the TOWN of Santa Rosa… It was SIX NEIGHBORING COUNTIES— all in the middle of a huge Fire Storm. I didn’t even know that was possible. I began to question if I was dreaming. I knew I wasn’t, but how this could be happening was beyond my comprehension. I have lived in California all my life and I have never seen fire spread like this. It was something right out of a Stephen King novel.

At the next shopping center where we stopped, my Dad explained why we needed to park there— it was away from the hills and surrounded by city streets so it’s the safest area. Other cars began to pull up too. We just sat there, in the car, looking around. Fire engines were screaming down every street. There was smoke and traffic everywhere, just before 3 AM, on what would have been a completely quiet road at that time otherwise. We listened to the radio and a guy was talking about how he woke up and looked out the window to see flames. The radio began to report fire in areas that were not all that close in proximity to us, and I wondered how the fire was there too…

I just kept shaking my head and saying “But the fire was in Napa! How did it get here? How did it get everywhere so fast?

My Dad reminded me of the winds. And he did not want to get on the freeway because the fire had JUMPED across the 101 Freeway. Yes, it jumped from hill to hill, from neighborhood to neighborhood, from town to town. What started out as one fire became several, spreading like a disease in the wind and dry grass.

We had no idea where to go. I suggested we go to the Fair Grounds because the Veteran’s Building had opened up as a shelter and was filling up fast. But then, at about 3:30 AM, we miraculously caught a lady talking on the radio saying that The First United Methodist Church was now open and taking in evacuees.

I said “Let’s go there!” It was only a block away from where we’d been parked.

Inside the Fellowship Hall of the Church, people were beginning to gather. The church folks welcomed us and told us to come in and have a seat. They had coffee and doughnuts. It was like a town hall meeting in the middle of the night!

We spent 9 hours in Fellowship Hall at the Church. There approximately 100 people there. During the course of being there, we spoke to many people. It was a great way to support others while keeping our spirits up as we watched the hours drag on.

Normally, I don’t go to the mailbox without make-up. But there I was, un-showered, stringy haired and without a drop of make-up. And to top it off I’d broken out terribly on my forehead. Ew.  Oh and not to mention my nasty, worn out pajamas I was wearing that night, which looked like I’d dug them out of a discarded box from the side of the road. But at that point, I really didn’t give a damn. For once, I was not worrying about how my hair looked or what color my lipstick was. It was a real lesson in humility.

It seemed like morning would never come. The whole night was like an endless, smoke-filled darkness. At about 4 AM, my Dad and I went outside to see that half of the sky was orange. There was a thick smoke and it was seeping into the church and we were beginning to wonder if we’d all have to evacuate the church as well!

The Pastors and Church folks were great, though. They gave out bottled water, made sure people were doing as well as could be… they even made us breakfast! At 6 AM we were served pancakes, eggs and fruit. They had a full kitchen in their Fellowship Hall. I was very impressed. Of course, we were all sitting wide awake on chairs and no one had slept. Everyone was tired, but too pumped with adrenaline to rest. There were kids who seemed excited to be up all night and confused dogs on leashes following their owners. We were all safe for the time being, but the question that no doubt was on everyone’s mind was “What next?”

My Dad texted his brother in Boston at about 6 AM our time (9 AM Boston time) and my Uncle was shocked to hear that we had to evacuate our home due to fire. Later, we got word that when we evacuated at 2 AM, it was not yet mandatory. BUT! By 7 AM, the Police had come into our neighborhood and forced everyone to leave. Some people tried to go back home and were turned away by the police. Those people advised my Dad NOT to try to go back to the house for anything, not even to lock it. (He wanted to.)

News of the fire was continuing to go around and we heard that the Luther Burbank Center for the Performing Arts was damaged! Just months ago, it had headlined such greats as Tony Bennett and Willie Nelson. The Santa Rosa Hilton Hotel and Round Barn were completely burned to the ground. The upper-class neighborhood of Fountain Grove had lost most of its lavish houses. The middle-class neighborhood of Coffey Park was completely devastated- not one home survived. We all sat there wondering where was next to burn.

Now, you might be wondering what happened to Chelsea. She was still in the trunk (hatch-back, actually). Just before dawn, I went out to give her some water. She was very scared, so I petted her and talked to her, telling her we would be fine, not knowing whether to believe my own words or not.

By 8 AM, the lady Pastor who had been running the show (and doing an awesome job of it, might I add) had somehow scared up a bag of cat food. I was self-conscious about taking any though. I could just imagine her asking me why I was taking cat food if she didn’t see a cat. Then I’d explain that the cat was… in the trunk? Oh, boy. This was just getting worse. But finally, I put my fears aside and filled a paper bowl full of food and brought it out to Chelsea. But the car was getting stuffy and the day was already warm. Plus, she needed to come out so she could use a litter box.

That was a WHOLE other ordeal! We had no cat carrier and the shelter was full of dogs, so we couldn’t let her run around loose. At lunch (yes, we were served turkey sandwiches for lunch, with chocolate chip cookies for dessert, even! Those church folks were very organized!) we asked one of the gals if we could put our cat somewhere safe. She said sure, just use one of the upstairs storage rooms or classrooms, whichever is open.

So I went out to the car and got Chelsea. It was FINALLY light out, but the smoke was unbelievable. I carried Chelsea allll the way into the church, past the dogs, up some steps and began looking for a room to put her in. I tried the first door. Locked. I tried the second door. Locked. I tried 3 more doors. All locked! The 10+ pounds of Chelsea was really starting to hurt my arm, and my back was killing me. One open room already had cats in it so that was no good. FINALLY, we found the Sunday School classroom. And we set up Chelsea’s litter, food and water. She even had a tiny, kid-sized alter. It was so cute. But no sooner had Chelsea gotten settled into the Sunday School room, than my Dad told us we had to pack up and leave town because he’d just reserved 5 nights at a hotel in San Mateo. (San Mateo County is where I grew up. It is about a 2.5 hours drive south from Sonoma County.)

So we grabbed Chelsea (again) and packed her into the trunk (again) and headed down to San Mateo. (By the way, this was after 25 minutes of frantically searching all over the Church for the car keys, which we had left in one of the rooms.)

The following days we spent at a hotel that I had not been to since I was a kid.  That whole area in San Mateo I had not been to since we’d moved up to Santa Rosa back when I was still pretty young. I could NOT believe how much it changed: The crowds, the new buildings, the clogged freeways… it was like being in Back to the Future II and seeing Hill Valley in 2015. The whole area was taken over by professionals in the tech industry and it was a crazy rat race something like a mini New York City. Some of the restaurants I remembered were still there, so it was recognizable, but still very different.

My family and I shopped at Target, purchasing necessities, since we’d left the house with virtually nothing. We were exhausted, cranky and terrified. When my Dad talked again to his brother, my aunt was almost in tears, afraid for our house. My Mom talked to her sister and best friend. My friends emailed me to make sure I was OK. (No, I do not own a smart phone, and am proud of it; after all, see the original theme of this blog 🙂 )

Everyone we knew was glad we were safe. I truly appreciated everyone’s support. But honestly, all I could think of was our family home that my Dad worked so hard to buy, renovate and upkeep… And I thought of my bedroom that I’d just blogged about and that I’d just been complaining about. I felt like an asshole… And then I was wondering: “Am I going to lose it all?”

Each day was torture watching the Bay Area News at the hotel. Oh my God. The statistics were getting worse by the day, and the whole North bay was still ablaze… Then. It happened. At one point on the News, they showed the cross sign which is literally 2 streets down from our street. I was so shocked that I was seeing our cross sign on TV, I just sat there frozen on the bed. My parents were in the next room in the suite, yet I could not call to them to come watch it. I just couldn’t move. As I sat there, I thought of all the disasters I’d seen recently on the news: Hurricane Harvey, the earth quakes in Mexico, then Hurricanes Irma and Maria. And now it was our turn. At any minute I was sure that the pretty newscaster was going to tell me that my house had burned down.

That Friday was Friday the 13th, and all day I kept thinking:  “Our house is going to burn down on fucking Friday the 13th!”

Then the spiffy new TV system in the hotel went out. So much for 2017 technology, huh?  I’m not sure if it was better or worse to not be able to watch the news. My Dad kept getting updates on his phone from neighbors saying that although our house was being threatened by fire, it was still there! I felt sad, thinking of our home sitting there, like a duck in the center of a pond waiting to get shot. I wanted to cry, but no tears came. I’d gone through so much and was finally accepting the way my life was, finding out who I really am as a person and now this… I felt like my entire life had been for nothing, and now I’d lose the one place I called home.

By the 17th of October, we got word that the fires were FINALLY becoming safely contained… and that by some miracle, our whole neighborhood was still standing.

We were getting more hopeful again, much more hopeful… but I was still freaking out, thinking about “LOOTERS”. The police had already arrested many people in Santa Rosa. Everyone knew from the news that no one in the area was home, making it a Golden Opportunity to rob the houses… I was starting to get frantic all over again. All I could picture were some low-lives in my bedroom (this time without me there, j/k) But seriously…

I envisioned a couple of scum-bag career criminals stashing my shit carelessly into their bags… One of them would look up at the poster on my wall and laugh:

“Hey, dude. Check it out. It’s Buddy Holly.”

And the other one would say: “Hurry up, man! The cops are coming!”

I shuddered. But looters are better than the entire house burning down… aren’t they?

It seemed like the nightmare would never end. On the 18th, we left the hotel and went down to stay at my Dad’s colleague’s apartment in San Jose.

Remember when I said that San Mateo is like a rat race? Well San Jose makes San Mateo look like the countryside. San Jose is far bigger than San Francisco, perhaps as big as Los Angeles -although I’m not sure and furthermore I don’t care- but I AM sure that the traffic is just as bad. And the roads are confusing. Really, really confusing.

The apartment was nice and they had a TV the size of a movie screen, but I wanted to go home. Once I was sure our home was still standing, that’s where I wanted to go. Once the Police had given the residence of our neighborhood the OK, I wanted to be there. But the smoke was still a nightmare so we waited one more day…

So now let’s do a Muppets thing and cut to the Happy Finale —  On Friday the 20th of October, we packed everything (Chelsea now had a carrier that we purchased for her) and headed back home. It took 4 hrs to drive back up to Santa Rosa and we stopped once for lunch at an awesome pizza place in Corte Madera.

Then we fought the traffic back up to Santa Rosa. I was never so glad to be home.

The house was smoky and a bit ashy but not nearly as bad as we thought it would be. Chelsea wasted no time and went right out onto the deck to sniff the lime tree.

The first thing I saw when I came into the house was Buddy, standing in his tux with his guitar on the Words of Love poster. He looked even more handsome than usual. (When you enter our house, you can see the poster to the right of you, up on my wall, as soon as you enter our living room. Conspicuous much? I guess it’s an automatic deal-breaker if you’re freaked out by people who are obsessed with dead Rock n Roll legends.)

I went upstairs checked to see if all my stuff was still there, and thanks be to God, nothing seemed to be out of place. We have great neighbors who checked out the house and made sure nothing was stolen. (Some neighbors got home a day or 2 before we did.)

Then the very next thing I did was make some boxes full of items for the people who were not as fortunate as we to still have their homes. I packed up a lot of the things we bought at Target and some other clothes and items to donate. In the days to come, I attended 2 events that benefitted the victims of the fires and also honored the First Responders who so bravely fought to save our homes even when some of them had lost homes themselves.

So what have I learned from all this? The usual. Be grateful, thankful, gracious. And all that jazz. It hasn’t changed me entirely. I still pin-curl my hair and worry about the color of my lipstick. I still hate those blinds from 1978. But I realized that I’m stronger than I thought I was and I’m luckier than I ever even imagined. So maybe my life is a mess, but it’s MY mess, and I’m happy to have the things I do and know the people I know.

And on one windy, fiery night I learned that anything can happen… so never take a single day for granted.