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Safe Living in Sonoma

After the fire (and quakes and flood): Notes to self
Safe Living in Sonoma


By Julie Atwood

I kept a diary during the October 2017 fires. It was my way of coping, of organizing chaos. I’ve gone back to the diary, looking back with the idea of looking forward. From the space of five years of more fires, an earthquake, a tsunami alert, atmospheric rivers, and drought, plus pandemic, I wanted to check in with myself. How did my “Fire Diary” observations, fears, and “notes to self ” hold up?

Answer: Pretty darn well.


My family and I were not prepared enough for the enormity or duration of the fire, evacuations, and recovery. But we did have emergency plans in place. And because we did, we — and our animals and property — came through okay. Friends and neighbors I’d been nagging told me later that their newly created phone trees and pet go-bags had saved lives and helped them ride things out in much better shape than had they not made these preparations.

Are we doing it better? You bet!

Compared with where we were in 2017, we’ve come a long way. We’ve learned a new vocabulary. We’re bouncing between sharing fire stories and COVID-19 experiences. Our homes now have shelves stocked with masks for smoke and masks for biosafety, exam gloves, cleaning products we never knew we needed, and overnight bags for our personal protection equipment (PPE). And many more people now include their animals in their disaster prep and planning.

As neighborhoods and communities, we’ve survived a lot. We are more connected by our shared experiences and our recognition that we need each other. COPEs (Citizens Organized to Prepare for Emergencies), CERTs (Community Emergency Response Teams), neighborhood call lists, Fire Safe Councils, and Fire Wise communities are popping up like mushrooms after rain.

A new social event model has emerged, where we gather, virtually or in person, to learn about home hardening, tech gadgets that can help us stay informed, and how to keep our pets, kids, grandparents, and selves comfy and calm during catastrophes.

We’ve become more inclusive in ways that are meaningful. We have embraced the value of reaching out to our workers, neighbors, and tourists, to make sure they’re prepared, too.

A lot has changed for both individuals and communities. Based on our collective experiences, we know we must continually upgrade our Plan A, and have Plans B & C, too.

Do we spend all our time worrying and planning for “the next time?” Sometimes it feels like that. But I believe wholeheartedly that preparing is empowering and soothing. Thinking about the “what ifs” and planning to ride them out safely makes it possible to enjoy the times between the mega-events. After the relatively minor 2014 quake, I was shocked by the immediate inaccessibility of my home and environs. It was an eye-popping “aha! moment.” Ditto for receiving a tsunami alert and the recent Early Earthquake Warning.

The North Bay fires of 2017, 2019, and 2020 hammered home awareness of our vulnerability and our lack of control over vast reaches of the landscape we choose to live in. Spending seven weeks helping with the animals during the 2021 Dixie Fire reinforced the realization that we need to stock up on critical supplies like medications and special pet food, and the importance of knowing the evacuation zones wherever you might be, or be traveling in.

Each incident, whether ours or someone else’s, brings new insights and additions to my checklists and stay-crates. I’m much more aware of the need for awareness.

Understandably, we’ve become obsessively focused on fire. But recent shakers and flash floods remind us that we need rock-solid and watertight shelter-in-place plans. The pandemic and escalating supplychain issues have provided ample opportunity for us to refine our ideas about our “must-have” emergency supplies.

Many of my “Dear Diary” entries were about the firefighters and their families, the local sheriff’s deputies and CHP officers, and how hard it must have been for them to watch their community devoured and its residents scattered. While they were looking out for our home places, their own may have been lost; they were finding lost and injured animals; they were seeing beloved places disappear. Those thoughts filled my head many cold nights.

Since then, new programs have developed to support first responders. The cascading events have shined a spotlight on the strain of caring for communities when you’re outnumbered and overwhelmed because of underfunded services, staffing challenges, and hazard- and stress-related illness.

Several diary entries asked, “How did we all not realize how dangerous all these trees are?” Well, ignorance is bliss and education is empowering. Awareness is definitely a stress inducer, but knowing how to make the fixes is calming.

Now, many more people are pulling together to make neighborhoods safer. The concepts of home hardening and creating defensible space are no longer infographics. We experienced their value, and the consequences of ignoring them, firsthand. Now, the human-made landscape is changing. Life in our wildland-urban interface is full of risks, and we’ve become more aware of the value of well-supported and respected responders.

Through it all and, often, because of them, our animals provide us with comfort. Our concern for their safety is a frequent motivator to step up our preparedness, reach out to neighbors, join a group, and learn how to use new technology.

One of my last diary notes-toself (highlighted in neon pink) says, “I’m so grateful we knew what to do.” And now, we know how to do it better and know that the road to readiness is endless but has lots of comfort stops along the way.

I’m grateful to be making the trip with so many others. These are among my strongest takeaways and reflections in the mirror of much of the last decade.

It’s not how I imagined my golden years, but I’m glad I have the stamina and mental ability to act and participate in meaningful ways. I’m glad I’m not in this alone.