Dreaming of return
It’s now late January, just over one hundred days since the fire. After moving six times between the homes of welcoming friends, our family landed in a 30-foot trailer just down the road from our “once and future home.” The owners of the property not only provided a trailer for us and a separate one for our 17-year-old son, they also set us up with water and septic hook ups, pots and pans, dishes, a plug for our electric car, food… everything we needed. Quietly generous, they are some of the most selfless people I’ve ever met. For the next year or two, while we rebuild, this will be home.
On the day we moved in, a dozen other friends pitched in, transporting our few belongings from our last lodging, washing bedsheets, moving a couch back to the room we’d borrowed it from, and assembling a patio of concrete pavers between our two trailers. It was all done in a few hours and for the first time in six weeks we had a place to call our own.
Our trailer reminds me a lot of the 37-foot sailboat Jill and I crewed across the Caribbean in 1986. The quarters are small and things have to be stowed immediately after use or it becomes a mess. We joke that “whatever you need is within arm’s reach” and it’s almost literally true. Like a boat, the trailer rocks and shifts underfoot, not from the waves, but whenever a person, our dog or even a cat moves around. The first few weeks were a shakedown cruise as we learned to operate and troubleshoot all the systems – grey water, black water, 12-volt onboard electric, electric landline… Our days gradually eased into more predictable rhythms and a greater sense of stability than we’d known since the fire.
Jill’s knack for making things cozy, as well as many good wishes, gifts and donated ornaments from friends and family, helped us celebrate the holidays. Our daughter graduated from college and moved in with us for a couple months. Her boyfriend joined us for a week over New Years. It was tight, but we all enjoyed the togetherness, aware that in many ways we’ve been very lucky. We know that each fire survivor – and everyone in the county is part of this story – has been uniquely impacted by the fire and its aftermath. Our neighbor in what we’re calling the AOK Trailer Park was burned out of the house he’d rented for many years. He literally lost everything to the fire – his home, his livelihood and his savings. Like most renters, he had no insurance. He’s having to completely start over from scratch. Many others are in similar situations – even though we lost our home too, we feel some survivor’s guilt. At least we have insurance to begin rebuilding our lives and our company has been pretty good so far.
Besides the actual loss of our home, not knowing when the government debris removal will begin has been one of the hardest parts of these last few months. A week ago I was despondent – nothing seemed to be happening in Glen Ellen and good information on the clean-up schedule was impossible to find. The desire to move on was mired in a helpless feeling that Jill compared to trying to walk through knee-deep mud. Then, a week ago, I spotted two long lines of dump trucks parked at the Developmental Center. A few days later yellow caution tape went up around our place and white Xs were spray-painted on the appliances. Two days ago, the Army Corps of Engineers called to say that debris removal on our property would begin in the next five days.
Workers at other sites have told me that when the excavator arrives – a modern version of the steam shovel – it separates the wreckage into three piles: appliances, other metal (maybe glass too), and ash. Ash is potentially the most toxic of the three and is dealt with very carefully. If a home tests positive for asbestos, the workers wear the white hazmat suits. Once everything is in those three piles, dump trunks come and haul it all away. Then bulldozers scrape the soil, leaving a pit where the structures were. The soil is tested and scraped deeper if necessary until it’s free of toxic substances.
The call from Army Corps brought mixed emotions. It’s a relief to know the waiting is almost over and we’re one step closer to rebuilding. On the other hand, the debris still holds the outlines of so many memories. The ashes are a tangible connection to a beloved home, to a life of joy, togetherness and sometimes struggle, a place of retreat from the busy world and a gathering place for friends and family. It was stunning how the fire transformed everything within that cherished space – we found a few things worth saving, but soon gave up looking for more. Aluminum melts at 1,200º F. There were puddles of it among the ruins. Most things were unrecognizable and almost nothing was intact. Even so, the debris removal will erase the outlines of what was; will eliminate the chance of finding anything else. In a strange way, it’s even more final than the fire itself.
When your home burns down there’s no escaping the fact that you will never go back. At first, maybe because of the shock, that idea seemed more intellectual than emotional. Like General MacArthur, we vowed to return, adding “We shall rebuild.” That attitude was probably necessary, but it ignored the fact that it would be impossible to replicate the old house even if we wanted to (which we don’t). We will return to the property, with its familiar views and orientation, but we never will walk in the front door of our old home again.
Someone asked, “What’s your silver lining?” There are actually many. Among them are: getting to stay in our neighborhood; the incredible kindness and support of our community; and making new friendships and deepening old ones. Another glint of silver is the chance to design a new house from the ground up. Someday, years from now, that place will feel like home. In the meantime, we still feel at home and get to dream of our return.
[This is the second of a series of bi-monthly columns by Glen Ellen resident Arthur Dawson. As he says, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Future columns will address other aspects, including insurance, rebuilding, etc.]