Recovering, Reimagining, Rebuilding
Adversity and triumph
To be honest, it’s been a struggle writing this column. Making it true to my experience has required articulating some uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. Which was not what I was expecting when I first planned an article to mark the fire’s third anniversary. After two-and-a-half years of plodding through the clean-up and rebuild, and another six months back home, I was looking forward to crafting a grateful, optimistic, “triumph over adversity” column; placing the fire and the recovery on the shelf as a memorable, once-in-a-lifetime event.
We’ll be forever grateful to everyone who supported us in our time of need and helped us return. I’ll never be able to say “thank you” enough to equal what I feel. We were very lucky to have the resources and an obvious path forward; I feel for those who did not. But even as we contentedly settled back in, the world beyond was becoming more and more unsettling. It’s a complicated emotional landscape – all the joy of homecoming floating like a delicate bubble in a world with a future that’s hard to see.
In April, when we moved back in, the pandemic was taking hold. That was scary and sad. In our immediate world we had far fewer demands on our time, giving us the leisure to enjoy and furnish our new home. On the other hand, we’d been planning to invite the five families who hosted us while we were refugees for a feast in the rebuild. One of them gave us a bottle of wine as we evacuated in 2017. I’ve been saving it for that dinner, but when that time will come is uncertain.
The August lightning storm was both thrilling and disturbing. Even with no evacuation order from the ensuing fires, we were on edge for days. When the authorities told everyone to pack their bags just in case, Jill and I couldn’t do it – we weren’t willing to live with one foot out the door already. We dropped empty suitcases by the door, ready to be filled if the time came. Then came the morning that never came. Usually an early riser, I woke at 8:30 a.m. to dark orange skies that lasted all day. The whole west coast seemed to be on fire and the smoke extended all the way to Seattle. I’d always counted on the Pacific Northwest as an escape hatch if things got too bad. But in the face of the worst fire season in west coast history, it seemed there was no escape. Soon after, the heat wave arrived and our thermometer reached 114 degrees. With most of our trees gone, there’s little left to cool our property. It was scary. We hunkered indoors, thankful our new house was so well insulated.
Against the uncertainties of the pandemic (not to mention national politics), another fire season loomed. I carried the hope, after three autumns in a row when wildfires had disrupted our lives, that we’d have a “normal” fall, just like in the Before Times of 2016. Even the August lightning fires didn’t completely dash that hope. They were unusual and maybe we’d be spared for the remainder of fire season.
The suitcases were still by the door when the Glass Fire started in late September. Within a few hours the obnoxious tones of Nixle alerts starting pouring in, announcing each new warning. Miles south of the blaze and outside immediate danger, we were still concerned. Then we got a call from our close friends Penny and Frankie, who lived just north of St. Helena Road, on the other side of the fire. They’d evacuated and were at the Safeway at Calistoga Road and Highway 12. “Could they stay with us?” “Of course, of course.”
Soon after they arrived, Kenwood got an evacuation warning. By 1 a.m., it was under mandatory evacuation and the warning was extended to the opposite side of Warm Springs Road from our home. We started packing. I had to push myself, especially to take down pictures we’d just hung a month before. From past experience, we knew that even if the fire didn’t reach our house, we might be out for many days. It was like a bad dream happening all over again – evacuating in the wee hours of a smoky morning. We headed to friends in Sonoma; Penny and Frankie went to the East Bay. This time around, the information was much better. Nixle kept us informed and the online fire maps were regularly updated. The fire reached Sugarloaf, five miles away as the crow flies. Penny and Frankie’s home appeared threatened. Sometime later they got word that it was gone.
Seeing them lose their home was almost harder than losing our own – it brought on a different kind of helplessness. As it turned out, 11 of the 12 homes of their Monan’s Rill community met the same fate. This was despite the fact that they’d spent years reducing fuel on their 400 acres – they were considered a model of cutting edge forest management. We know many of the families there. The one consolation, I suppose, was that we could listen to their stories with real understanding and empathy. A Go-Fund-Me was started for the community and Jill started one for Penny and Frankie.
After knowing dozens of fire victims in 2017, it was very distressing to watch it happening all over again. My heart goes out to Jay Gamel at the Kenwood Press, and everyone who’s going through it. It’s painful to think of anyone starting where we were three years ago, though I know they will probably discover untapped sources of strength and resilience. It’s also distressing to hear talk of leaving Sonoma County – fire season is getting to be too much. Moving home helped me regain a little more sense of certainty and control in my life, but the events of the last two months have dulled its shine. Unwillingly, I’ve come to appreciate the rough wisdom in the idea that “Nature always has the last move.” The fires have crumbled the illusion that we’re in control. You can’t fight a flood. Likewise, we may be able to find protected ground here and there, but mostly we just need to get out of fire’s way.
In spite of all that’s happened, I’m not willing to give up hope – after all, without it there really is no hope. So I’m looking for it and sometimes finding it in abundance. On Oct. 9, the folks on O’Donnell Lane, which is more or less our neighborhood, held a gathering to mark the fire. The first year, I wasn’t emotionally ready to go. The second year I did, when most of us were in the middle of our rebuilds. The tone was friendly, though some residents were still obviously traumatized, talking about all they’d lost. The rebuild and healing was incomplete. This time around most of us are back. As Jill and I walked down O’Donnell toward the church, we could see a loose, masked crowd filling the road in front of the brick bridge. People were talking, laughing, telling fire and rebuild stories, sharing a joy and relief that wasn’t there a year ago. Long-time residents were greeting each other and welcoming the newcomers.
After all that’s happened recently, I was happy to find myself uplifted with a fresh sense of renewal. While our homes burned, our community has survived and even grown closer. Amidst all the uncertainty of these times, it was a small triumph of the human spirit.