On the evening of October 8, 2017, I was enjoying pizza and beer with friends in Santa Rosa, California. We’d had a reasonably fun day of empanadas, beer, Pokemon shopping, a couple dips in the pool, and ended it up with the promise of beach day on October 9.
At about 4am on October 9, we got a phone call. The town was on fire and our buddy had been ordered to evacuate. Let me tell you something, I’ve seen plenty of photos and videos of encroaching wild fires and there’s nothing quite like seeing that tell-tale glow in real life and knowing what was on the other side of it.
We never got the order to skedaddle, but left when ash started falling from the sky. It was the first time I’d ever been smack dab in a natural disaster and wasn’t entirely certain what to do. Some people were panicking, others calmly going about their business. We were in a unique position; we didn’t have any skin in the game. At the very worst, we’d be ordered to evacuate Santa Rosa, drive to San Francisco and spend the night in the airport before flying home (we wound up getting a hotel in San Fran). Other people, our friends included, had serious skin in the game.
Our friends, through various machinations, have two house a few houses apart from each other. One gets rented out and they live in the other. While that sounds cool and all, bear in mind he was ordered to evacuate because his entire neighborhood was about turn to ash and blow away in the breeze. So far, his places have been fine, but talk about losing it all in one feel swoop.
Fire’s some scary stuff. I saw some before and after images of a few places that got hit by flames. One day we were driving past that joint, the next it was a smoldering pile of blackened wood and twisted metal. I met a man walking his dog who told me he’d be told to evacuate, but had seen the fire crest the hill and tear-ass down into some of the local mansions. In minutes they went from five-million-dollar homes to nothing. It happened that fast. Apparently the fire went from 0 to 20,000 acres in four hours. The fire chief admitted that not only was the fire 0% contained as of Monday afternoon, they had no idea how they were going to contain it.
High winds – upward of 60mph/96kph – and low humidity conspired to create firestorm that ravaged a large portion of northern California, including Santa Rosa. Last I heard, the fire had spread to 70,000+ acres.
So, if you’ve been reading about the northern California fires and they seem distant and unreal, let me assure you they are quite real and there is nothing like meeting people in San Fran who tell you they still haven’t heard from some of their friends up north.
While we were driving south out of Santa Rosa, we were joking about being refugees. Of course, we were never in any danger, so calling ourselves refugees was facetious at best. But driving through the ash and sirens and choking smoke gave me a bit better understanding of what real refugees actually do have to go through. Not much of one, mind you, because we knew our home wasn’t going to be torched unless the fire got extremely out of control and scorched the entire Southwest, we also didn’t have anyone shooting at us, and knew we had a plan that would work to keep us going.
That’s not necessarily the case with a whole lot of people who are going to go home to smoking rubble.
As I said, I’ve seen plenty of pictures and videos of fires and nothing really captures the event as it exists in real life. This image, though (It’s from the SF Chronicle, if y’all want it removed, please just tell me), captures the very human side of fire tragedy perfectly.
Good luck to everyone who’s going to be picking through the mess up there in the next few weeks.