Sonoma’s Fire – our evacuation and experience
Early in the morning on October 9, I awoke to the smell of smoke and darkness. I didn’t think of danger – at all – there have been so many fires near and far over the summer, that I simply figured another fire off in the distance was going on. I had no idea the fire was less than a mile from our house.
When I heard my son get up, about 30 minutes later (I had no idea what time it was, since the power was out), I got up to let him know the power was out. He and I walked into the living room, and I picked up my cell phone to check the time.
First sign of alert: my friend had texted me already – at 6am – asking if my parents were ok.
“What is going on?” I immediately thought.
A couple of years ago, there was an earthquake that hit Napa – my parents’ house had been a mess after that and my thoughts immediately went to that as the cause of disaster.
I went to look online, from my phone, to learn what was going on, but the Internet was down as well. Amidst my panic, Tim’s cell phone rang. At 6:15 am, our friend and neighbor was calling and before even answering I was very aware that something very dangerous was going on.
I could barely wait for him to explain the trouble, but what he said was not what I was expecting: “The fires are getting closer. You should plan on getting out of there in the next 10 minutes or so,” he said. I became panicked – “Fires? Are near here?” I asked. He said that the flames were visible from our house. My heart started to race. I tried to get more information, but I the panic was starting to get to me, and I had to leverage it with sensibility. This wasn’t the time to get a full news update – I wasn’t going to get a chance to understand what was going on right then. It was time to get my family safe, right away. Our friend told us the only way out of town was East, and I started putting together what he was saying with the original text asking about my parents, who were in Napa, and realized this was a big deal. But first things first. Flames were visible from our house, we needed to leave.
I ran to wake the rest of the family. Rylan was already up. Tim had overheard some of the conversation and I shouted as much as I could down the hall as I ran into where the girls were sleeping. I remember taking a pause. “I do not want to wake them into hysterics,” I thought. I tried to wake them up, before I mentioned the word “fire” but the panic in me was taking hold. “There’s a fire, you need to get up!” I managed to get out. (I can still feel the adrenaline starting to run through me, just in retelling these moments. They may be, by far, the scariest moments of my life. Having the fear that you may not make it out of a burning building with your family safe probably tops the charts of people’s biggest fears, and I was living it out.)
I told the kids to get dressed, put their shoes on, and grab their favorite stuffed toy. Friends have asked me if in those moments I was grabbing photographs, but at that moment, I was thinking about survival, not memories. What did we need if the entire city was on fire, for the day ahead – food, water, clothing.
I started trying to mix in rationale thought. When I ran outside (Tim was already out there checking on things), I could see the fire was not in our backyard. We had more than mere minutes, although I was still ready to leave as soon as possible. What did I need? It may be hours – days – before we could come home – what did I want with me for the day? I wanted to be fully dressed, I was able to realize that, so I went and changed clothes quickly, then quickly grabbed some granola bars. As I was filling a water bottle, Tim urged me to get in the car. He had gotten the dog and his leash, and the kids were all packed in. He was quickly checking in with the neighbors to make sure they were awake and also able to get out.
At the end of our court, we pulled to face the open vineyard next to our neighborhood. It was still dark. We could see the flames on the hillside ahead, less than a mile away.
We drove out of our neighborhood at 6:20am… not knowing what our fate would be for the day ahead. We headed east, toward Petaluma, without yet having any knowledge of where the fires were and without Internet.
On the Road
And it turned out, without gas. We had jumped in our SUV so we could take the dog with us, and it had a completely empty tank. We drove onto one of the main roads out of town and traffic was at a standstill. Clearly a mass exodus was happening, and no one was moving. I was on my phone, trying to get updates, texting my friend. I finally had a chance to call my parents, and I was relieved to hear that so far, they were ok. In fact, like us, they didn’t know what was going on other than their power, too, being out. I told my mom we were trying to get out of Sonoma, that there were fires all around, and that she needed to wake up my dad and turn on some news.
Unfortunately they had no internet and no power and no way to get news. My mom asked how I knew we needed to evacuate, and I said, “Because we could see the flames!” and I quickly got off the phone to return to strategizing about our next step. There was a gas station about a half a mile ahead, but traffic was not moving. I pictured us in the middle of the fire disaster and stranded without gas… how unprepared could we be!?
But it looked like the gas station was open. So we managed to take some side streets and maneuver ourselves to it and fill up our tank. Second crises averted.
Meanwhile, I had gotten a bit of information on my phone and learned that there was an evacuation center set up at the Sonoma High School. Tim said we should just go there, let the dog get out for a minute. Evaluate our next steps. I thought that sounded better than going to Petaluma, because I knew if we left town, it would be hard to come back mid-day, and I didn’t know what we’d do in another town all day, with our dog in tow as well. We had no idea that this was going to go on much longer than just one day.
At the high school evacuation center, I was impressed that not only were they already handing out face masks, but they had coffee and food inside for everyone. Friends of ours were out passing out masks, sharing stories. But with our dog, it was difficult to do much there. Our friend texted me that we could come to her house, which was within walking distance. We walked through the school fields, eerily quiet. We could see, even from there, flames in several directions on the hillsides. It was crazy that *this* was considered the safe place when so much was burning all around, but it was nice to trust in others who were committed to the community’s safety. If this was an evacuation center, we reasoned, they weren’t going to let the fire come close – at least without full warnings.
We packed into our friends’ home and for our first time saw the news. It was devastating. Much worse than we could have imagined. Entire neighborhoods were gone in the night. Over 17 large fires all at once throughout Napa and Sonoma Counties. The fire crews weren’t even saving structures, there were just too many fires in too many places. They were only focusing on saving lives. Getting people out of the way of the quickly spreading danger. It meant, to me, that my assurance that the fire crews always do their best to save homes would not be the case in the near future – if the fire came close to our home, no one was going to be there to save it. But we were safe, and we were with friends, and we tried to settle in.
Tim made a run back up to the north side of town that day and grabbed some important essentials that we hadn’t taken from our house at first – my computer, which had all my work files on it, dog food to get through a few days, toiletries, some extra clothes and jackets. We realized it was unlikely we were going back home by the nighttime. The fires were 0% contained.
I started thinking through people to reach out to – called more friends, sent a message to my brother to let them know I’d talked to my parents (who were no longer reachable, apparently Napa’s cell communications were down).
By nightfall, our friends we were staying with during the day were considering leaving town themselves, and we decided to move in with another set of friends who had more room to accommodate us.
Tuesday began with a red sun rising in the distance, air full of smoke so thick you couldn’t see beyong a few hundred feet. It was going to be another long day.
Our kids were content. We were staying with close friends who conveniently also have kids all 3 of our kids’ ages, so each has a “friend” when we hang out together. The kids were excited to have an unexpected day off school to play together, and us adults felt it was the best thing for them to feel positive about the situation, so we kept the news turned off most of the day. Of course, there was no “work as usual” for any of us – the day was literally a constant barrage of new information, new fires, word of the fire spreading, word of new evacuations, on and on…
We were starting to think about the long haul. By the afternoon, we learned that school would be closed all week. Our power was still out, now for almost 48 hours, so we were considering what that meant for food in our fridge. I had been frettingly writing a list of all the things we would want to save, should the fire danger look imminent for our home. As it was, the fire was steadily, but slowly, moving toward our house, and 0% contained, but there were other neighborhoods and areas that seemed more in danger. We had realized, by this day, how little we really knew about the fire by our house. It was not one of the 14 large fires being reported on. There were dozens of small fires in between. There was just simply too much for the fire crews and news to keep up with and no good way to learn about specific areas.
Tim and I decided we’d take a trip to our house to see firsthand, if they let us into the neighborhood, what was going on, and at a minimum pick up the most important items we would not want to lose in a fire, as well as items from our fridge. Specifically, I had 30 batches of homemade pizza sauce I had slaved over for 3 weekends, and I really didn’t want to lose all of it, should we get our home back and return to normal.
As Tim and I drove north, we noticed how much smokier it was closer to town compared to where we were staying, which was a bit south of town, in Schellville. Things didn’t look normal at all. Roads were quiet and eerie. Sirens were in the distance and helicopters overheard. I started to shake mildly as we got closer to our neighborhood, unsure of its fate or how close the fire might actually be.
We were able to drive right up to our house. We couldn’t see much of the fire, although we could smell it. It was so smoky you could barely see anything.
When we got in, the first thing we noticed was it smelled awful – like an ashtray. I had a short list of absolute essentials – paintings from Tim’s mom, our wedding bottle of wine… but I found myself just wandering from room to room in disbelief. And because I couldn’t see the fire, it felt like a lot of effort to pull everything that I might want to keep – that would be much more than one carload. It was hard to reconcile what was worth taking. And it felt like, going to the effort to take so much stuff was admitting that I needed to. And the fire seemed in the distance, and had stayed away for two days, so it seemed like, at the time, our home would be spared. I left and went to the grocery store, in shock, but without much taken to spare from a loss should the fire reach our home.
Tim decided to stay and watch the fires from the neighborhood. The normally empty church parking lot was full of cars and RVs. Some who had parked their extra vehicles there, a bit safer from the fire, and many others who had driven up, given our court was at the northernmost access point to the fires, to watch what was going on. The smoke was clearing enough that you could see the fires burning on the hills right behind our house again.
When Tim arrived home after dinner that night, he had been in the parking lot, watching the fires, all afternoon. He did not have good news. The fires had come closer, and were on a street called Cavedale that was coming significantly closer to our home. He said, as well, that he had watched dozens of homes burn on that hillside from where he and others sat and watched. He said, compared to when him and arrived in the early afternoon, and he felt our home was 80%-90% safe, he now felt only 50% safe.
He had driven by the evacuation center, which was receiving evacuees from centers up in the northern part of Sonoma like Altimira Middle School, as the fires came closer to the north end of town. The National Guard had arrived, and Tim said it looked like a war zone with military Hummers lined up and helicopters and planes flying overhead.
And that night, as I went to bed for the second night with clothes packed and ready to go at a moment’s notice, should fires break out nearby, and my phone charged and turned up to get any alerts, we got confirmation that the fires were indeed moving in. Both my parent’s house and our house now were within ¼ mile of mandatory evacuation areas. It was unreal. It had been 2 days and things were just getting worse and worse.
I was disappointed that I didn’t think more thoroughly about what I should have retrieved from the house. If we lost everything, of course the kid’s backpacks were replaceable, but wouldn’t they feel better if they had their actual backpacks and soccer gear, to feel like they could somewhat get back to normal. And, sure, allowing the kids to rescue all their toys would be too much, but what if I just gave them each a large bin and we had brought both cars so we could fit several bins in to take with us out of the home?
I vowed to myself, that if our neighborhood wasn’t put under mandatory evacuation by the morning, that I would go back, first thing, and retrieve all the things I really would want to have, should our house be gone after all of this.
I woke up early and showered to get ready to go back to our house one last time before it was possibly under evacuation. Our neighborhood was not put on the new alerts for mandatory evacuation during the night. By then, every time I heard the sound of a new text come in, I felt the surge of panic. “What new area is in danger now?” or “What next?” was the constant feeling every time we checked our phones or the news.
The fires were joining – the fire by our house was now part of a bigger fire called the Nuns Fire, which was 5% contained, after burning for almost 3 days.
Tim was not in a hurry to head to the house, and it turned out, that even though the kids, the night before, had complained that they didn’t get to go back with us on Tuesday, they suddenly didn’t want to go either to retrieve their things. What line do you take when you know they may regret the decision? But what will you/they regret more? Not getting to retrieve things, or seeing the house in danger and being scared for the next few days if possibly all would be ok? End the end we let them make the decision and they all decided not to come with us. And we didn’t head up until 10:30am. Tim felt that the evacuations wouldn’t happen early in the day, if they were to, so he wasn’t in a hurry. But I was. Our neighborhood and area of town was now on the Bay Area News – the fire was continuing to get closer to our home. And over the night the evacuation orders had inched ever closer around us.
We were able to get into our neighborhood. But it looked, and felt, like a war zone. No longer were all the spectators in the church parking lot. There was barely anyone at all around. I immeditaly went to work, with my face mask on, dashing from room to room, having written a very thorough list of exactly what I would grab from each. The kid’s medals, a few more stuffed toys, our wedding DVD, kid’s art, and several file folders of memories, birth certificates, and documents. I was trying to find some books that I had given to the kids on their birthdays each year, in which I’d written heartfelt messages in each, when Tim told me the Sheriff was coming through the neighborhood and clearing it out. We hadn’t yet gotten the Christmas ornaments down, so Tim and I went into the garage and started the monumental task of pulling down all our holiday boxes to find the ornament bin that held so many memories for us. In between my collecting, Tim was bringing boxes out to the cars and putting a sprinkler to spray the backyard.
It all felt so unreal.
And not much longer into my collecting, Tim said the Sheriff had come and told us we needed to evacuate. I hadn’t found everything, but I had found most of the things I really wanted. I knew, now, that I had done the best I could to save the few things that I could to have memories from. We delayed a bit longer, after the Sheriff came by, but as I was running through the house trying to find last items I started to think – this is what they say not to do – not to wait after you’ve been told it’s unsafe. Not to think you can outsmart something like this just a little bit longer. It was very smoky – even though the fires were closer than they’d ever been, we couldn’t see them at all. There was just this strange, fire-like weather storm feeling in the air. We walked out on the driveway together I felt a tear near ready to fall and held it at bay. Tim and I hugged and looked back at our house. Thoughts ran through my head. “This was our experiment together, to move to Sonoma, to buy this house. Who would’ve thought it may end this way? But we did good, together, and if this is the last we see of this home, so it is to be. We’ll get through this, together,” I thought.
I will always remember how surreal it was, driving out of the neighborhood. The police had blocked off all entries, now. No one could drive north on 12 past Agua Caliente Road, which is about ½ mile south of our home. We had been fearing it would come to this, but until it does, you always hold out hope that it won’t happen. To know we were not allowed to come back, felt unreal. I looked around, and in all directions there were first responders – police keeping the public out, fire crews with chain saws cutting down trees and removing debris that could easily catch fire, still other crews stationed in many directions. They were right here, in my neighborhood, and we hoped that they all were able to do what they could to stop the fire from making it’s way in. Tim and I were texting and calling friends in the neighborhood to tell them the bad news – we couldn’t go back in – as we drove away.
Under Evacuation Orders
After we left our home, I had a sense of relief. Our fate was out of our hands. I had done what I could to save our most important items. Tim had left a sprinkler running on our yard to hopefully put out any flying embers. The winds were supposed to pick up for the next two days, and there was a lot of fear for what that could mean. But on the bright side, a lot of reinforcements were making their way into Sonoma. Hundreds of fire departments, thousands of firemen.
Wednesday afternoon, the sheriff put out a notice of a voluntary evacuation for all of Boyes Hot Springs – roughly half of Sonoma. Many people took to the roads, most had already been considering it anyway. By then, the smoke was very unsafe. Many people had been without power for days, and cooped up in their homes because of the smoke.
We found a vacation rental in Tahoe and left on Thursday morning. My parents joined us there on Friday.
That night, watching the satellite renderings of our town, we could see not only that the fires had continued to move closer to town, but that the satellite registered hot spots where we lived – right where our home and court were. With a feeling of panic, I shoewd my mom, but when she started to voice the obvious conern allowed, with the kids nearby, I tried to play it down – I was very worried but I didn’t want the kids to be. In fact, the entire exercise all week had been one in showing control and confidence, to keep the kids calm. It had worked for the most part. While others had talked about their kids balling and being in hysterics, ours had managed through this all quite well.
But our worst fears weren’t yet abated. On Friday night, I was the most fearful yet, when I pulled up the visuals of our house in the midst of the hotspots shown on the map. I accepted that this might be the news I’d been dreading. My heart was racing once again. We’d been lucky enough to find, each day since we went to Tahoe, someone still in town who could report back to us. Thursday a friend had driven by our house and taken a photo (he was let in because he had special access as an employee of the water district). When we saw the hotspots on the map, Tim had learned that these may just be backfires. So we hoped. I went to bed that night, for the first time, without the alerts off on my phone. I didn’t want the worst news to come to me in a text during the night. In the morning, I braced for bad news. But it never came. The City of Sonoma had more evacuations while another arm of the fire moved towards the center of town, but there were no specific updates available for our neighborhood. My gut said, if our neighborhood had burned, someone would have told us. But without specifics, it was still unsettling. That feeling lasted until 4pm when someone was able to drive by and take a photo of our house, still standing. There was even sunshine and some blue sky behind it!
We learned that on Friday & Saturday, crews had been working diligently, all night, to create a huge firebreak on Moon Mountain Road. And indeed the fire line had held there. Our neighborhood, and the half the town that had been evacuated, had been saved!
It took 3 more days for power to be restored, and for us to return home. It took another week before the kids were back in school – all in all the schools were closed two weeks. The sound of helicopters overheard still sent my mind into high alert for weeks as well. In our Valley, 652 homes were lost. Just up the street from us are homes laying in ash. For so many, this month will always be the reference point of the biggest “before” and “after” in their lives.
When we drove back into town on Tuesday evening, 9 days after the fires began, we were overwhelmed with the sense of community we felt here. We counted over 85 signs of gratitude to the fire crews and first responders. And we felt the gratitude as well. Fire crews had come from all over the state, country, and even as far away as Australia. Many were deployed well into the next week, as the fires were not fully contained for 7-9 more days. The smoke was still awful, our house smelled terrible, but we had our home and community back.
All in all, over 8,900 structures were burnt in the Napa and Sonoma fires. The Nuns fire, shown on this map, has been recorded the 6th most devastating fire in CA history. The Tubbs fire, north of our town, in Santa Rosa, the 1st. This map shows just how much destruction was endured.