Day 1 and Day 2; Feeling Like a Refugee

Day One: Saturday. We heard we were under an Evacuation Warning. The fire was 40 miles northeast of us but there was fear it would jump the freeway as it did in 2017. We were anticipating a serious “wind event,” the gusts like they had in 2017, too. It never crossed my mind that we would actually have to evacuate, but for some reason in the midafternoon I went in and reviewed my “go-bag.” I pulled out the binder that has our Trust in it, and put it in the second bag. “I’m packing the Trust,” I said to Spouse, “because I’m neurotic.”

I packed my folder with all my verifications of tax deductions, and a folder with an active contract in it – and five copies of Aluminum Leaves. Weird, right? But I was like, “I’m doing a book event in two weeks and by God I will have books at it!”

I unplugged the large laptop, wrapped up the cords, and put it and my external hard drive in the bag with the trust. I set the baby laptop and my phone to charge and when they had a full charge I put the baby laptop in a bag with some pens, my Verizon “jetpack” and a bunch of my notebooks.

Infected by my anxious behavior, Spouse went into his office and pulled out a couple of folders and put them in his duffle bag. Because he volunteers regularly at places, he always has a go-bag.

I spent most of the day listening to reports of Healdsburg and Windsor being evacuated.

I kept checking the PG&E shutoff site. We went from “Clear” to “Possible shut down,” to “Power has been shut off in this area.” It hadn’t but it seemed like that might be a clue. Around 8 pm we lost power.

We went to bed about 8:30 and I kept my phone with me. Of course I couldn’t sleep at first. I did not believe we would be evacuated. We never had before, not with floods, not with fires in west county. And yet they were evacuating huge swathes of people, far from the fire zone. I said, “Is this some bizarre drill?”

Spouse said, “No. They’re scared.”

Day Two, Sunday: The first phone Emergency Alert woke me up about 1 AM. “The fire has reached Windsor! Get out now!” By then I’d been asleep for about an hour. I thought, “Didn’t they already evacuate Windsor?” But people had stayed. And now a spot fire, probably started by an ember carried on the winds, had reached Foothills, Shiloh and Faught roads.

I went back to sleep. The second Emergency Alert woke me about 2 AM and said, in Spanish, something like, “Evacuating Fulton.” Fulton is a village at the crossroads of Fulton Avenue and River Road. The big fear, of course, was that if the fire jumped, it would tear through the Russian River Valley. Evacuating Fulton seemed weird, but maybe cautionary. In my defense, I had just awakened and the alert was in Spanish. I’ve never seen the English version of that one.

I eventually went back to sleep.

The next thing that woke me up was sirens, in our neighborhood, and someone talking on a bullhorn. Blue and red lights reflected off the hallway walls. “I think we need to go,” I said.

I pulled on pants, T-shirt, and shoes, grabbing a sweater at the last minute. “We’re going to Tracey’s,” I said, as if it had all been planned. It wasn’t. Nothing had been planned, we’d just talked about it after Tracey and David had offered, earlier on Saturday. It was 4:10 am. There was a sound like a nearby train outside the house. It was the wind.

Tracey had texted me a minute or two earlier. “I hear Sebastopol is evacuating. Are you coming here?” It turned out later that Tracey had stayed up nearly all night, keeping in touch with friends throughout the county who were in the numerous evacuation zones.

I grabbed the first two bags and threw them into the trunk of my car. I walked quickly, not running like I was panicking or anything, into the house to get the smaller bag. A Sebastopol police car went by. Through the bullhorn, a voice called, “This area is under mandatory evacuation. Please leave immediately.”

Tracey texted me again. “If you don’t answer I’m going to call to you see if you’re awake.”

I texted, or I think I texted, “On our way thank you.”

I had a flashlight, so I ran across the street to the house of our neighbor Carol to make sure she, her son and her daughter had heard the order. Her daughter has a house in Windsor. Early Saturday, she’d packed up and gone to a friend’s in Guerneville. Guerneville is in the Russian River Valley; it had been under an evac-order earlier the day before, so she’d come to stay with her mother. Now she was leaving again.

They were awake. Carol said they had a place to go.

I ran back across the street, paused to trade phone numbers with next door neighbor Karen. Spouse came over. “I will stay right behind you,” he said. He’d pulled the truck out of the garage and closed the garage door.

Karen and I hugged.

I ran over to the other next-door neighbor’s house and pounded on the door and shouted. There was no response. One car was in the driveway, which made me think they were home, but after three minutes I gave up and ran to my car. It was warm. too warm for 4 in the morning, and the wind pushed me.

Spouse came over. “If we get separated, we’ll meet at the Starbucks in Cotati,” he said.

I screamed. “Not Starbucks!”

“Peet’s, I mean Peet’s,” he said.

I pulled out, feeling my car rock in the wind.

From our house to Highway 116, called Main Street in the city limits, traffic was moving and we made adequate time. By this I mean that we were actually moving at the limit, 25mph, for several minutes at a time.

Then we got to 116.

A few things about Hwy 116; along with Highway 101, it is a north-south artery and people evacuating were mostly trying to go south. Southern Santa Rosa had power and was not under an evacuation order but getting to Santa Rosa was actually harder than getting to Rohnert Park or Petaluma. At least, that’s what we heard. And 116 was being used to funnel the final evacuators out of Guerneville, Forestville, and various other unincorporated areas in west county.

Or to put it another way, at 4:30 this particular Sunday morning it was a parking lot.

You get the idea.

We planned to drive 8 miles to Rohnert Park. It took us four and a half hours. And – I’m not exaggerating – 2 hours of that was creeping along the two-block stretch of downtown Sebastopol.

I am so thankful I drive a hybrid.

At about 6:00 I texted Tracey that I’d just rolled up even with Many Rivers Bookstore and that she should expect us for brunch.

Every single side road coming into 116 was packed with cars, trying to merge. People were mostly being good and courteous, except for the inevitable few who would roll along the bike lane and then try to cut in. The ambulances, who were transporting people with medical or mobility issues, who were forced to use the bike lanes, were not happy with those people.

While I waited I saw a number of our familiar homeless people, hunched against the wind, walking their regular patches. They weren’t evacuating. They didn’t have transportation.

I was less worried about them than I might have been otherwise because I still didn’t think that this evacuation was driven by an imminent threat of fire. I thought this, like several of the other ones, was precautionary. But, if the fire had been close, what would they do?

I never thought the fire would reach us, or that the house was in danger. (Spoiler alert: I was right, it didn’t.) So why was I thinking about the house burning down? Why was I cursing myself for not grabbing a few pictures of my mom and grandmother, the photo of my dad and by uncle, a few more books? Why was I wondering what we would do if our house burned down? Why did my stomach hurt?

Every few seconds the stationary car would shudder as a gust of wind hit it.

After nearly two hours, I was sitting across from the Post Office on South Main. There was one car ahead of me, stopped at the intersection. That car waited while a car from the side street turned onto 116. A few minutes later, traffic eased forward and another vehicle from that street, this one towing an immense 5thwheel that looked like it could sleep 13, inched forward. It took about ten minutes to clear the turn and pull onto 116. And still the car ahead of me hadn’t moved.

I thought they’d probably fallen asleep, so I got out and started to walk up to them. The air was acrid, and the smoke smelled like garbage. It was growing lighter and the color of the sky was polished copper. The trees were lashing. Dust devils of leaves taller than my car swirled and danced in front of me as I walked up, planning to politely knock on their window and ask if they were all right. If they weren’t, I figured we’d call 911. Spouse has first aid training and decades of first responder experience. We’d be able to help.

I didn’t have to worry. I didn’t have to wake anyone up, either, because the car was empty. It was an abandoned vehicle. I turned back to Spouse, waved my arms futilely and got back in my car. It took a minute to safely navigate around it. Spouse followed, and then a Sheriff’s Office unit, red light and siren, pulled up. Spouse got out and pointed to the car, and they were dealing with it as we inched on.

All the evacuation material tells you to have a full tank of gas. People who have made a plan and think they’re going ten or fifteen miles away, may ignore that. They have half a tank, they’re good, right? Take into account that you may spend hours idling, not moving, burning fuel. It is possible that with half a tank you’ll run out of gas. (Spouse turned off his truck for a good portion of our two-hour enforced sojourn on South Main Street.)

Past Lynch Road, at the south end of town, we started actually moving, reaching speeds of nearly 20 mpg a few times. It was exhilarating.

We had turned onto 116 at about 4:30 am. We reached Tracey and David’s house at 9:15 am, where there was light, warmth, and coffee. Tom Petty had always promised me that I didn’t have to feel like a refugee. He was wrong.

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5 Responses to Day 1 and Day 2; Feeling Like a Refugee

  1. Terry Connelly says:

    Wow! What a story.

    You also offered good advice. Things like taking the trust, external hard drive, a laptop. Having a full tank of gas.

    I chuckled at packing Aluminum Leaves!

    I am glad you made it there and back.

  2. Terry Weyna says:

    I literally started hyperventilating while reading that, even knowing that you’re okay and your house didn’t burn down. I’m so grateful and glad that you and Spouse are okay.

  3. Marion says:

    We are too, Terry. Even though there was never a rational reason to think the property was at risk… we are relieved too.

  4. Jana says:

    I already know that you’re home safe, of course, but I got SUCH a stomachache from reading this. 1) You’re an excellent, emotionally evocative writer, and 2) fires are terrible.

  5. Marion says:

    Evacuating was scary, even though we knew we were in practically no danger.

    Fires are terrible. Northern California now has the equivalent of the southern California Santa Ana winds, which means these terrible firestorms are what we can expect now.

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