The evening of October 8, 2017, was no different than any other evening. I had already drifted into the twilight level of sleep when the sound of three large clay pots crashing onto the front porch jolted me back into full consciousness. I was unable to imagine what had happened until I opened the front door to find my three 8 foot podocarpus trees lying on their sides. After convincing myself there was nothing I could do until morning, I retreated to the familiar safety of my warm bed. But the sound of the howling hurricane force winds had followed me there, the illusion of safety began to crack.
My second trip to the front porch annihilated the last fragment of any sense of security I had. The sky to the east and the west pulsated a bright red glow, as angry flames raced through the hills devouring everything in their path. In sixty-eight years I had never imagined a scenario like this. But now I was forced to envision my entire house and everything in it reduced to ashes.
I was suddenly and violently dropped into a new landscape without a compass. In a matter of seconds the unimaginable had become an undeniable reality. My body did what bodies do when you crash into a brick wall at high speed. It went into shock. As I drove my car up and down Stone Bridge Road and Oakmont Drive, I had plenty of company, as my neighbors also drove aimlessly back and forth in search of some elusive answer to our dilemma. We all suffered from the same delusion, that this was a nightmare that we would suddenly wake up from.
I’m sure I had thought about what I’d do if I was faced with a life threatening situation like this. I remembered telling myself that if I stayed calm I could keep a level head and do the right thing. But something happened to time and space when I saw the flames. I couldn’t tell how far away they were or how long it would be before they would consume my entire neighborhood. My movements may have been slow and deliberate, but my mind was racing inside.
When the power went out, the sky seemed even more menacing. Luckily I had already moved my car into the driveway, avoiding the hassle of manually opening the garage door. After what seemed like a long hour of careful planning and execution I glanced at the clock, realizing that six hours had lapsed. The trunk of my car was packed, but I couldn’t remember what I had put into it. I remember pacing through the house with a flashlight, picking up objects to take, but then putting them back in their places. A voice kept telling me this was all a mistake. This couldn’t really be happening to me. There was no need to take my important things because they would all be here, unharmed, when I returned tomorrow. Everything will look better when the sun rises. Daylight always chases away the boogieman, I thought to myself.
As I drove west on highway 12, the sky ahead resembled one of my photographs of red sunrises framed in rain clouds. But these clouds were smoke and the red was the glow of Fountaingrove homes being reduced to ash. I came out of shock for a brief moment on Mission Boulevard. The photographer in me took over, and I pulled the car into the Mission Inn parking lot. I could see flames from the parking lot, but couldn’t determine exactly where they were or how far away. In this moment I regretted driving past the north dam of Spring Lake that would have provided a perfect view. Perhaps I should go back, I told myself. But as I stood on Mission photographing the line of cars escaping the advancing flames, I lost my nerve. The terror on the faces of the people in the cars told a story of something I wasn’t sure I wanted to share. I ran back to my car, then took my place in the long line.
I drove from Mission to the Marriott Hotel near Railroad Square. But I’d be hard pressed to recount the details, or even the route. I just suddenly found myself in the hotel lobby with other refugees. The woman seated across from me was in her pajamas and robe. We all owned pieces of the same story that was still being written. We all shared our first chapters as we sat around waiting for the next chapter to be revealed.
Dogs barking, smoke alarms going off, sheriffs knocking on doors, voices screaming run NOW! Driving through forests of flaming trees, smoke so thick your lungs were on fire and you couldn’t see the road in front of you. We were all gathered together in the hotel lobby telling our stories, creating more questions, our bodies retreating further into the safety of shock. But still we were somehow able to pick ourselves up and do what we had to do next.
After charging my cell phone, I returned to my car to make a few calls. I phoned my family and friends. Then Alyson said, “Come to our house in San Francisco.” Suddenly I had a purpose. Getting myself to San Francisco.
By the time I was heading south on Santa Rosa Boulevard, the sun was rising. But it was not the kind of sunrise that chases away the boogieman. It was the kind of sunrise from a science fiction movie about the end of the world.
As I glanced back toward Oakmont, I could see a large orange ball rising into the eastern sky. Nothing was familiar any longer. I was like a newborn thrust into an unfamiliar world with no idea of what would come next.
I had driven Highway 101 south from Santa Rosa to San Francisco countless times over the past thirty-five years, but never at 5 miles per hour in smoke so thick I could barely make out the vehicles ahead of me. I worried about having enough gas in my tank, since my gauge was broken. But the few gas stations I passed had impossible lines and some had already run out of fuel. Many of the off ramps were closed because of fire activity. I had no choice but to keep my place in line as tens of thousands of fellow refugees fled the fires. My inhaler was in the trunk, as well as the drinking water. But I saw no opportunity to stop to retrieve them. So I put my air-conditioner on recycle and wheezed my way southward to San Francisco.
I thought San Francisco would provide some comfort from the terror I had just survived. It was not what I imagined though. The air was thick with smoke. Cars on the streets were covered with ash. And I learned that while we were running one step ahead of the flames during the early morning hours, people who lived in San Francisco high rises were standing on the street in their pajamas because the smoke alarm systems had gone off. There was no escaping the surreal, unfamiliar world I had been plunged into with just a moment’s notice.
During my twelve day evacuation, the first thing I would do each morning was stream the local Channel 4 news on my laptop, looking for anything about my community Oakmont. Most of us did not know whether we had homes to go back to. But the government and the first responders were busy fighting the fire. The harsh reality was that we would all have to wait to assess the aftermath upon our return.
When it was safe to return, the trip back up Highway 101 in Tim’s pick-up truck was another surreal experience. The closer we came to Santa Rosa, the darker the sky became. The highway was filled with emergency vehicles from different cities and states. When we turned off at the Highway 12 exit I got a huge lump in my throat. I had expectations of a checkpoint where I would be required to show proof of residence in order to be let into Oakmont. But those checkpoints were on all the side roads. We sailed right into Oakmont without incident. When we turned onto Oakmont Drive, there was a huge homemade sign that conveyed a heartfelt “Welcome Home!” This was nothing like returning from a long vacation to the comfort and familiarity of home. There was a gnawing realization that many things had been changed forever.
As a freelance photographer/documentarian, I was able to gain access to many of the burned areas before the general public was allowed to return. My first visit was to Sonoma Valley Regional Park with the permission of Cal Fire. Of course my attachment to this park was through my years of walking my beloved soul dog Zoe. Over the previous three years her memorial table had become a focus of dog lovers throughout the world, her Facebook page reaching 500,000 people in 50 countries. People around the world had become acquainted with Sonoma Valley Regional Park through Zoe’s page. When I posted that most of the park had been burned, I got responses from around the world from fans of Zoe who offered to pay to have Zoe’s table restored if it had been destroyed. As I approached her table through the charred forest, I was encouraged by the fact that all the tables and benches were intact. But I was not prepared for what I saw when I rounded the last bend in the trail. The fire had miraculously stopped a few feet from Zoe’s table. Everything from Zoe’s table and beyond was untouched.
My second access was at the suggestion of an employee of Oliver’s Market who had lost his home in Rincon Valley. This was the first time I was able to understand the path of the fire as it raged through a wind corridor on Mark West Springs Road from Calistoga, then through Rincon Valley, Riebli Road, up the hill to Fountaingrove, then down the opposite side to Coffey Park.
Nothing could have prepared me for the first photo shoot in Coffey Park. I entered the Coffey Park neighborhood from the west. I parked my car just two blocks from where the fire had ended. It was the first day without the National Guard protecting the perimeters. I stood at a barricade in disbelief at what lay before me. Total destruction as far as the eye could see. A small woman approached from the ruins. She obviously sensed my pain, because she came to stand beside me placing her hand upon my shoulder. Did you lose a home here? She waited patiently as I finished surveying the devastation. I handed her my card, explaining that I had been documenting life in Sonoma County since arriving from San Francisco in 2011. As difficult as the task was in the aftermath of the fires, I felt it was my duty to continue that documentation. She told me she had been coming everyday since the fire, to search for lost pets. I felt I had met a kindred spirit. She cautioned me to stay in the street and on the sidewalks. This is all sacred ground, she explained. But she didn’t have to tell me that. My heart was already breaking. As I began my three hour trek, winding up and down the streets of what was once a vibrant neighborhood, I carried on my shoulders, all the pain, horror and grief that still hung in the acrid air. As I carefully captured the vestiges of those who had literally run for their lives just weeks before, I had to occasionally stop to catch my breath while wiping the tears from my eyes.
I came across a woman from FEMA who had just arrived from the floods in Houston. She told me she had never seen such total devastation in her entire career. I met another woman who came everyday to search for her cat. She walked up and down the streets calling out her cat’s name, hoping that somehow she would come out from the ashes unharmed. A young couple who had been away on vacation in Hawaii had come to sift through the ashes of their totally destroyed home. Her husband stood at the back of the property with his hands on his head. “He thinks I’m crazy,” she told me as she created a small pile of seemingly insignificant items. “This is all I have left of the life we had before!”
The ruins had their own stories to tell. Official signs warned not to disturb the ashes until they were checked for human remains or medical devices with ID numbers. Cars were pulled half way out of driveways and then left as if the occupants were forced to escape on foot. Metals melted like candle wax. Chimneys jutted up out of the ashes like gravestones. And the occasional miraculous survival of a child’s stuffed toy, a religious icon or a silly little chachka would soon become a treasured family heirloom. Many of the street signs had melted, so the streets were now marked with their names spray painted on the pavement.
Everyone I met greeted me with the same respect and heartfelt connection. We were all bound together by the same experience of being thrust into a world where no one had been before. I thought about my time at the University of Illinois when I read an account of the great Chicago fire on the anniversary of that event. Or the April 18th commemorations of the San Francisco earthquake. Surely the October 2017 fire would hold a similar place in the history books.
When I approached Oakmont on Highway 12 at the end of the day, my heart was heavy with all the information I had collected in Coffey Park. Throughout the visit I had tried to imagine what Coffey Park had looked like before the fire reduced it to ashes. In my mind I tried to reconstruct the walls around the lonely chimneys, to imagine families gathered around the fireplaces at Christmas time. I tried to imagine neighbors greeting each other on evening walks with their dogs. I wondered which child belonged to the mangled wreckage of the small bicycle. I conjured up an image of a backyard party at the house where the only thing left standing was the barbecue.
When I turned onto Oakmont Drive my brain involuntarily reversed the process I had experienced in Coffey Park. I envisioned the the cars in Oakmont reduced to burned out shells. The walls of the houses were deconstructed until all that was left were chimneys. The trees became blackened toothpicks dotting the landscape among the ashes and twisted metal. My heart was pounding in my chest as my life in Oakmont flashed before me like an end of life experience. In that moment I realized we were all living inside a kaleidoscope of a major historic event. Each of us were tiny mirrors reflecting the separate parts that were our own experiences. Some of us reflected the story of coming home to find our houses untouched. Others reflected the stories of having everything reduced to ashes. Many celebrated barely coming out alive, while others mourned the loss of loved ones. The thing that tied us together was the fact that we had already imagined what it would have been like to walk in everyone else’s shoes. We had become the true embodiment of empathy.
COFFEY PARK, OCTOBER 31, 2017