Recently we had a visitor from the east coast, a friend of over 30 years whom we see a few times a year, but never out this way.
We have a standing gig in April, and so in April 2018 we spent a night with him retelling the story of the fires with him and few others.
When he came to visit last month and drove himself from Novato to our home in the eastern Windsor/Healdsburg hills, I found myself wondering how it would look to him, a complete stranger.
I still see the scars, the ugly traces of a terrible event. The empty spaces where something, someone used to be. But I realize that a total stranger would be hard pressed to see the signs.
Perhaps they would comment on the seemingly heavy level of housing construction, but not realize it was re-construction, not new construction. Perhaps they would comment on the over-large parking lot where the Kmart used to be, or odd sparseness of the trees along the eastern ridgeline.
But, without being told, would they know what had happened here? What we had suffered? What we were still suffering.
Our friend admitted he hadn’t particularly noticed anything in his jaunt down Highway 101. Part of me thinks that’s great. Part of me doesn’t.
In my own personal corner of fire narratives, my parents, who lost their home, found and moved into a new house about seven weeks ago. There had been a lot of back and forth over rebuilding versus buying, but when the right house presented itself, they decided to take the leap.
There were a lot of tears on the last day at the old property, now for sale. It wasn’t an easy transition, but it’s one that needed to happen. For the first time since the fires, they feel settled. They feel like they have a home.
But it doesn’t remove the loss. And two years later there are still moments where they remember something they’d once had that had been taken by the flames — an old VCR movie, a set of lawn toys for the kids, a children’s book, a piece of clothing or jewelry. Some can be replaced when the memory of their existence is sparked, but some can’t be. Some shouldn’t be.
And for some survivors, they are about to experience that loss all over again. The two-year mark is generally when the insurance that covers rental housing while the rebuild is taking place is meant to expire. The rebuilding has been slow going, with only a small percentage completed and people are facing the prospect of losing their temporary housing, while their own homes stand incomplete.
Some companies have announced they will extend coverage, but several have said they won’t, leaving those policy holders facing a loss of security and comfort all over again.
I interviewed several homeowners in Larkfield a few weeks back, and one of them, Beverly Nystrom, summed it up thusly. “Now, with hearing from State Farm that I have to move, its like I’m kind of grieving again and feeling like you’re doing this again to me? So I’m really living all of it all over again.”
And then there’s PG&E, looming over the whole story. While it’s easy to understand the rage, the practical application of the rage is a little harder to parcel out. I want victims to get what they’re due, but if we all end up paying way more, is that actually helping anybody?
I’m also on the fence about power shut-off rage. I get it’s a huge pain — last week we here at the paper spent a lot of time on contingency plans, because without power, creating and publishing the print edition of the paper is essentially impossible. (So head’s up if the power goes down Tuesday or Wednesday of any given week, you likely won’t see your paper on time).
We’ve got our power outage emergency kit at the house, including various non-electric chargers for various devices and I won’t be thrilled to camp indoors, but again, compared to the alternative? I can live with it. I’d rather eat barbecue by lantern light than ever face Oct. 9, 2017 again.
As I’ve mentioned before, Oct. 9 is my son’s birthday. He turned 8 the day we fled the fires, and we’re now preparing for his 10th birthday as the anniversary looms. During the fires he never cried, but now two years later we’ve had a few tears. And every time he hears about a fire, he makes me pull up Google maps to show him where it is in relation to us.
When the wind blows at night I find myself feeling like Harry Potter’s Mad Eye Moody: “Constant vigilance.” Sleep becomes a long lost friend.
The fires will forever be an anchoring, defining moment in all of our lives. Everything we do and see and think is now informed by them. Like the land they ravaged, we have begun to look normal on the outside, healed, fixed, but underneath, the scars still show.
Heather Bailey is the editor of the Windsor Times.