Numb. Is there another word for the feeling of utter exhaustion of mind, body and spirit that eventually makes you feel nothing because your ability to feel something has been burned out? It’s like going nose blind to perpetual bad smells on a spiritual level.
I’m writing this sitting at my parent’s dining room table in Santa Rosa. The dining room table that sits in the house they moved into a month ago, purchased after they lost their home in the 2017 fires. I’m writing this here, because this time the fire came directly for me, and while it thankfully didn’t destroy everything, it did enough damage to have me camped out here for awhile.
On Friday, Oct. 25, my husband and our friend and farmhand Mike, who is a retired CalFire firefighter, sat down to decide if we were going to evacuate with our farm full of animals. I made plans for my son to go to my parents and they were planning on leaving for the East Bay because we had family there that still had power. As we stood on our porch as the sun set, watching the flames of the Kincade Fire dance ever closer, I watched a spot fire erupt on a ridge across the valley from us and grow from a tiny spot to a huge miasma of fire.
We discussed the pros and cons of getting out now or sitting tight, including issues like stress on the animals, safety and health issues at public places like the fairgrounds, difficulties of time and expense. We have 18 horses (not all ours, my husband has a training business), 22 Nigerian Dwarf goats, 18 chickens, four dogs, a miniature donkey and a pretty skittish barn cat. So evacuation for us is not a matter of tossing a go-bag in the trunk of the car and hitting the road. It’s more like planning to board an arc.
Mike felt that we should sit tight for one more night. He pointed out that even if the fire reached us, thanks to my husband’s diligent land management (mowing, limbing trees, removing underbrush) and the fact that much of our 60 acres is grazed, there was minimal fuel available for the fire.
He would prove to be right and wrong on that score.
So we sat tight, and got up every hour to track the fire’s progress. For awhile, I though things were looking good, because sundown had seen the entire ridge across from us on fire, but by about 3 a.m. no flames could be seen anymore.
I hoped it meant that we were going to be safe, but that morning’s CalFire press conference made it clear the lack of visible flames was merely the calm of the eye of the hurricane. When I heard that the entirety of Windsor and Healdsburg were to be evacuated I knew immediately we had to go, as our farm is located in the Chalk Hill valley, exactly between the two towns. If they believed the fire would get to them, it was clearly going to go through us first.
So, I manned my phone and was, as I often am, humbled by the generosity and kindness of my friends and acquaintances. Friends from all over the county came with trailers, and we had an offer to put our horses up at the home of a childhood friend of mine in Cotati. Erica Rushing of Flat Broke Farm, a nonprofit farm animal rescue in Cotati, immediately came on scene and started helping me with my flock of goats, my chickens and my donkey.
To add to her task, it’s the start of rut/breeding season for goats, so my six breeding bucks are stinky, loud and looking for love, making them less than wonderful companions, but she took them in without complaint. Erica also arranged feed and bedding deliveries at our evacuation location, then went out and spent the next three days doing the same for others. She is a real dynamo.
We also had assistance from Sonoma CART, which helped us trailer out client horses and did an truly outstanding job moving large animals throughout the county and finding places for them to go.
We had most of the animals out by 12:30 p.m., or about 90 minutes after we started. My husband went with them and my son was delivered into the care of his grandparents who hugged me just as tight. I stayed behind to try to gather up some of our belongings and important papers, and to see if after the excitement and crush of the mass evacuation of animals, the handful of chickens and the barn cat who had panicked and hightailed it out of human reach could be coaxed into coming with me.
Nine of my chickens had been in their coops or had allowed me to grab them, but the other nine, mostly roosters that I didn’t have the heart to cull or that I took in for people who had gotten a roo among sexed chicks, had taken flight into the trees and rafters when the driveway was suddenly crammed with trailers and people.
Thinking they needed time to calm down before I tried to grab them, I walked around my house, packing what I could and taking photos. Since my job requires photography, I have above average experience taking photos but I found myself second-guessing every shot. Did this one show the antique china set from my husband’s grandmother well enough? Did that one capture the detail of a painting we’d bought from a street vendor in Milan clearly enough? Did the glare from the window obscure the make and model of the television too much? Did I get enough angles of every room to show our lives, as defined by our possessions, in enough detail?
If it was hard to decide what to actually take with me, shooting the pictures was no easier. In the end, I had over 225 photos on my phone that I hoped would be enough to rebuild our lives with if the worst happened. I then went down to the barn and repeated the photo taking and then tried again to coax some of my birds into their coop and call to the cat. In the end, everyone was just too freaked out to listen to my cajoling, so I filled up food and water, left out extra containers of each for cat and birds, and drove down my driveway, wondering if it would be for the last time.
Traffic was bad, but I was amazed at how calm and collected everyone was. I’m a California native, so I know traffic jams and I know normal traffic behavior, which usually involves at least a dozen people playing Pole Position, honking and creative hand gestures. But there was none of that, everyone just glided along at 30 mph, eerily silent and without complaint or hurry. In retrospect I wish I’d looked into my fellow drivers’ windows to see if they had the same haunted facial expressions I expect I was sporting, but I couldn’t bring myself to look.
After checking on all of my animals, and making sure everyone was settled in, I elected to return to my parent’s house, alone. My husband slept in our living quarters horse trailer, but I preferred a better bed, even though they had no power. As I pulled up their dark street I was amazed at how many cars lined it, a sign of just how many of their neighbors were also taking in friends and family. I had two of my dogs with me as I entered the dark, silent house. None of us ate anything that night, the nerves contagious. They stared at their bowls of dog food with the same anxious apathy as I did my take out.
I slept, or rather I lay in bed all night, with the scanner app turned on, listening to the chatter and straining to hear anything of my home. I’d done the same thing in 2017, and had heard the moment the street where my parents had lived was abandoned as a lost cause. I dreaded hearing the same of my street, but I couldn’t not listen all the same.
I knew the fight was fierce, but a lot of the transmissions were garbled or in code and I spent a sleepless night feeling like we had a 50/50 chance.
My hope in that statistic plunged the next morning when I pulled up the county’s satellite map and saw a bright red dot indicating fire directly over my house. I solemnly told my family we should be prepared to have lost everything. Nobody cried. There was a lot of silence.
I got a text from a neighbor who confirmed there was fire on the property but didn’t have more information than that. Then my managing editor, Andrew Pardiac, got past the lines to take photos and managed to get up to my address. The house and our main barn were still standing. There was damage to the property, but we would still have a home to come back to.
At least for the moment, I thought, knowing there was one more wind event on the horizon.
Another friend, who works in county government, was able to get up to the property with the fire prevention officer Cyndi Foreman of the Sonoma County Fire District and sent me a video of the damage. The next day I was escorted in by Sonoma County Animal services to see it for myself and again check on my errant chickens and cat.
The chickens had all survived the fire, though it appears one roo had an unfortunate encounter with a large vehicle. The cat was nowhere to be seen, but the formal feral is crafty and savvy and I’m not ready to pronounce him gone just yet.
We held our breath through another wind event, which thankfully was not as dramatic as predicted, and then managed to get a permit to get in to feed our chickens. On Saturday Nov. 2 we got back in and took full and final stock of the damage.
The two biggest issues will be the thousands and thousands of feet of fencing we lost and the potential damage to our water system. One of our well tanks is partially melted, and the power pole that held the “brains” of the well had burned and fallen over. We also lost outbuildings, chicken coops and other shelters.
The most chilling discovery was on the western edge of the house under my bathroom window where the scorch marks showed the fire came within 18 inches of the house. As I marveled at the site, and wondered how my house was saved, my son pointed out burned-in-rubber impressions of a boot on a nearby stepping stone, a hot, melting footprint left by a fireman who had clearly walked through the heat to save my home.
Huge tracts of my land are black, but remarkably Mike’s prediction about the lack of fuel left by grazing animals was correct; in the northern half of my land, the fire burned directly up to the pasture line and stopped, creating a wild golden oblong in the midst of the pitch black grass of the ungrazed land on my and my neighbor’s property.
For now, my son and I will stay in Santa Rosa and my husband in Cotati. He’ll look after the horses and we’ll be closer to my son’s school, though we are trying to be together a few nights a week.
If we can get fencing and water, we can go home, but until then, we’ll be in limbo. We don’t need power to care for the animals, but without it the well damage won’t be able to be assessed and repaired.
I didn’t sleep for close to five days, and now I can’t shake the tiredness. Even a final, full and proper night of sleep hasn’t put me to rights, but I think that it’s because more than my body is tired.
I’ve lived in Sonoma County for most of my life. After 13 years on the east coast, I wanted to come “home” and when I did, this time with a husband in tow, it felt like pulling on a favorite sweater and settling in with a beloved book. My husband, who is originally from New Jersey but had lived in Virginia most of his adult life, has been bombarded with eastern friends asking, “Are you ready to move back yet?”
But this place is his home too, now, and he says he can’t imagine moving. Every place has something. Hurricanes, tornados, ice storms, blizzards, floods. We have fires and earthquakes. Terrible and terrifying, but not more so than a funnel cloud or a Category 5. So we will stay, and rebuild and try to find our equilibrium again.
Because Sonoma County is our home, and there is simply no place like it.