At first, I thought it was raining.
The loud noises outside my window as I late-night binged on YouTube sounded for all the world like raindrops hitting the roof. It took me a moment to realize I was actually hearing the leaves on the trees, blowing in a windstorm, the strongest the Bay Area had seen in years. My apartment had a blackout, and I heard an explosion.
I didn’t think much of any of it. The power went back on, I assumed the “Boom!” I heard was a telephone pole getting knocked over, and went to sleep.
I was blissfully unaware that one of the worst firestorms California had ever seen was consuming everything a few miles away from my apartment in Santa Rosa.
Anybody who lives here knows that fires happen in California all the time. The reddish tint that comes from smoke-filtered sunlight is a common event during the summer, especially with the recent drought.
But these fires were always “Over There” – somewhere in the woods up north, where those idiots keep building homes that just go up in flames in next year’s wildfires. Or maybe somewhere else, I didn’t really care; they point was, they were never here.
So when I got a text in the middle of the night that the threat of fires had closed down Sonoma State University, it didn’t worry me. It didn’t occur to me to be worried. My only thought before I drifted off again was, “Sweet, I can sleep in.”
I woke up to ash and smoke. I read online about people getting pulled from their homes minutes before the flames consumed them. I read that the Round Barn, a well-known Santa Rosa landmark, was gone. I froze up, partly because something I had seen dozens of times and assumed would always be there was razed from the earth. Mostly, however, it was because the Round Barn was 15 minutes away by car.
That’s when it hit me for the first time; the fire wasn’t “Over There.” The fire was in Santa Rosa. The fire was here.
I remember walking outside that first day, not sure where the fire was and if I should pack already, to see ash falling like snowflakes and the sky yellow with smoke. I remember looking at the evacuation areas and feeling my heart stop when the nearest one was just a few miles from where I lived.
I don’t have a car, or even a license. My cat’s carrier could never fit on my bike. I made calls to nearby friends, got assurance that they’d come pick me up if there was a mandatory evacuation. I called mom in Wisconsin to let her know not to worry – she hadn’t been, until I called. She hadn’t heard of the fires yet. I called people I hadn’t talked to in years to let them know I was all right. Then I stuffed my backpack with essentials – change of clothes, extra toothbrush, ID papers – then looked at all the non-essentials I had, all the things I would inevitably lose if the fire came, and packed as much of those as I could . It wasn’t much.
Then, I waited.
There was tension in the air, the next few days. There was no escaping the fire’s presence, even if you didn’t have news; the white haze and stink of sulfur outside made it very clear nothing had changed. I got face masks and tried to stay in as much as possible, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find out I have smoker’s lungs, the air was so bad.
At work, which was close by and still open, “How’re you doing” went from a stock greeting to a genuine question. I would overhear gossip about who was evacuated and what fire crews were doing. I heard one person say someone brought olives and several bottles of wine to one of the many evacuation centers. They said it was “very Sonoma County” of them.
And in the back of our minds, we listened for news, for sirens or someone to come banging at the doors, telling us to get out now. We knew we weren’t out of the woods; we were just in the part that wasn’t on fire yet.
I got lucky; the fires never got to my part of Santa Rosa. Classes started up, life slowly took on the shape of normalcy. But when I see a neighbor's dry lawn, I now imagine how easily a spark could set it ablaze. I don’t think I’ll ever feel safe again when I hear of fires in California, because I now know “Over There” can be anywhere at all.