Lessons Learned in the Face of a Wildfire
By Fran Braga Meininger
I watched as the gust whipped the oaks above me, sleepless with worry, expecting at any moment to hear the crack of a branch crashing through my roof. But it was something far more ferocious and insidious that sprang me from my bed at 1:00 am. First I heard the sirens then noticed the eerie glow beyond the trees to the north. Fire.
I dressed in a rush as I peered out every window, but couldn’t get a clear view. So I grabbed my keys, called my dog to follow me and ran for the car. As I drove around the curve to the highway, the vista opened up to reveal the flames, already engulfing the entire ridge of the Mayacama Mountains and burning down toward the valley floor. I feared for the safety of so many friends who live within the bounds of what was on fire but I was helpless to do anything but send up hope for their safety. I had no time to spare. The wind was driving the flames my way. I drove back through shards of eucalyptus bark swirling through the air and dodged branches that littered the roadway. My heart pounded as I made a mental list of what I needed to pack.
I announced the situation to my husband, who refused to share my concern, as my phone lit up with messages from neighbors preparing to evacuate. I did the same, grabbing what I needed for myself and my dog, telling my husband I was going with or without him. I went without him.
Lesson #1 Ultimately, I am only responsible for myself.
With the dog settled on her bed in the back seat, one small bag hastily stuffed with clothes, phone, charger, cash, water, a flashlight and a small box with photos, my yearbooks and a childhood scrape book, I drove away not knowing if I would ever return to my home of 23 years.
Lesson #2 When it’s imperative; I know what is important.
I drove into town with no destination, only a primal instinct to get away from the flames. I was not alone, many others headed into Sonoma in the dark of night, the glow growing distant in the rear view mirror. But as I drove south, I found the eastern horizon also lit up, a fire burned farther south on the same mountain range, an update on my phone later that morning would reveal the situation; 14 fires burning simultaneously throughout our valley and just beyond.
I pulled into the high school parking lot to get a clear view and found there a group huddled together, exchanging information and kind words. I joined them. We were each from a different part of the valley and obviously of different financial circumstance reflected in the row of vehicles parked side by side, a beat up pick up, a ranch truck with vineyard tools in the back, a Tesla and my Prius, but right that moment it mattered not one bit. We were fellow humans sharing a devastating situation and offering each other comfort.
Lesson #3 In the face of adversity kindness and compassion prevail.
Finally, a call from my husband, who realized for himself that the situation was indeed as dire as I reported; he was on his way.
I drove through town in search of companionship and a coffee. The Safeway parking lot was nearly full. People milling about looking up at the horizon watching the glow increase in area and brightness, everyone making calls. I found a few ladies inside sitting near the closed Starbuck’s counter. Not having anywhere else to go and not wanting to be out there alone, I joined them. I monitored the situation via social media and listened as they recounted their experiences and voiced their concerns for those who would not leave and those from whom they had not heard. It was universal. Everyone was more concerned for others than themselves.
The magnitude of what was to come still had not quite sunk in. I honestly expected to return to my normal life after a few hours of fear and uncertainty. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
My husband finally arrived. We stocked up on some fresh fruit, water and snacks to sustain us for a few hours and exchanged texts with those from our neighborhood who were now out of the fire zone and checking in. We decided to see if we could find coffee and the comfort of normalcy in an abnormal situation.
A sidewalk café on the Plaza was open and busy. We sat our faces buried in our phones searching for updates and shared what we found with those at other tables doing the same. When everyone began to relate where they had just evacuated, it became acutely apparent how widespread the fires were. They extended far beyond the boundaries of our valley; to the east In Napa, to the west in Bennett Valley and to the north in Santa Rosa. The world as we knew it was burning.
A friend sent a message offering breakfast and the chance to watch some television coverage. I spent the next few hours watching the visual evidence of the widespread destruction, but what troubled me the most was the personal and intimate pain of loss of those I knew and loved. The fire erupted with such fury people fled their homes with only their loved ones and pets and the rest was now scattered as ash. I didn’t understand it was only the beginning.
Lesson #4 The reaction to tragedy comes in waves.
I watched in horror, the scenes perceived as a drama that couldn’t possibly be real. I would feel my heart break and then a reflex response would take over and I would shake it off for the time being. There was no time now to grieve. I had to plan and react. But what to do? How to help? I noticed an unfamiliar lack of focus and the inability to make a definite decision. I also felt devoid of the energy to rally and push through whatever I would face. I felt the first sense of defeat. It would not be the last.
Lesson #5 There are times when powerlessness is inevitable and unavoidable.
The next few days melted together. Seeking shelter as the fire expanded, staying with friends who offered a safe place only to be evacuated with them as their homes were threatened. The most important tool of the days and nights that followed were my phone and my laptop, which the writer in me threw in the bag as I rushed from my home knowing I would need to write.
Practically everyone I loved was within the fire zone. I realized one morning that all of my close circle was displaced just as I was. There was not a safe haven among us. We had been scattered in the wind like the ash of the fire that chased us from our homes, our serenity and our security. But, we stayed connected with constant calls, texts, Facebook posts and emails.
Lesson #6 No matter where you go those you love travel with you.
As the fire grew to the largest in recent history, consuming hundreds of thousands of acres and destroying most of what it touched, I found myself oddly passive. There was no anger, no rage. My usual spirited reaction to anything that frightened or threatened me was gone. I couldn’t fight this. It was bigger, stronger and more threatening than any defense I could muster. I had to run, admit defeat and simple adapt to whatever it left in its wake.
I felt an unfamiliar calm resolve to the possibility that my home may be gone. I thought of what I might do if that were true and I had no idea, at least not within that moment. I simply did not have the energy or imagination to conjure up the multiple scenarios necessary to react with any source of resilience. I was defeated. Depleted and left to settle into a contentment of temporary safety and the knowledge that everyone I loved was safe, for now.
Lesson #7 Life isn’t meant to push around and sometimes when it gets tough, you just can’t fight back.
On the fifth night of its constant flow in all directions through every hill surrounding us, the fire threatened the entire town of Sonoma. My childhood girlfriend in tow, we moved father west. I once again drove away from the flames, without a plan of what would come next, but knowing there was no choice than to gather up the few things that represented my tentative security and flee once again. We settled in and watched the reports all night, hoping the center of our tightly knit community would not be leveled.
The morning brought varied news. Some had been spared but as the reports trickled in of more and more of my neighbors’ and friends’ loss of home, pets and livelihood I sank deeper into a place of suspended existence, filled with nothing but a numbness that softened the sorrow that was too intense to allow to the surface. It was too soon. A lump tightened in my throat as I tried to speak of what I learned, but I fought back the tears and swallowed hard to hold myself together. I couldn’t grieve yet. This was only one of many waves of sorrow that would wash me up on the shore of this reality limp and exhausted.
Lesson #8 No amount of personal discovery, therapy or self-help techniques hold you unharmed when the world burns. You are a victim.
The smoke followed like a caustic reminder that the world I left behind was still under attack. I couldn’t go outside, feel the sun on my skin, find a breath of fresh air or hear the sound of birds anywhere. I was trapped indoors, the stench of the acrid smoke bitter in my mouth. The days became a series of ordinary tasks, shopping for essentials, preparing food, taking a shower; all now a privilege that no longer could be taken for granted. The knowledge that over 40,000 people, like me, were evacuated and some did not enjoy such luxuries as running water, electricity and fresh food weighed on me. I felt the need to help, to reach out a strong hand to lift them up but I was standing knee deep in the mire of my own situation unable to do so.
We moved farther west to the Russian River in hopes that the air would be clean and it was. I found a small motel, one of the only with an available room. I was concerned I would be turned away because of my dog, but the owner, a dark East Indian man with large, gentle eyes and a broad smile, bent the rules when he asked where I was from and learned I had been evacuated. I felt the kindness and compassionate of a close friend emanate from him even though we had only talked for a few minutes. He gave me the best room he had overlooking the river from a private deck. I immediately felt my heart relax and my soul begin to heal as I carried my bag up the stairs and heard the sound of birds for the first time in a week. As I led my dog to the room, the motel owner called to me and asked where we planned to have dinner. I told him I had not planned that far yet, to which he reassured me not to worry. He was fixing Indian food for a friend who was joining his family for dinner and he would bring us a plate. I was overwhelmed with gratitude. Tears welled up that had been waiting to be released and I thanked him from the bottom of my heart.
Sitting on the deck overlooking the river as the sun set, I realized I had been humbled at the feet of this fire. It had forced me to run, consumed my life and caused me to live each moment differently than ever before. I found within the powerlessness, a peaceful resolve. I no longer struggled to control the uncontrollable and I let go, at least for a time. My innate and ever present determination to plan, orchestrate and manifest my own destiny had met its match. I was defeated and enlightened at the same time. I was at peace with the temporary and found a sense of deep comfort in the simple, moment to moment joys that interspersed themselves within this tragedy. I found myself being more honest in my emotions, saying I love you far more often, looking into stranger’s eyes and asking with a genuine concern how they were. I accepted charity gratefully and without the defense of pride.
These have been some of the most challenging, horrifying and painful days of my life. But they have not come without some blessings and lessons.
Lesson # 9 Everything that happens, no matter how difficult, brings with it something of value. If I pay attention and allow it, I will be changed; perhaps for the better.