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After the Fires


After the Fires

the view from my back yard the first morning of the fires, a few hours before evacuating

I used to write as exorcism. My late teens had been marked by a series of tragedies with family members and friends dying in quick succession over several years – ten people in six years – many in startling ways. The rapidity of these deaths put me in a hard stance existentially that I held for at least a decade, as if I stood with a boxer’s posture, waiting for the next punch, even when otherwise relaxed. Eventually, writing became the means to loosen my limbs again. I’d write an experience of trauma or grief I’d had again and again until it came out complete in poem form, and then I’d let it go.

Years later, accepted to graduate programs, I had to choose between an MFA in poetry or a PhD in philosophy. I was going to graduate school with a five year old I was raising on my own so felt I had to make the more practical choice between the two. That was philosophy. The discipline required to do philosophy at a professional level I always said trained the wild dogs inside my head. It isn’t that they never howl. It is that even if they do, they now hunt for more than just their own animal appetites. This is the importance, I believe, of demanding more of ourselves and our talents than is comfortable. It’s the chance we have to harness the energy of our skills and make them something greater than they were on their own. Ultimately, philosophy also changed my relationship with writing, as well as with myself. It made me tired of my own personal narrative, as if channeling those stories to paper was mostly self indulgent. After leaving philosophy I turned instead to writing about others through the vehicle of wine. That brought me to live in wine country.

I don’t know how to write about the fires. I feel myself these weeks since we evacuated in that boxer’s stance again, something I haven’t felt in decades. The tension comes with a weird form of guilt, as if I’ve no right to the trauma of what happened when it turns out our house still stands, and as I write this I am not in California wine country. I’m in New Zealand. I also don’t know how to write about anything else until I write about the fires.

As the fires were happening I coped by reporting information. Sifting through false reports, and bastard comments online, listening for emergency announcements, following weather indicators of wind movements, and then reporting back what was relevant gave me a means to build scaffolding to hold onto while it seemed the world was falling down. Without that surely the dogs would run wild again. Others still in wine country did far more, dug fire lines voluntarily to shore up the work of embattled fire fighters, fought to save their friends’ and their neighbors’ homes, found housing for people left without any. I evacuated my daughter and her best friend, our pets, and helped evacuate some dogs from the pet rescue up the road.

It’s strange to have a favorite moment from the fires but I do. Mine is driving through Sonoma, with our bird and rabbit in the front passenger seat, and as many dogs as would fit in the back. As I drove away most of the dogs from the pet rescue were calm – they were in a car going for a drive, after all – but one poor lap dog was so terrified she didn’t stop barking the entire way. As we drove I was unsure if we actually had a route out as the roads in each direction leaving town by then had a fire burning on them and had been closed. It wasn’t clear as I left which roads, if any, had reopened, so I simply had to guess. The one surrounded by grassland must have burned out quickly so I went that way singing and cooing to the howling dog to try and calm her.

When we reached the exit road I’d chosen my guess was right. The earth was still smoldering right up to the roadway but it was clear. Coming over the hill all of the fields had burned. The cows were still there standing in blackened grasses. They must have moved as the fire did. When we finally reached Marin County I brought the dogs to the rescue center there that was receiving them and continued south to a friend’s house where we stayed temporarily. The five of us – my daughter, Rachel, her best friend, our rabbit, bird, and myself – slept on the floor of her living room until a couple back in Marin contacted us and asked if we would house sit.

Over a week and a half we watched in horror as our home – the region itself – kept burning. In truth, it was hard to relate to anyone that was not literally from there too – even people in San Francisco seemed somehow too far away to understand – though people outside wine country so wanted to be kind we tried. The second night after we evacuated I slept on the couch in a house of someone I did not know. There was no way for me to get back to the friend’s house we’d evacuated to and the couch had been offered. It’s remarkable what becomes reasonable when everything else has changed.

As the fires expanded utilities evaporated. Many of us couldn’t get our mail until recently. When I couldn’t reach my paychecks, it also meant little spending money. It took some time for replacement checks to be cut and sent to my parents in Alaska so they could receive and deposit them for me. A few friends realized and suddenly there was cash in my bank account unasked and the three of us could add to the only pair of socks we’d each evacuated wearing.

I also evacuated with only one bra. It’s uncomfortable to wear the same bra for a week and a half. They get stretched out. When the paychecks finally came, I bought new ones. I’m still amazed at how comfortable they are. When it came time to take the old bra off I had a little private ceremony thanking her for her devoted service, then threw her away.

Back in California the fires are essentially contained. Friends and colleagues have confirmed if they lost their homes or not. There are stories in both directions. More than 8000 buildings were burned between Napa and Sonoma counties, the highest portion in the city of Santa Rosa, though there were so many fires the damage is all over both counties. This is where I start to tense again, ready myself for another punch.

The damage to the region is so stark it isn’t as simple as exorcising the trauma out by writing, or healing quickly. A friend who was in wine country visiting me during the Napa earthquake pointed out that the difference is that the earthquake lasted 45 seconds. The fires themselves lasted weeks, and the damage will be felt for decades.

It is hard for me to admit this but I have not been able to bring myself to go back. In a literal sense I am unable to since I am currently on a work trip in New Zealand. When I was still in California the fires were advancing on the town of Sonoma and the area near my house. A week ago, fire crews pushed back the fires there. It will take a long time before all of this does not include some grief. Even as so many of us are grateful for the fellowship of friends, and for our survival, this is also a devastating change. If I am very honest, it is a relief I cannot see our home right now. By the time I return to California I will be ready. I promised that if my house survived, and it did, I’d throw a big moose meat party to cook everything I left behind in my freezer and open all those wines I had to leave behind.

Wineries have promised to rebuild. Volunteers are still reporting to evacuation centers and to fire zones to help those who lost everything. People through the region have campaigned to boost the spirits of all of us with statements of Sonoma Strong, and Napa Strong. Fundraisers are happening worldwide to help the region recover. These wine country fires have bolstered even as they have damaged our community, and they have touched people worldwide.

Grief only ever appears because of the love that made it possible. In that sense, it reveals the gift of what’s been shared. All of us together have been given the opportunity for that, to see how much we love our region, and each other, to see the community of people we have formed worldwide. In that sense, we are very lucky.

Please help the North Coast rebuild in whatever ways you can. Keep buying California wine, especially from Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, or Lake County, all of which were impacted by these fires. If you ever travel through the region, please consider buying gift certificates for your favorite locally owned businesses so they can get the funds now, and you can enjoy them when you next visit.

If you can donate directly, here are the three funds I feel can do the most good, most especially because of how the money goes directly to local needs. Each of these can be given to directly online.

For the vineyard worker community and their families, please give directly to OleHealth.org. To help communities impacted in Napa: http://www.napavalleycf.org/fire-donation-page/. To give to communities affected in Sonoma: https://www.redwoodcu.org/northbayfirerelief.

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  1. I’m reluctant to say this is a wonder piece since it’s born out of disaster, but it truly is. Thank you for sharing.

  2. I want you to know that you, your daughter and friends are in my thoughts. It’s almost overwhelming, your intense letter and the fires, to muster up any meaningful response other than this simplistic sounding but heartfelt one. I’ll find ways to help. ~Robert

  3. I felt the same urges to write about the fires, but I lack your eloquence. People ask me every day, “Did your home burn?” I say, “Yes. Not the place where I live, but Sonoma.” So much loss for so many people. So many lives. The word that runs through my mind over and over is “terrible.” We lived through a terrible time. But we lived.

    And I suspect you’ll end up in New Zealand…

    Much love to you. As ever.

  4. Thank you
    Beautifully written about an unbeluevable
    I will never forget that image of the cows in the charred grasslands along 37

  5. Know that we are with you. So many emotions pulse through you in and following catastrophes like this (I know because we just went through an equally devastating natural disaster ourselves). We’re just glad that you guys are okay. Sending much love from Texas (hopefully you’ll be in Sonoma when I come up in December).

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