I woke up Monday morning to the smell of smoke. It was faint, but strong enough that I kept searching for the source. I made my coffee, checking the burners on the stove to see if someone had left something on overnight. My dog stayed by my side, his nerves matching mine as the source of the smoky smell remained a mystery. As the coffee brewed, I checked notifications on my phone. That’s when I came across the text from my college saying classes were cancelled due to fires in area. Well, that explained the smoky smell. I grabbed my coffee and headed to my office. Before starting homework, I opened Facebook. That’s when I was met with post after post about the fire. My work, the Press Democrat newspaper in Santa Rosa, had a Facebook Live video going, taken from the Kaiser hospital in north Santa Rosa. The scene was apocalyptic. A whole mobile home park torched. The hospital had been evacuated. Fire everywhere. I thought it was just that part, but soon learned that the town was surrounded. People had been evacuated. I immediately thought of my parents, and found out that they had also been evacuated.
Santa Rosa was on fire.
The sheer magnitude of what was happening began to unfold over the next several hours. There were fires in Napa, Calistoga, Kenwood, Santa Rosa, Windsor, Mendocino… It felt impossible as the fire grew, popping up in new spots. I spent the morning keeping our newspaper’s social media up to date, wondering if I was even going to be able to make it into work. I didn’t know if the freeway was open, if it was jam packed with cars, if I would be driving into the fire, if my own house would burn down while I was away. I felt pulled to stay and protect my family, and to go to work to help keep the public updated on what was going on. Luckily, my husband stayed home, ready to leave with the kids and dog should anything happen. I was assured that the freeway was clear. So I set into work.
The sky in Santa Rosa was a deep black toward the fire. Where my work was, we were safe, but the smell of smoke was thick. Inside the building it was just as bad. I soon became noseblind to it (though my head and sinuses have yet to recover), and set to work. All hands were on deck as everyone pulled together to gather information. Let me tell you, information was confusing. No one knew were the fires all were, where they were headed, who was in danger…nothing. We did what we could, but it felt like the world was caving in around us as information kept pouring in. A whole subdivision was lost. Then another. Hundreds of home, demolished. Thousands of people evacuated. So many unsure where their loved ones were, afraid they were part of the growing number of lives lost.
That first day was organized chaos. Our team of journalists shone in the worst situation possible. Several had been up all night, awake since the fire broke and in the office to do their job. Some were evacuated and still at the office, unsure if they’d have a home to go back to when all was said and done. Stories poured in. Video and photos poured in. People came to our page for information, wondering if we knew anything about their specific house. I tried to answer every question sent our way. Some left me feeling helpless, others I was able to give answers. The answers weren’t always good.
We’re about to enter our 4th day of fires. Yesterday there seemed a small victory as firefighters attacked a section of the fire near my childhood home. They lit a backfire, sending an alarmingly large plume of smoke over southeast Santa Rosa. Before knowing what was happening, it seemed like things were over. But the firefighters appeared successful; this morning, everything in that fire’s path is still standing.
Still, it feels bleak as the fire fight continues. The whole town of Calistoga has now been evacuated. Half of Sonoma is evacuated. Santa Rosa is still burning, and containment is unclear. It’s been 0% for days. My parents haven’t seen their house since they left early Monday morning, but we’re assured it still stands thanks to vigilant firefighters fighting defense on the hills around the neighborhood. We have no idea what we’ll see when….if…they come back home.
In all this, our community has formed a solid bond. We’re all in this together. People are reaching out to strangers. Donations of food, supplies, money are pouring into evacuation centers. Our newsroom has been well taken care of as people send food in every day for our hardworking crew. Friends are opening their homes to those who have no home to stay in. My aunt lost her home as her neighborhood was wiped out. My friends with a one-year-old left home with only the clothes on their back, returning to mere ashes. At least 10 of my high school classmates have lost homes, and several very generous people from our class have worked tirelessly to gather money and supplies for them. One of these classmates who lost their home is a fire captain, and he’s continuing to save other people’s homes even though his home is gone.
Me, I live in Petaluma. We’re still okay, but told to be prepared in case the fire comes this way. With the high winds expected today, it’s possible. I don’t even want to think about it. I’ve been devoted to the news while at work, and unable to detach while I’m at home. I’m praying it will end soon, trying to combat feelings of helplessness, that it’s all hopeless. I know it’s not, but when will this end? I’m trying not to be angry as the world keeps going on while our community goes up in flames. I’m trying not absorb the chaos, the desperate need, the sheer danger. What happens next for the people who have no homes? Where will people go when the evacuation centers can no longer hold them? It feels like the end of the world. It seems weird to open up the New York Times and see stories that have nothing to do with the fires here in California. Everything seems trivial while we continue to burn. Why hasn’t the president stepped in? Why aren’t there more planes fighting this in the sky? Why is the fire still burning?
I pray that this nightmare ends soon.