EARTH, WIND AND FIRE, 2017
by Dina Corcoran
The anxious Earth, dry and wrinkled, yearns for November rain to slake its terrible October thirst. Toasted brown grasses lay flat in surrender to months of hot summer sun. I cannot see a single creature scurrying among them. How can they live here?
At least the fire did not ravage our Calistoga land as it did in the Hanly fire of 1964. It spared us this time, but how were we to know?
The night before it started, we slept poorly as the wind threw a nightlong tantrum, throwing furniture around on the deck and carrying off a barbeque cover with the umbrella. The shadowy arms of trees threatened the house as the angry wind bossed them around. At four A.M. a phone call from my daughter Kimberly in Santa Rosa, roused us.
Her dog, Tucker, had forced her awake, and as she checked her cell phone she learned of the Tubb’s Fire. Cell towers near her home had burned, so she couldn’t call out. Desperate to reach us, she drove across town to the parking lot at Costco’s where she was able to complete the call.
“Get out of there now, Mom. There’s a fire near Tubb’s Lane, just below your place!”
She knew our house sat in the middle of fire fuel: twenty-two acres of dried grass-covered hills—with only one way out.
We had no idea we were in danger; we couldn’t see or smell anything. Reluctantly we tossed a few possessions and our little dog into the car and drove into the night, leaving home behind. As we neared the main road, we saw fires devouring the land—in many different directions.
We had made the right decision.
The plan to join Kimberly in Santa Rosa had to be scrapped when we learned from the police station that both roads to Santa Rosa were impassable because they were burning. We simply headed south. Perhaps we’d take shelter in a motel near Vallejo.
As we traveled down valley, the eastern sky glowed ominously from another fire, the Atlas fire. And to the west a third fire painted the night sky. It seemed like fire wanted the whole Earth.
Reaching Vallejo, we were put off by the traffic and congestion and decided to move on. After crossing the Richmond Bridge we cut over to Novato and stopped at a Starbucks for coffee and a muffin. We joined the overflow of quiet customers sitting at the outside tables. A blanket of smoke hung over the area. Eavesdropping conversations at tables nearby, we soon realized we were among fellow evacuees, and many of us began to trade stories about how we’d come to be there, sitting in the smoke at dawn. Many of us had no real destination, and the mood was one of hushed disbelief at our situation.
“Let’s head to the coast and look for a place in Bodega Bay,” I suggested to Alan. A brilliant idea, I thought. We’d be closer to home and the ocean air would be nice to breathe. So we headed toward the coast and then backtracked, to the north again. The innkeepers at the coast laughed at us.
“All the places here are reserved; people have called ahead. We have nothing for you.”
A feeling of homelessness came over us –- until we realized we could reach Santa Rosa from the coast. We could get to Kimberly’s.
By a stroke of good fortune, my daughter’s Santa Rosa home had had a mold infestation, and two days before the fire, her rental agency had put her up in an Air B&B while they made repairs. She and her sixteen-year-old twin sons had moved into a place larger than their home. There was an extra bedroom for us and a backyard for all the dogs, including our hero, Tucker, who had awakened Kimberly at 4:00 A.M.
We reached this sanctuary after six hours of roaming. Not only was it a place to lay our heads and make a cup of tea, but an opportunity to huddle with family during the days-long fire attack.
The house, a charming, hundred-year-old thing, sat downtown far from the burned out neighborhoods. It had power, and the air was not as smoky as it was in the rest of Santa Rosa. We would be there for twelve days.
But the city had shut down. The only places open for business were a coffee/bagel shop and Target. We breakfasted with Kim and the boys at the bagel shop and traded stories with other displaced people. Kimberly shared a tale of her friend’s husband who turned out to be a hero as they fled their rural home; he’d thought to carry a chainsaw in the car. And sure enough, a fallen tree blocked the narrow road leading out of their little neighborhood; he was able to remove the tree so they could all get out.
After our community breakfast, we found Target to be a treasure house of useful things. We bought groceries, dog food, and a toilet brush for the B and B.
Orville, our next-door neighbor, made several enormous pots of Italian wedding soup to give to displaced people. He brought some over for us, and it was the best soup I’d ever tasted. My grandsons helped to serve food at a local church to those who had no way to get a meal. Small acts of kindness were happening all across the city. “Love in the Air is Thicker Than the Smoke” became the slogan proclaimed by handwritten signs around town.
Our computer kept us informed of the changing fire scene. Kim’s old neighborhood of Rincon Valley was under mandatory evacuation. Lucky we weren’t there. A friend called from Calistoga to report that she could only see smoke when she looked towards our house. We felt sure it was burning. And, when the whole town of Calistoga was evacuated, we sensed doom. There were moments we believed we had no home to return to and others where we hoped we’d be spared.
Tired of the fear and uncertainty, we began to accept the prospect of starting over fresh. It might be nice, we thought, to find a place in town and furnish it with all new things. Once we accepted the possibility of this outcome, Alan and I relaxed and were ready to face whatever might happen.
The five of us settled into a familial routine: Kim and I cooking and doing dishes together while the boys took turns vacuuming. Each of us worked on the jigsaw puzzle of a dog park scene set up on the end of the dining table where we ate dinner together every night. We took walks to town and read books to get away from the constant stream of grim news on the T.V.
After twelve days of refugee status, we learned that our house was saved. One road to Calistoga opened to traffic, and we returned home. In the back seat of the car sat two teenage boys, each with a cat carrier on his lap, while our dog perched between them. We would hang out together while their mother flew to Santa Monica to attend a long-planned high school reunion.
One side of the road had no fire damage, and the other was either burned or a fluorescent green from fire-retardant. Fire fighters had kept the fire from crossing the road. All four of us fell silent, hypnotized, as we traveled along this eerie route.
We knew for sure that our home had survived as we drove through the gate with the big red outline of a heart still decorating it. Love was in the air.
The whims of the wind provided a happy ending for us, if not for Santa Rosa. It blew fiercely from the northeast and stayed steady. Called a Diablo wind, it carried the fire that brought devilish destruction to so many people’s homes. If the wind had ever gone back to its normal habit of blowing from the west, where the fire started, we would have burned.
Wide swaths of bulldozed earth the size of country roads now mark up the land around my home. Cal-Fire had made firebreaks that are now a reminder of all the drama. The rains in November will cover them with new green grass, and the Earth will sigh with relief.