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Posts Tagged ‘fire’

California

Some of you may remember that I am from California, though I live in Oregon. I was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, in San Jose. I lived there until college then moved up the road to Palo Alto. After college I lived in southern California for too many years then found my way back up north to Santa Rosa. I love California. It will always be my home. California, at least a bit of it, lives inside of me.

Santa Rosa. It’s a small town in Sonoma County, about forty-five minutes north of the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s in Wine Country. And right now, it’s on fire. There is currently a horrible fire storm in a number of counties in the area. I didn’t keep up with the statistics over the weekend because I took a bit of a break from all the news, most of which is horrible or sad in some way. But I know that as of last Friday it had consumed more than three thousand structures, killed at least thirty-one people, and over six hundred were reported missing. Yeah. A real tragedy that has made me so sad.

As my connection to the Houston hurricane which some of you may remember, this Santa Rosa fire has saddened me greatly. Structures that I am well familiar with were totally lost. The beautiful trees and hills have been charred. And, in this case, one of my aunts lost her home. I am just glad that they weren’t home because she and her husband both take sleeping pills and I’m afraid that if they had been home, they may not have been aware of the fire in time. They lived up on a hill top cul-de-sac, where the only way out is a very narrow road. But they weren’t home which is a blessing in some ways. Because they weren’t home, they didn’t have the opportunity to save anything at all. Everything they had, other than what they had with them in their RV (they were on their way to Wyoming) is gone. Their cars. Their clothing. Her doll collection. His extensive gun collection. Their wall safe with a lot of cash melted. (Don’t believe it when they claim they are fire proof.) Their personal memorabilia. Photographs. Mementos. It’s all gone.

My aunt says they are too old to rebuild that custom home. I’m not sure where they will choose to move to. My aunt has lived in the area her entire life and her husband has too, with the exception of his time in the Navy. Their lives are so closely tied to the Santa Rosa area.

My daughter’s former co-workers and friends, some of them anyway, also lost their homes. These are younger people who might not have been properly insured. This is so devastating for them, as well.

Entire neighborhoods are gone and unlike the popular thought, they are not the fancy neighborhoods like the one my aunt lived in. Many of these are where working class people lived and worked and went to school and played. Many of these people lost not only their homes and everything in them (the fire came through without warning, in the middle of the night and people had just moments to grab keys and run), they’ve also lost the place of employment with so many businesses burned to the ground.

There have been some bright spots. Some incredible kindnesses shown. Perhaps I’ll write about some of those this week.

The fires are still going. It has been an entire week of flames in the area and the smoke continues to blacken the skies. If you’re a praying person, please pray for the area and that the fires are put out as soon as possible. And of course, let’s pray for the firefighters who have been working round the clock, often working three back to back to back shifts with no rest.

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I’m kinda down today. I had big plans. Instead, I awakened to the smell of smoke and sirens in the distance. Jumping up and across to the windows, I could see a lot of smoke kind of hovering over the housing development next to the mobile home park I live in.  Surely there was a fire there.  And it the dancing trees told me it was windy. 

After a thorough search online, it turned out that the sirens were incidental to the smoke I was seeing and smelling.  The smoke was actually blowing in from the northeast where there are wildfires burning across the Columbia River and over the Cascades here in Oregon.

Within a half hour the smoke was so bad that I had to shut my windows and cancel my big plans to take the boys for a hike.  The air is too unhealthy to be hiking.  So I’m down.  I don’t take changes to plans very well.

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The sky shouldn’t be brown out there.

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Even the sun had a tough time getting through the smoke.

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December 21, 1999

It was just a few days before Christmas.  I had come home from work and was resting before going to dinner and getting some shopping done.  The next day would be my last day of teaching before the holiday break and I was looking forward to a fun and easy day with my students.  I was lying in bed, resting … the TV tuned to the news.  They were reporting that there was a fire nearby.  I knew exactly where it was at.  I was grateful that it was on the other side of the freeway.

The news ended and soon I got up to see what the kids wanted to do for dinner.  I turned the corner of the hallway and as I walked into the family room, there was a special report on TV, interrupting regular programming.  The news was reporting that the Santa Ana winds were kicking up and the small fire had grown in just minutes and was now threatening to jump the freeway, where there were many homes and the school where my youngest daughter was a fourth grader.  I watched the report for a bit and continued to my son’s room to see about dinner.  When I turned the corner I could see a red glow  in the distance outside the back door next to my son’ss bedroom.  I opened the back door to see what it was and I could see the flames from the fire they had reported on  the special report.  The fire wasn’t supposed to be there.  According to the report just two minutes before, it was about two miles from the point where I could see it.  I looked again and called my son, Tony,  who was already on his way out the door to tell me the news was reporting that the fire had spread and was now three separate fires and spreading very quickly because of the strong winds.  We had friends near the fire area and Tony said he was going to call a couple of them.

I had learned to not panic in front of the kids.  I had learned to keep my cool and I did, but in the back of my mind was the fact that our roof was made of wood shingles and would ignite very easily.  To top it off, we were right up against the hills and the wind always rushed to that spot.  And then there were the trees.  We lived in an area called the Verdugo Woodlands for the very reason that it was heavily wooded with pine trees, oaks, and other California native trees.  I didn’t want to scare the kids so I kept calm.  We called for pizza delivery and stayed home.  I watched the news coverage which was by then pre-empting regular programming.  I watched the flames through our back door.  At times they were hungrily grabbing at the night sky and at times I couldn’t see them, only their soft orange glow.  I tried to estimate how long it would take for the flames to get to our house.  Would they reach us?  Surely the fire would be put out by the time it reached us.  It was about four miles from us.  But the winds were howling, teasing the flames, making the flames reach up toward the wind and chasing it just as quickly as the wind could move.

The girls started to ask questions.  Could the entire city burn down?  What if we left to another part of the city and the fire spread all over and the whole city burned down?  It could happen, they insisted.  They started watching too.  They stopped their homework.  The shows they normally watched were not on as all the stations had picked up the live reporting about the fire.  I took Tony aside (he was almost 18 at the time) and told him to start getting the computers in the car, and the photo albums and boxes of pictures.  He was to get things into my car, discreetly so his sisters wouldn’t see, but he was also to leave room in the car for the girls and their clothes, just a few things they would take if we had to leave.  I got on the phone and called a couple of friends that lived near enough that I could send the kids there, yet far enough that the fire would not reach their homes.  What I was really afraid of was the winds.  They could easily carry embers through the air and the trees could catch fire, igniting roofs.  Being the only parent, I knew it was all up to me.  I had to make the decision.  I had to make the arrangements.  And I did.

By 9 that night, less than two hours after I had first seen the flames through the back door, the girls were packing one small tote bag with clothes and their backpack with their school things.  By 9:30 the three kids were on their way to my friend=s house in my SUV and I was at home, grabbing other things that could not be replaced.  What would I take?  I got my high school yearbooks.  I got my kids= framed baby pictures and a portrait the kids and I had taken our first year alone, without their dad.  That was our family now.  I took the things and loaded them into Tony’s small car.  That was the car I would take if and when I had to leave.  In the meantime, I would stay home and watch the live coverage and see what other things I should take.  Medicines.  Birth certificates.  My divorce documents and subsequent child custody order.  Health records.  A stack of papers I had to correct for my students.  And the Christmas gifts and treats I had all ready for my class Christmas party the next day.  And two changes of clothes.  That was all.  Nothing else was important.  Everything else could be replaced.  What could not be was not of any significance to me anyway.

Tony came back.  He was supposed to stay with the girls but he didn’t.  He said he was not leaving me alone.  He came back to wait with me or take me right away.  He also brought news that there was now only one way out of the neighborhood.  The other two arteries were blocked.  The fire department was not letting anyone in or out of the area.  So we watched and we waited.

I kept in touch with the girls by phone.  They couldn’t sleep.  They were nervous.  They were excited.  It was contagious.  Tony and I had nothing to do.  We had hosed down the roof several times.  I told him my plan was to stay as long as we could but we would have to keep an eye on the road so we wouldn’t be blocked back there.  We both knew that if one tree caught fire in our small corner of the Woodlands, the whole place would light up the sky.  However, with Tony home, I knew I would not wait as long as I would if I were alone.  We got in the car and decided to go drive and see if the roads were open.  We needed to get something to eat.  We wanted to see what we could see of the fire from the road.

The road we had to take wrapped around the hills behind us and took us over to the west side of the cluster of hills, to the other side of town.  We had moved the rest of our things from Tony’s tiny Tercel to my Pathfinder and off we went.  Just a half a mile from our home, we had climbed high enough to get a full view of the fires across the other side, the east side, of us B the original fire and the others that had started.  Tony had his video camera and took some film.  We watched for a while then we kept going over the hill.  We went to our favorite 24 hour diner for a snack and coffee.  We knew it would be a long, long night.

Around midnight we tried to go back home to see how everything was.  No luck.  All the roads were closed.  We told the Police officer that we lived back there and I showed my  I.D.  No luck.  We could not get back to our house.  That left us without a place to go; without a place to sleep.  We probably would not have gotten any sleep even if we had gotten back home.  We wandered around.  No place to go.  We drove.  We went back to the all night diner and drank a lot of coffee.  I was going to have to go to work in a few hours and I would have to be alert for my third graders.  My principal lived in the area where the fire had jumped the freeway and I had actually seen her house on the news coverage.  I wondered if her house was okay.  Was she okay…her family?  Finally, at 6:00 in the morning Tony and I headed for my school.  The gates were unlocked by then and we could get in.  I had Tony lay down on the floor, in the reading corner I had made comfortable with pillows.  I wanted him to sleep for a while before the kids started to arrive.  The reports we had watched at the diner said the fire was still on but had successfully been kept away from the heavily populated area where our home was located.  Although the roads were now open, I knew I did not want Tony to go back home.  He would be there by himself and I didn’t want him home sleeping with a fire that could rage out of control at any time.  So he dozed.  By 7:30 my friend, a teacher at the same school, arrived with my girls.  They were staying with me at school.  I knew people would understand and if they didn’t, too bad.  I was not letting them out of my sight.

By noon things had settled enough so that I knew it was safe to let Tony go home with the girls, under orders that he not leave the girls alone and that he get them out of the house if the fire kicked up again.  I also called the neighbors and asked them to keep an eye on the kids. That afternoon the kids came back for me after school.  I was never as happy to drive into my driveway as I was that day.

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