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JJ SAYS: When bad things happen, we are not alone.


This time it was personal.

Flooding in Texas, a hurricane in Florida, devastation in Puerto Rico, a shooting massacre in Las Vegas — horrific events that shook the nation. For us here in Sonoma County, it was pretty much abstract as we watched on television, felt sympathy for the victims and rallied to send aid.

This week’s firestorm that blazed across Northern California, leaving a wake of death and destruction, was different. It happened in our home, where we live, work and play. The numbers are telling — at least 16 dead, more than 2,000 structures destroyed, tens of thousands forced to evacuate, fire spread over at least 50 square miles — and growing.

For me, the number that really matters is five. That is the number of my immediate family that was left homeless within the space of about two hours.

I chronicle my family’s story not to appeal for sympathy or pity. After all, there are at least 2,000 other families who are left in the same situation. All have different stories, and yet the underlying story is the same — it is one of almost instant chaos, confusion, frustration, overwhelming sense of loss and redemption through the love and generosity of others.

I write our story because it is the one I know, and for two significant reasons.

One is to let people know how it really feels, smells and even tastes like to be powerless as your world suddenly collapses around you.

I also want people who went through the same gut-cramping experience to know that they are not alone, that there are some who truly know their pain and that there are others who help in so many significant ways, from housing to coffee to hugs.

My misadventure began at 1:30 Monday morning when a 4-foot, 11-inch dynamo stuck her head through my unlocked front door looking for compassion, understanding and shelter from her big brother.

I was quick to supply both understanding and hot coffee to sister Virginia Butler; her husband, Perry, and adult son, Michael.

They told a harrowing story of escaping from their home on Lambert Avenue off Mark West Springs Road just minutes before flames swept down their street.

Little did they know their travails were just beginning.

As Virginia and I discussed such trivial matters as sleeping arrangements, Perry stepped outside to watch the rapidly reddening sky. A few minutes later came a shout — “We have to leave — Now!”

Outside, burning embers were beginning to rain from the sky.

I pulled on a pair of shoes, unplugged everything electrical, hopped in my brother-in-law’s truck and, followed by Michael in his truck, joined the exodus from the senior park where I lived. Not thinking clearly, and not wanting to add another vehicle to the creeping line, I left my car securely encased in my garage. I’m not sure if it was a senior moment, panic or just plain stupidity, but it was wrong.

Fleeing with no specific plan or direction, we eventually spent the remainder of the night in an industrial park parking lot, the result of a tip from a friend of a friend who knew somebody. A kindly unit owner opened his shop so that we might have access to bathroom facilities, an important but too often overlooked until too late, facility.

We spent a long night watching the red glow and flickering flames of fires from all directions that seemed to surround the entire city. We had an excellent view of the entire hill as fire slowly ate up Fountaingrove.

Typical of how the mind works in an emergency, I had no coat and my brother-in-law had only house slippers with no socks. I spent the night sharing a coat with my nephew, alternately shivering and warming, and it wasn’t until Tuesday that Perry was able to get socks and real shoes.

Come daylight, the first order of business was to get coffee. By now, we had been joined by my niece, Heather, who had waited out the long night with a friend in Petaluma, creating a great deal of anxiety and even more phone calls and text messages.

Now whole as a family, we started out to access our particular damage. Using the local knowledge of all of us combined, we were able to snake our way back to my mobile home park and were amazed to be told we could walk in, but no vehicles.

It was about a quarter-mile walk to the street where I lived, and I was heartened as we strolled along to note that most of the homes looked untouched, but as we approached my street, I could see whisps of white smoke drifting around the corner, and my stomach and heart joined. We rounded the corner and both stomach and heart dropped into my socks.

All but a few of the homes on my side of the street were shovel ready for the dumpster — nothing but a few large appliances like a refrigerator, stove, washer, dryer and my car (no longer covered by a garage) were visible. The smell of foul smoke permeated the air. It is a sight and a feeling that all too many families have experienced. They all feel my pain and I understand their pain.

As I write this, my sister and her family have not seen their home, but it has been confirmed that their house, patio, trailer and all worldly possessions are gone. What remains for them and for far, far too many others, are the memories and the love they shared in that home. In the few short days since the fire, I and my family have been deluged with kindness and support — everything from places to stay to socks, condolences and more than a few hugs.

We, like thousands of others, will rebuild, not only our homes, but also our lives, now made richer by the generosity and love of others, along with the knowledge that when bad things happen, we are not alone.

(Contact John Jackson at johnie,jackson@arguscourier.com)