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.