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Staying safe from wildfires

“Wow, it’s so windy tonight. Come to the window. It almost feels like a warm, tropical breeze. It smells like a campfire.”

This should have been our first sign.

On the night of Sunday, Oct. 8, my boyfriend and I remarked on the peculiar weather, shrugged it off, then drifted into a blissful sleep in our cozy and secure Petaluma home. Fifteen miles away, a hellish nightmare was unfolding.

Sonoma and Napa counties witnessed relentless devastation for weeks after that Sunday night, as multiple fires culminated into a ravaging firestorm. We counted down each day until the fires were contained. It took 22 days. Twenty-two days, 43 people dead, 9,000 structures destroyed in what Cal Fire announced as the most destructive wildfire in California history.

As the fires wreaked havoc on more than 150,000 acres across the North Bay, with near 50 mph wind gusts propelling the flames at an alarming rate, we sat at home. Each hour was marked by confusion and dread as the fires spread quicker than information. Friends and colleagues were losing their homes one-by-one. Thousands huddled helplessly in evacuation centers, fearing the worst. And all we could do was wait.

Officials urged all county residents to sign up for Nixle, a notification service providing updates from local police departments. During the first week, Nixle alerts went off on our phones every 10 minutes, sparking terror in our hearts with each ding. Dozens of mandatory evacuations, numerous road closures, evacuation center updates, fire status updates, missing people notices, lists of the dead - it was overwhelming. We could barely sleep.

Petaluma residents were notified to prepare for potential evacuation, but to remain in our homes until the order was given to keep the streets clear for first responders. We filled my boyfriend’s car with a random assortment of essentials and personal belongings - a few favorite articles of clothing, non-perishable foods, a dog bed, medical records, Polaroids, love notes.

It was all so surreal. During the peak of uncertainty and fear, when there was no containment of the fires, we thought we were next. The fires were all around us - with the blazes to the north in Santa Rosa, to the east in Napa and to the south on Highway 37. We sat in our room, constantly checking the news, planning our escape route, waiting for an evacuation notice that never came.

Some say Petaluma was spared because the geography of the place made it just out of the flame’s reach. Others maintain the firefighters were able to fight the blazes enough so they didn’t cross the Petaluma border. Most claim Petaluma was just lucky.

After the ash settled and we were assured of our safety, the survivor’s guilt set in. So many innocent lives lost, so many homes and notable structures destroyed, and I was completely fine. I was happy that my family and home were safe, but I felt guilty for that happiness. I donated money and clothes to friends and strangers, but it will never feel like enough.

I’ll always appreciate that I was safe during this time of immense loss and sorrow, but I’ll never be oblivious to a warm, windy, campfire-smelling night in October.

(Maci Lee Martell, was editor-in-chief of the Santa Rosa Junior College Oak Leaf newspaper. She is a Petaluma resident and a San Francisco State University journalism major.)

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