Returning to Sonoma County After the Fire

I recently returned to Sonoma County, California about six months after wildfires ravaged some 5,500 buildings and homes. I was apprehensive. Sonoma County was home for my young children and me for ten years. My son was born at Kaiser Hospital in Santa Rosa and my kids went to elementary school at San Miguel in Larkfield. I owned a business for several years, just a stone’s throw from Coffey Park, a neighborhood flattened by the fire. My friends lived in a spectacular home on a hillside in Fountain Grove that was completely destroyed by the fire. To say I was apprehensive is an understatement.

I expected that once I hit the Sonoma County line that all signs of life would be gone. But many towns, from Petaluma to Rohnert Park, were just fine. It’s almost as if nothing had really happened. The scars from the fire aren’t readily apparent for the most part. You must seek out the damage or listen to the stories.

This is what I found:

Displaced.  With the loss of 5,500 structures, there were a bunch of families temporarily or permanently displaced. As a real estate friend reported, there was very little real estate inventory available. Anything that was for sale at the time was either rented out or sold. The loss of thousands of homes caused thousands of families to be in limbo. Many have left. There are those there temporarily to help remove debris and rebuild homes, living in trailers at the county fairground or RVs at local campgrounds. It feels like 20% of the folks are temporary. In transit. Either here for a bit, moved to temporary housing or just given up and left. It was mind boggling to consider the repercussions from that perspective. Just a couple of examples of some of the fallout are teachers given pink slips due to the lack of enrollments as families move on and countless folks untethered from their homes.

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Disoriented.  My friend Heidi took me for a drive through the decimated Fountain Grove neighborhood. She pointed to the area where a favorite restaurant once stood called “Sweet T’s”. It’s strange to have that visceral memory when nothing is there. Outside of a house or two and stop signs and street signs, I had absolutely no idea where I was. A beautiful home on a manicured lawn randomly unscathed by the fire surrounded by hundreds of homes lost. One random survivor. There were no reference points. I could not have found my way. Heidi and several friends reported that they were lost the first few times they drove through. Here once stood a lovely neighborhood with folks walking their dogs and riding their bikes. Now it was completely absent of any reference points. All gone in a matter of hours.

Debris.  There is not much that survives a fire. Heidi told me that a pizza stone was found in her home, along with a metal cross and cast-iron skillet or two.  I figured she could at least use the pizza stone. Not so fast. The amount of chemicals and byproducts that are melted or coated on, or dispersed into the atmosphere, are incalculable. So even if you find something as sturdy as a pizza stone, it’s still debris. There were countless trucks hauling off debris everywhere. All day. Carting off what is now unusable. Most things are unrecognizable. No resemblance to their former glory. I looked down on the pad that once had a hot tub; there was nothing left but slate and concrete.

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Disassembled.  My displaced friends are now in a beautiful rental home some 15 miles from their vanished home. Most everything in their home is there from a rental company. Furniture, sheets, cups and knickknacks. The personal touches of who they were are no longer represented in the same way. All their belongings, gone up in smoke. All their photos on the hard drive of the computer left behind as they fled the fire. Friends have sent pictures of bygone days; something to bring back the memories of what once was. New paintings of pets now hang in the kitchen. This is quite the opposite of my digging through hundreds of items from my recent empty nest and return from the rebuilding post-Hurricane Matthew. All the items, all the memories from a saxophone, to old paint cans and my parent’s video tapes. At least I have something to sort through. I had a choice in what I wanted to discard. They didn’t.

Detached. There is a freedom in detachment. You realize that you don’t need to stay where you are. Especially now that it’s all gone. Why not move on? I remember seeing the first lot for sale on my friend’s block. Wow, I thought. They are giving up. But are they really? Perhaps they are just detaching from the expectation that they must rebuild. They must return. They are set free to move on even if they felt as if they didn’t have a choice. I cannot sit here and judge someone else’s difficult decision. I can see that moving on has a tremendous upside. This thought has stuck with me: Don’t wait for a fire to help you detach from what you’re holding onto and the subsequent beliefs.

The collateral damage from the fire has been enormous. People having to put their pets down who were irreparably traumatized from the experience. Lives lost as they slept through the fire. Jobs lost as victims leave the county. Undrinkable water from plastic pipes melted. Landmarks like the Round Barn burned to ash. In spite of and perhaps because of the displacement, disorientation, and detachment the residents of Sonoma County have faced, the end result was relationships strengthened, appreciation for lives saved, cherished memories and the hope of what is to come.

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