My daughter has asked me to “tell the story of the night of the fires” hundreds of times. Not sure why. Maybe she takes comfort in the before and after.
I am no stranger to gale force winds. I grew up knowing what heavy winds are all about. Hurricane season and Nor’easters were a regular part of East coast beach town weather patterns and my family’s life. I can still shudder thinking about the two-block walk to my childhood home’s front porch in the winter straight into the easterly wind off of the ocean from where the bus left me off. The Northern California winds that picked up during the later evening hours of October 8, 2017 were strangely familiar and intense, but with one huge difference. The winds that hurled into Sonoma County were bone dry.
Our family visited with friends for dinner. It was a terrific fall afternoon that leisurely made its way to nightfall. We all sat outside, ate and drank with our kids playing and running around. After a great time, we went in the house to help tidy up and collect our things to go home. It was Sunday, a school night. As we headed out, we all commented on the wind. My husband, Rocky, hollered at me. “Get in the truck!” My reaction was, what the heck is wrong with him?! But, once we got in, I could see what was worrying him. The power lines were swinging and arching overhead, uncomfortably quick and high. He was concerned one was going to break free and land either on us or in front of us. We sped home and made our way in the house.
Our daughter, Aurora, was over-stimulated to say the least. And the wind was understandably disconcerting to her. It took some doing but she went to sleep. We went to bed not too long after and watched a video on my iPad. Totally restless too, I think we both sort of slept, but in and out. I couldn’t help looking out the windows from our bed. The trees looked like the palms you see on The Weather Channel during a tropical storm coming in through Florida. At one point, I was sure I saw one of my daughter’s flip-flops caught up in a mini wind tunnel.
The phone rang sometime after 11:00 pm. Our friend Sarah called to let us know there was fire glow on the horizon, and wanted to know if we could see it more clearly since we were closer. Rocky got in his truck to try to find out what was going on. I got out the candles. At this point the thought of leaving seemed like overkill to me. The power was still on. I went to the front window and saw the orange glow. I stood looking for Rocky’s truck to pull back in the driveway. Another neighbor’s truck went by, seemingly to see what was up too. Some worry crept in.
When Rocky came back he said there was a huge fire rolling through Kenwood just a few blocks away. He also said we needed to get some things together and be prepared to leave as he put his laptop and camera by the front door. We went through a quick list of people I would call to make sure they were awake. Most friends I left messages for. He was off and running again to go wake up our neighbor’s directly across the street. I saw the lights go on and them teetering around. They are in their eighties and do not do anything quickly. I couldn’t stop thinking about other family friends we had in the general area as I lit the candles and quickly gathered some things. Rocky called Sarah back to let her know we were packing up to be ready to go, and they should do the same.
The power went out, but I had lit the candles. I pulled out the lockbox with important papers and some flash drives. The box was a wedding gift from my very practical father. Otherwise I’m not sure they would have all been together. I then went back and got my laptop, iPad, and bag with wallet and glasses before heading into Aurora’s room to grab her a spare outfit. Deacon, our one in a million dog, was on the floor at the foot of her bed. A notable first. As much as he loves her, he always slept on his own bed in his own happy corner of the house. He knew something was different, and the visual of him near her would be a continuous theme during our time away from Kenwood. I whispered in her ear that I needed to get her dressed and that we might need to leave. She was annoyed, but let me wrestle her into clothes. She fell back asleep.
I pulled on a sweatshirt and changed from boxer shorts to a pair of yoga pants. Didn’t even think to put on underwear or a bra. I met my husband at the door. He went to get my car keys off of their hook. They weren’t there. Seriously? I couldn’t find them anywhere. Thankfully there was an easy to find spare. “OK, we have to go.” Rocky said. “You get Deacon. I’ll get Aurora, then the stuff. Once I do, you pull in across the street to load up Skip and Bev. I’m going to make sure people are awake down the street. And, I’ll meet you at the strawberry field. There aren’t any trees there.” I didn’t freak out, but my heart was definitely racing. I have always been able to focus and stay clear-headed when I have to. And, there is no question Rocky is the guy you want around in a time of a crisis. He is a force to be reckoned with and takes charge without even needing to ask. It’s one of the qualities I love the most about him. It can also drive me a little crazy, but tonight, I was glad for the clearly identified path, and knew there was no arguing with him. That was the plan.
Aurora was very upset, but followed direction. We got the eighty-somethings and their necessities loaded up. I sat with my hands on the wheel, took a deep breath, and gave Rocky a kiss through my window. I needed a second’s pause. Cars of our neighbors were passing by. A sheriff’s car turned the corner, bullhorn bellowing, “This is a mandatory evacuation.” I remember very clearly putting my foot on the brake and shifting the car into drive. I pulled out, turned a few corners and made our way up to Highway 12 and the strawberry field. It was a good idea, but no surprise the chains that are always there after hours were across the driveways. Now what?
I pulled in and around in the Kunde Family driveway and tried to call Rocky. No answer. All eyes were on me. Aurora steadily and quietly sobbing, but Bev holding her hand. It was either go right or left. Right into Santa Rosa or left into Sonoma, fire glow visible in both directions. I will never be sure why, but I chose left. When we went by Beltane Ranch there was fire on both sides of 12. Aurora knew where we were and whimpered, “Mommy that’s where Carlos’s house is. I hope he and Drakey are OK.” There was no way of telling what was burning, the smoke had completely engulfed the property. I just kept driving.
A text from Sarah’s husband said, “we are in Sonoma and all are welcome”. I replied with the rundown of who was in my car and “are you sure”. “Yes”. That was all I needed. We had a destination. Rocky called and I texted him the address. When we arrived, Deacon was allowed in without a blink and we all found spots. Aurora needed some serious soothing to get back to sleep. Deacon curled next to the couch, keeping watch on his girl. The television was on in the other room. Everyone huddled and eyes were glued. There were continuous headshakes and small gasps. As the night progressed we learned there were more than just our fires. Sonoma and Napa counties were ablaze in so many locations. New evacuations kept being posted. Would this area in Sonoma be next?
The texts came in throughout the night and early morning hours. Gratefully, fairly early on we learned that the guests and kids made it off the ranch at Beltane while others stayed to fight the fire, and that most of the historic buildings had been spared. But, the damage was extensive and they were still hard at work. Friends were all reporting in on where they were. Some already knew their homes were lost. Then there were the rumors. Chateau St. Jean was gone, the Kenwood gas station had blown up, and the elementary school, which is a block from our home, was on fire. Rocky said he needed to go back and check things out in Kenwood. I knew he would be smart. He had been a fire fighter. I also knew he wouldn’t leave again, unless he absolutely had to. And, he didn’t. He felt like he had a bigger job to do in town and I respected that, but I had resentment for being separated. All decisions about what to do outside of our home were now mine.
Our hosts could not have been more gracious. We invaded their home. Yet, I watched the grandfather walk with his cane to steal away for a little while and fall asleep sitting up in a chair. He gave up his bed, all beds, and the couches to guests. They went out early in the morning to get coffees and made us all breakfast. They genuinely meant it when they said we could stay as long as we needed to, but I knew we had to go. If the fires kept coming, I did not want to be sitting on Broadway waiting to get out of Sonoma. I talked to Skip and Bev and told them my plan was to go stay with my cousin and her family in Oakland. I suggested they choose if they wanted to go to Petaluma or San Rafael to be with their family. I would drive them there on our way to the east bay. Decision made and it felt right. We were in my car within the hour.
Skip treated us to In-N-Out. I brought them to where they belonged with family, and me and my most precious cargo, Aurora and Deacon, were back on the road. For the majority of the ten days we were evacuated we were in Oakland. Another almost indescribable level of gratitude goes to my family (and Rocky’s in Santa Cruz) who opened up their home, hearts, and refrigerators to us. Ten days of Target runs for clothes and toiletries, way more screen time than I ever allow, filling up our days with activities that should have been fun, but weren’t, and wondering about Daddy. We talked to him occasionally, but not as often as we would have liked.
We were all on high alert. For me it was emotionally consuming. Keeping it together for a very confused and sad 5-year old while I had my own inner turmoil was taxing. I have never been so conflicted and had a very short fuse. I was immeasurably proud of Rocky for helping to save a friend’s home in neighboring Glen Ellen, doing what needed to be done in Kenwood, including clearing debris and watering down many yards and roofs, working tirelessly in the schoolyard, feeding our neighbor’s chickens and the bunny locked in the hutch at school. Priority number one for him was the school. He knew if the school went that would be a devastating blow to the kids and our entire community. I was happy he had gone back and had the opportunity to gather some more of our belongings. I knew he would leave if the fire got too close. And I was OK knowing we had our most important material possessions, but that felt less and less important with each passing day. I had waves of anger. Angry for being the one who had to manage it all, listen to her cry in her sleep, and explain sometimes hourly why he wasn’t with us. But, in the end, I know we all did exactly what we should have done during that time.
Nine days later the mandatory evacuation from our neighborhood was lifted. With the fires still visible up the street on the hills we decided to give it one more night. I drove us back to Kenwood the next afternoon. So much had changed in the landscape and we hadn’t even gone through some of the worst areas. There was still police presence all over, even an armored car and fatigue-clad officer standing guard into one of the neighborhoods a few blocks from us. When we were reunited, there were tears and kisses, and the biggest group hug our little unit has ever had.
The next day, Thursday, October 19 was my birthday. We were home. I found my keys on the coffee table. Right where Aurora had left them after she made me a new key chain. The wind was gone, and even though it was only a light sprinkling, it rained.