I was driving the other day with my son and noticed a new area that had been damaged by the fires. I hadn’t noticed it before.
I turned to him and said, “What we just went through was really awful. Horrible.”
“Yeah, it was.”
After been evacuated for two weeks, much of it not knowing if our house was even standing, then coming home and dealing with lack of electricity, the smells, the damage, AT&T (a corporation that deserves some kind of award for being the best example of what is truly awful about our culture and country right now) and just getting back to “normal” as soon as possible, there hasn’t been a lot of reflection. The end of the year, and now the tragedies of the fires in Southern California give me pause.
I think of a fire as something horrible that happens. It occurs. You’re lucky. Or you’re not, but it happens and you go back and try and pick up the pieces. Previously we’ve had fires much less serious and teams of firefighters swarmed my mountain and fixed things. This was different. I got calls throughout the night. I was evacuated by a neighbor pounding on my door at 6 in the morning and I felt if we could get past this day, we’d be OK. But this day led to another day and the next thing you know, we can’t get back home. But the fire maps and news reports seemed to indicate my place was safe. Until they didn’t. Then someone would report that they snuck up the mountain and saw my place standing. And then a fireman would say it was pretty rough in my neighborhood and to be prepared for the worst. This went on for two weeks.
My dreams were of dinner parties. My friends and family were all gathered around my dining room table. I could feel the plates. I felt the knobs on my old stove. I chopped onions and I brought out platter after platter of food. Then I would hear the crackling of the fire outside and suddenly wake up. This was night after night while I was evacuated.
There was a check point at the bottom of Mount Veeder and neighbors would swap stories about their experiences and share information, which was very slow in coming. There were lawn chairs and drinks and a California Highway patrolman was like the host, giving sympathy and information as he could. I wish I’d take down his name to thank him. Once I saw a big old Trans Am pull up to the police barricade and an older gal in short shorts and her daughter, also dressed for the beach, got out and handed the officer a stack of what must have been 12 pizza boxes. They just bought the pizzas and thought they would help. A CalFire truck pulled up and gratefully accepted them and rushed up the hill and the women went back into their cars and left. I burst out crying. I was touched by a true random act of kindness in scary and ugly times.
We were lucky enough to stay in a very nice house in Downtown Napa as we tried to figure out what to do but I’ll never forget the awful smells and heavy air, combined with the thick haze and constant sirens. To call it a war zone would cheapen the experience of going through a war but it was surely a state of emergency.
On my mountain, a fire fighter died bringing water up. On my first ride home after the evacuation had been lifted, there was a makeshift altar in his honor. As I slowly drove up the steep grade, I saw that there was a line of 6 or 7 people waiting silently to pay their respects. One at a time they’d lower their heads at the cross with his name on it, maybe somehow trying to thank him for his service.
I went to Walmart to buy drinks for the crews and the neighbors who were waiting at the bottom of the hill. It was the closest store and I have to be honest, my inner snob really dislikes this store. It was amazing walking around. I saw crews from all over the state and the country. Firefighters with names of towns I’d barely heard of were shopping in Walmart. I wanted to run up to them and tell them we had much better places to shop and then I caught myself. I randomly thanked them instead.
Everyone reacts to this kind of thing differently but I found it very off-putting when some factions were urging people to come visit Napa, before all the fires were out and before we’d buried our dead. People died. It was serious. People with vacation rentals suffered but it felt inappropriate to ask people to come as tourists when the air was so bad that the schools were still closed and we were mostly wearing masks to breathe.
Happily, our damage was not to our home. “Normal” is back, except then the wind shifts in a certain direction, but I have my friends and family around my table and it’s for real and it’s something I’ll never take for granted again.