Frenzy in the Mind: What It’s Like to Evacuate During a California Wildfire

 

Kincaid fire
Burned car from Kincade Fire, Sonoma County, California. October 30, 2019. Photo by Alvin Jornada.

 

The landscape is in flames. The Kincade Fire started on October 23rd in Northern California and grew to thousands of acres within 36 hours. On Saturday, October 26th, our town — Forestville — became one of the Evacuation Warning areas.

I knew it was time to leave. Bill resisted at first. It’s a natural reaction. There was no smoke; no visible fire. We were in the comfort of our home. 

But gale force winds were predicted. They’re known as the Diablo Winds and they show up every autumn. If they blew toward the West, we would be in trouble. Where we live is heavily wooded. It’s our dry season; we haven’t had any rain since May.

The Kincade Fire would become the largest in Sonoma County history, covering more than 120 square miles. 76,825 acres would ultimately be destroyed. Within hours, our town would be placed on the Mandatory Evacuation list.

But these details weren’t known to us as we started to figure out what we were taking with us.

The initial items are easy:  passports, our daily medicines, the cash we keep in the house, our laptops and cell phones.

But then we had to face more difficult decisions. We opened suitcases on the bed. As Bill packed a few things, I went into the back bedroom and stood in the center of the room. I thought about the photographs from my childhood, the ones that aren’t digital or scanned into our computers. Should I try to locate all those boxes?

Should I load my iMac? I looked in the closet. Should I bring the jackets and dress shirts I wear to teach?

Kincade fire Saturday
The fires burning near The Geysers, 35 minutes from our house as we prepared to evacuate on October 26, 2019. Photo by Kent Porter.

And then I felt as if I split into two people. One of them, let’s call him Bart One, imagined that we’d never return and our house would burn to the ground. He tried to imagine: which of our belongings are worth taking? What could never be replaced?

I thought about the sentimental things, a stuffed dog my grandmother sewed for me when I was just a boy. It’s made with quilting blocks of black and white fabric.

I looked at a large kidney-shaped rock I picked up from a roadbed on land where my father ran cattle when I was eight years old. That road had been the main thoroughfare through my hometown before a paved street was built in 1930, long before I was born.

Oddly, I slept with that rock in my bed for years when I was a child. I loved how cool it felt at night during those hot Texas summers, and its warmth in the morning when I woke up.

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I turn 58 years old tomorrow. I’ve had this rock for 50 years. It has moved with me to every place I’ve lived since leaving home when I was eighteen. I keep it on a small table near my bed.

The other part of me — Bart Two, the pragmatic one — insisted that we only had a short while to gather things. There was no time to become emotional or focused on what might prevent us from leaving quickly. Our house is at the top of a hill and the road down is narrow. It empties onto a two-lane road that goes for miles before there’s a highway.

And it’s this splitting-off that I’ve been wondering about. I’ve had plenty of time for thinking because we’ve gone six days without electricity. The northern, western and central part of the county have been shut down and/or evacuated. A cold spell hit day before yesterday and the temperatures dropped to nearly freezing. Our house has been dark and icy cold.

These “two Barts” wrestled with the same question: what in our lives is worth anything?

Bart One seemed to think this question could be answered by rescuing emotional items, primarily ones from my childhood. Bart Two — the Practical Captain — dismissed these concerns and only wanted to get ourselves packed and out the door.

Bart Two won.

In the space of a single hour, we made arrangements to stay with friends in San Rafael, in a county south of Sonoma. Bill and I packed a couple suitcases plus another bag. We closed up the house, put the dog in the car, and made our way down our driveway.

Of course I looked back at our house, the place we’ve lived for more than 20 years. Would I see it again?

In the intensity of the moment I wouldn’t allow myself to become emotional or to say goodbye. To do so felt as if I was inviting disaster. We needed to leave and trust that we would return safely.

Perhaps this Splitting-Off is a common reaction. One part of me felt as if everything we owned was important.

The other felt as if nothing was important. That was the thought that surprised me the most. Somehow our things — our stuff (no matter how long we’d had them) seemed inconsequential. 

Those pre-evacuation moments were extraordinary because those ideas were happening at the same time, as if they were standing toe-to-toe in my head, fighting for dominance: nothing is worth saving; everything is worth taking. 

Though the fires won’t be fully contained and put out for another few days, the crisis has passed. Maybe nothing is worth saving. I have every memory locked in my head. I don’t need things to recall that stuffed dog — or that rock — in complete detail.

And of course everything is worth taking. Those objects are the touchstones of our lives.

Last night, I brought that rock to bed with me for the first time as an adult. A flood of memories came back when I felt its cold surface against my belly. It was strangely comforting.

9 thoughts on “Frenzy in the Mind: What It’s Like to Evacuate During a California Wildfire

  1. Hi Bart,
    You express it so well. I feel a little of this every time we leave town this time of year. What will we find when we come back? Hope you and Bill are well, Bart. I miss your class.

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  2. Bart, so glad you are all safe from the fires. I always enjoy reading your posts, you have such a creative way of making me feel like I’m with you on your adventures. Looking forward to reading more stories.
    Stay safe,
    Kim

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  3. Oh, this is beautiful writing, Bart! Of course I am so glad the crisis passed and your home was safe (though terribly cold!), but what strikes me even more is how you have captured both your recent trauma and your memories so beautifully for us here. Bravo.

    And thank you very much. I will be thinking about this one for a while—I can tell.

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  4. Hello, Bart. It’s Euline. I totally can relate to the “two” Barts! Of course, your words expressed my feelings eloquently and viscerally. Yes, “nothing is worth saving, everything is worth taking”!
    I am sitting in my office (yes, I have an office now-as the new director of the Mendocino-Lake Adult and Career education Consortium which I assumed on October 1st) and reading your blog.
    Sending my hugs to you! I missed seeing your pressed white-starched-shirt and-blue -denim jeans-clad self walking down the Faculty Office hallway.

    Take care, Bart.
    Euline

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  5. So good to get a Bart post once again, and in such a profound moment. I have a bit of survivor’s guilt because I never lost power at my house, never had an evacuation order. Same was true in 2017. My home is three blocks from the Sonoma County Fairgrounds evacuation shelter and staging camp for the firefighters. This fact, no planning on my part, is what has saved me from inconvenience and trauma (but not from stress and worry). For the first time in many years, I got down on my knees last Saturday to express profound thanks for my good fortune. Sebastopol-dwelling friends had called me from gridlock on 101–I could not have gone to my daughter’s house in the east bay anyway because of another fire near the Carquinez bridge. On Tuesday, PBS’s Frontline did an amazing hour on the Camp Fire that destroyed Paradise last year. The story was told very personally by the people in charge. Although it was hard to watch, it was also a lesson and warning. We are not equipped; the roads are not adequate for our escape. We have so many choices to make and we need to make them, like Practical Bart did, in spite of our emotions and attachments. So glad you and Bill are back; so glad we are safe, for now.

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  6. Oh dear brother, I was so hoping these were staying away from you all, but sooooo happy that you and Bill and pup are all safe. Nothing matters but that. Greetings and belated birthday from Roma!

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  7. Bart, I am thinking of and praying for you and Bill. I am so glad the worst of the Kincade fire has passed and you are back in your home. You are still the best English professor I’ve ever had, and I think of your Critical Thinking with Literature class often!

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