Friday, October 27, 2017
I have lived in California the majority of my life except for the four years we spent living in Ohio for my dad to get his MBA. I was born in California and raised here. I’ve seen fires burning up in the hills in the distance from my childhood home in Fairfield many times as a kid and never thought much of it. It was always the norm each Summer/Fall. Mother nature would come through and do a “little clean up”. Before we knew it, the fires were out. It would be a distant memory after just a few days.
If the fire was near Lake Berryessa, we’d all wonder if my aunt’s and uncle’s place at “Bourbon Point” (Wragg Canyon/South Shore Resort, now Pleasure Cove) would still be there the following season for water-skiing, boating and family fun with cousins and relatives. It always survived unscathed. I personally spent many a day there from the early 1970s to my last visit in 1998. The Bureau of Reclamation reclaimed the land around the lake telling people to pretty much "get out", except for day use. Now, there’s not much to burn in the way of structures around that lake. There could be a revival of resorts someday.
Now, my first involvement in seeing the results of a destructive firestorm was when I started working for a large national insurance company. They’d always say that California had its challenges with fire for sure. This was absolutely evidenced as each year passed. Some years had few fires and other years had destructive firestorms that would wipe out whole communities and also all of that collected surplus insurance premium from years gone by. For that company, yes, the premium mattered but so did their customers and, really, more so on the customer side. I will never forget the customer service philosophy as a good corporate citizen and still carry the imprint of that with me. It is people that matter and you need to have insurance. That does happen to involve money which is not everyone’s favorite topic.
With each firestorm, came hundreds of homes lost by customers, real people who lost everything in most cases. I can recall reviewing photos for hundreds of homes. It really hits home when you can see the before (when the house was first purchased or re-reviewed, and lovingly furnished with people’s belongings that show life is there) and the after. The aftermath of a fire is a gutting feeling. You see debris on a slab or concrete walled perimeter that’s about 2 feet high if you are lucky (that’s the foundation by the way) and a fireplace chimney sticking up solo in the air with no building for it to hug.
Most people don’t have basements in California but homes built into a hillside slope are not uncommon. Unique, one of a kind homes, crop up in there, too. A house called “The Wing” comes to mind. It no longer exists and was never rebuilt. It burned down and the owners walked away (with their lives) and never attempted to put it back. They couldn’t bring themselves to rebuild. It was lost in a firestorm and exists in memory. Don’t worry, they have a home elsewhere now and were good with the decision to not rebuild in the “middle of nowhere California on a hill with a view.”
Watching the fires these past weeks made me want to turn away from social media and the television. When I heard the fire had entered the urban area of Santa Rosa causing total losses of homes to an entire neighborhood, I took notice. Everything I’ve ever learned about brush fire hazard went out the door. A fire had burned into an urban area that I would not consider the “Wildland Urban Interface” or WUI. The WUI, to me, was always those housing developments on hillside slopes with native vegetation (or not so native Eucalyptus trees) and other flammable underbrush encroaching on open space. I never dreamed of it burning over a highway and into urban, flat, concrete, asphalt, and with urban landscaped neighborhoods who have .15 acre, if lucky, as their property. It’s surreal.
But, my memory bank is full of information and I could recall the “wind driven fire”, “embers in the wind”, and wind gusts that drove a fire in a place like San Bernardino County years ago. It was a memory that I’d almost forgotten about. This time in Santa Rosa, it all seems worse, much worse. The Tubbs Fire (Santa Rosa/Sonoma County) seems to have topped all fires in ferociousness. The Atlas fire complex was not much better.
I could not turn away from watching the fires (on the news and online) as I found out about people I knew impacted and some close calls. My mom was one of them. A close call in an urban grid of streets, houses, asphalt, concrete, and flat as a pancake neighborhood in Fairfield. That describes how her house is situated pretty well. There’s sidewalks, a fire hydrant on the corner and it comes with the paid fire department’s station about a mile way. It is urban suburbia in California that’s been there for over 30 years. The other side of Fairfield where I grew up has been there much longer. A week and half ago, I could hardly believe it. My mom’s home was under advisory level to evacuate. In other words, get packing a bag and be ready to leave. What?! It all seemed ridiculous to think about.
Now that the fires are very much under control, I’ve relaxed some and so has my mom. While material items should not be the most important thing in your life, a home is a bit different. Where you lay your head at night matters. People need consistency and comfort. Fire completely takes people out of being comfortable and, in some cases, takes it all away. It is stressful for sure.
As the years pass, I can’t help but wonder if it will just get worse. My husband said that one fire was burning toward Middletown, California. My rather callus response to that was that it had already burned last year. How would it burn there again? It could.
At this point, I don’t have anything magnanimous or benevolent to say. The firefighters and first responders are real people who definitely deserve our gratitude. There have been many acts of kindness. I don’t want to be the naysayer in all of this calling out that I told you so or this is going to happen again. By the way, it will happen again but I don’t have a crystal ball to tell me where and when.
There were a few shocking revelations (and not so shocking) for me this go around as I was just watching it unfold online. Global warming – yes. People encroaching on the wildlands – yes. Lack of good communication – yes. Lack of defensible space – probably. That list can go on and on. This type of situation can change the world or we can go back to complacency. I just don’t know but I do know that I’ll be staying put in California for now.