Updated: Oct 9
Today marks six years since the Sonoma County fires burned through our neighborhoods. Six years later in 2023 the re-building is still happening all over the county. Today I drove through the Round Barn/Fountaingrove area and most of the buildings are not yet complete. In Coffey Park, where I take long walks daily, I'd estimate a good 80% of the 1360 homes that burned to the ground are rebuilt and occupied. But there are also some properties that seem to be at a standstill. Whether the owners' insurance companies are dragging their feet or the owner has not yet decided to build again. Their lots look abandoned and all that remains is rubble. Some residents have moved away and seemingly left the rebuilding of what once was their family home. Whatever the case, the intense emotions connected with this day will be unforgettable for me and so many others around Northern California. Therefore, today, October 9, 2017, I pay homage to those who lost loved ones and their homes in those fires. This re post is dedicated to two of my dear friends that lost not only their homes in the Tubbs Fire but indirectly by the stress that the fires caused, eventually lost them their lives. To Maria and Amanda, you will forever be loved and missed by so many. You will never be forgotten. And you will both be forever in my heart ❤️.
The following was written during that time...
On October the 9th in the wee hours of the morning, Sonoma County was on fire. A fire that began then, and lasted for the next 9 days. The worst, and hottest fire in California history, burning not only things above ground but so hot, so intense, it burned down through the roots of trees. Losing 42 lives, 8,800 structures, burned through four counties, and 245,000 acres. There are many thousands of different accounts of the Wildfires on October 9, 2017...
this is mine.
'Twas 4am, in Alameda on the 9th, I was not at home on the night the fires began. I'm awoken by the weird warmth outside and the thick smoky odor in the air. We thought the building we were sleeping in was on fire. Upon checking outside and the building we were in, seeing that all seemed fine and nothing alarming was in our sights, we turned on the television news. I stand before the TV, in the living room, in Alameda and on the screen in front of me I see the banner at the bottom of the screen that said, "Coffey Park, Santa Rosa on fire." My neighborhood, 67 miles away, was in flames. It was burning down before me and there was nothing I could do. First thing I thought of was the people I love that live there, second thing I thought of was my photos, my paintings, my external drives, especially those of Tom Petty who I shot just weeks ago, before his death last week. The thoughts of my paintings, art studio and mortgage/insurance papers going up in the flames. I dropped to the floor in disbelief, and despair, in tears... and there was absolutely nothing I could do about any of it. I picked up my phone and saw that I had received twelve calls from my dear friend and neighbor, Amanda...worried as she passed my dark house whilst escaping the flames. She was calling to make sure I was also leaving, unaware I had not slept home that night.
Within a couple hours we decided to drive north and see if I still had a home. Being a big believer in staying out of emergency vehicles way, after surviving two major earthquakes, I fought internally about this decision, but I simply had to find out if my home was still standing.
Approaching Santa Rosa I saw Olivers market opened for limited entry. People standing in a queue to get in. I went in, grabbed a box of PG Tips English tea and got in my car. I sat in the car park for a minute not even knowing what I just subconsciously did. A Brit would understand...but what dawned on me in that moment is, in a heightened emotional state, is that Brits have this weird feeling that a cuppa would calm all. And thats simply what I did...felt like a cuppa tea would calm all and make this heightened emotional state feel better. After living in Britain for nearly 25 years I was obviously going on autopilot.
As I was nearing my home, I pulled to the side of the road to gather my thoughts and emotions of what I was more than likely about to see - the ashes of my house and my neighborhood. Then started up the car and chanted to myself..."OK, whatever I see, I must be a 'big girl' and accept, deal and cope with this twist that life is now handing me."
Whilst approaching Coffey Lane, I see roadblocks, so I took a detour through a nearby car park knowing there was another exit dropping me in the road after the blocks, and took it. As I drove up Coffey Lane, I can see fires still burning, ashes, wires down everywhere and sheer chaos. I pretty much knew at that point my house too, was now just a pile of ash. I turned the corner into my little road where just yesterday, 7 houses stood. As I got round the bend, I saw my house, standing!!! My first thought was hysteria and disbelief. Knowing this just couldn't be true, convinced that a lifetime of drug experimentation went awry and the hallucination that I see before me was the product of my psychedelic ingesting early years. After I finished my personal moments alone in the car with my house and four others on my street in plain sight, and two at the end of my road in flames, I went to touch my front door. As I walked the few steps to my door I was still in disbelief of what I think I was seeing before me...but realistically knowing that from the devastation all around me, including two of the homes still in flames smoldering on my little road, I knew that my brain was just playing a trick on me until I got to the door, touched the wood, put the key in and opened it to see my home, in tact, and smokey. Opened the door to my front room, where my drum kit sits. I ran in knowing that this condition may change any second and was advised by one of the firefighters if my house is standing, and am able to I get in, to get what I want, in no more than five minutes and get the hell out as it may explode or the wind may pick up and change direction and my house may still go down. So I ran in, grabbed photos of my children, and deceased parents, external drives, my laptop, insurance/mortgage papers and started my five minute runs to the car. Second trip in was as many paintings as I can grab off the walls without the need of a ladder.
I then saw two guys walking down my street, I shouted to them asking if they would help me turn off my gas. We ran in to find tools to do this...all in a panicked state to get out as they reinforced the orders to leave asap before it blows. After thanking them profusely we all left the neighborhood and I hoped that next time I go back my house would still be there. The following days were very touch and go for my home and I was not allowed back due to all the explosive elements and flames remaining for days. Four weeks later, on a visit to my house, I saw a guy parked outside. He introduced himself as Enrique, one of the guys that helped me turn off my gas. He showed me where his home was, just diagonal from mine. Now being a big pile of ash. He came to get a few bricks that were some of the few remaining things in tact. He lost everything else and is now living in a trailer with his wife a few blocks away.
A couple days after my neighborhood burned down, a friend sent me a video shot by a fire fighter, Mike Shuken, from Berkeley Fire Station No. 6. Along with his crew into Santa Rosa that night, Mike, shot a video on his phone, and my friend thought it may include my house. Panning their journey to rendezvous with the other trucks at the Kmart car park. When they got there Kmart was already burnt down. So they drove on into Coffey Park to see what they could save from the flames. The video began panning down Hopper from the Kmart. They drove west down Hopper towards Coffey Lane, no structures remained, and then went southbound panning Coffey Lane, also showing complete devastation. Their conversation in the video was that of their plight to find a structure still standing to save...they then saw my little road, with only the end two houses burning. They parked in my road and started doing what they do. Mike put the phone in his pocket at the seven and a half minute point and chain-sawed a fence to make a fire line to save these few still remaining homes. That fence was mine. Watching this video was both gut wrenching and elating, very emotional indeed. At minute eight he panned the homes behind mine, in ashes. One, was my dear friend Marias home. She and her housemate are musicians. They had many collectable instruments, and music memorabilia. Many signed by artists such as B.B. King, The Rolling Stones and Jerry Garcia. All gone. All ashes. They got out with their lives and the dog, but not much else. My heart is so broken for them and the neighbors all around me that have lost everything. Lifetimes of photos, and special memories collected through the years that surrounded them. And although my home remains standing, I also lost so much of my life. I lost the neighborhood where I came home to everyday. I lost my circuit I ran everyday after work. Knowing where mile 1, 2, and 3 was on San Miguel. My daily routine...my life as I knew it. Gone. Now, instead of music, building my photo career, my app and concentrating on working hard at the radio station where I am employed...my days are now filled with dealing with insurance companies, lawyers and tears...many many tears. Crying seems to have taken over too many minutes in my days. But I'm positive this will change, and this heavy hearted feeling will be temporary. Until last night, I even thought my love for music was taken in the fire, as I've had no real desire to go to gigs, and even when I do go, the music hasn't touched me like it used to. An almost daily activity of mine, pre fire. Last night I forced myself to stop at one of the many music benefits that were happening, where I knew many people. I forced myself to attend. First time I wasn't looking forward to shooting and enjoying the music since the fires. The last few gigs were a 'fake it till you make it' scenario....last night was the same. I saw people that I knew and must have said goodbye three or four times trying to make my way to the exit. But something occurred when I was in the green room hanging with a friend in the next band onstage, Terry Saunders of the Dylan Black Project, (an Oakland firefighter himself). His home was lost with everything in it. We laughed about everything we were wearing except my boots were 'new' and donated. His clothes burned, mine I cannot wear due to smoke damage. His drummer also lives in my neighborhood, his house also standing amongst the cold, ash filled, blackened graveyard. After the giggle about our clothes, Terry and the guys took the stage. Something happened to me during his set. I felt the music again. It surged through my veins, through my heart and into my soul again where it belongs. Before that moment, I thought I had lost that feeling forever. But somehow The Dylan Black Project revived my deep passion for music. I found myself enjoying the set rather than simply shooting the artists. So grateful for that moment. I shall always remember it as the day I felt the music again. So much perished in the fires. Lives lost, thousands of peoples homes, businesses and belongings, and for me, I thought I lost the passion of music. Last night I found it again.
As for my situation...I've been living with wonderful friends whom I love deeply. At the end of this year I will move into my own flat for the next six months or more. Some of my belongings will be saved. Many will be disposed of. Not caring much about 'my things,' as those can easily be replaced. But this disaster really wakes one up as to whats important in life. And thats the people who are in it. As for my Berkeley first responders on that fire truck from station no 6...Mike Shuken, Cliff Broome, and Kyle Flemming will forever have a special place in my heart. A couple days after seeing this video I dropped by Fire Station No 6. I got the honour of meeting some of these brave men from that station house. "My crew" were still in Santa Rosa fighting fires, though I have been in communication with Mike since then. This week I may get the honour of meeting him and telling our story on the air on KSRO. I didn't want it to take place too soon, as it is kind of a feel good story about my house in tact amongst the devastation, and finding these wonderful brave men who made that happen. But one of our on air personalities at the radio station, Pat Kerrigan said to me, that its something very much needed at this time, now being five weeks from the disaster. Thats why I went back to this blog. When I began writing it, it was too soon. Now, I'm feeling maybe the timing may be right to publish.
What I've learned from this horrible disaster is there are so many wonderful people in the world. The timely contrast, so great, especially in this hateful political climate we live in today. Experiencing the volunteers helping those of us who either do not have a home, or chose not to live in our home again due to the toxicities in our neighborhoods. People helping people. For me, I was immediately taken care of by wonderful loving people I am so lucky to have around me...they are more than friends, they are my family. And I can never ever have words strong enough, big enough, or good enough, to tell them how much they mean to me and how they have touched my heart simply by 'being there for me'. To the firefighters, to the volunteers, to the people who are donating food, money and clothes, the Teamsters, my friends and patient workmates at KSRO/Sonoma Media Group, the musicians who play for us, and to Nancy, Doug, Pat and Curt, my friends/my family, your love, support and generosity continues to astound me on a daily basis. I hope you know that I appreciate you all so much. G R A T I T U D E seems fitting but still not enough for how I feel. There are simply no words to all who are making this time more bearable for those of us from fire devastated areas, apart from, a simple, 'thank you'....Your kindness will never be forgotten. 💜
© Cheryl Alterman Photography 2017