Five years later, after the fires that devastated Northern California...
Five years ago, the beginning of October was not so nice. First, Tom Petty died and shattered fans' hearts all round the world. Then just a few days later, my neighborhood, and others in Northern California burned down to the ground.
As its the fifth anniversary of the fires this past week, I've been sitting with a feeling of melancholy remembering those who lost their lives as well as those who lost all their possessions including irreplaceable photos, wedding albums, family heirlooms, and precious belongings, all to the appetite of a hungry, burning hot fire spreading throughout the region.
As I take daily walks around my neighborhood, I have many emotions that churn up each time I see a new home being built and families moving back in. I am both happy for them, that they have their space back, and sad that their mementos and personal belongings have all perished and they are rebuilding their everything. At least they have their lives I try to remember. And then I think of two of my dear friends, Amanda and Maria, who lost their lives due to the stress of the situation, but not the fire itself.
In my neighborhood alone there was 1400 homes built in the late 90s. After the fires, 1321 of those were burnt to the ground. In the past five years I have seen one by one, homes rebuilt and families coming back. Many sold their lots and moved away for both financial reasons and emotional reasons, because being back here churns up the traumatic memories of the weekend of October 8 and 9th in 2017. I live with those memories on a daily basis, but every year at the beginning of October these memories come back full force and this time. Being five whole years down the road, for some reason, it has hit me hard this week. Harder than previous years. When the memories come up, I try my best to turn them around in my head and think of all the stuff that happened to the humanity around me, post fire. People banded together like I've not seen before, they helped one another, hugged and cried together too.
I was working in radio at KSRO at the time with our own hero, Pat Kerrigan, guiding us through each and every step we took, as a community. I was at work some days for 18 hours simply answering the phones in the KSRO studio speaking to others like myself who had been displaced and involved in life changing events over that time. I remember opening the door at midnight, to a woman who came to the station, because she simply didnt know what else to do or who to turn to. It was as if Pats' voice through the airwaves, was her guiding light, as it was for so many. My heart was with hers and the callers who just did not know how to 'be' or what to do next. A time of confusion and much despair, for sure.
Fortunately for me, I had dear friends that took me in and welcomed me with open arms into their home. I realize that others were not as fortunate. I wanted to help out more but I could only do what I could do without sacrificing myself. I collected things for the people I knew were in need. I stayed late at work, even a few all nighters with Pat, helped to keep me stay somewhat sane and helped soothe my soul. Talking on the phone to callers, and crying with friends, (my new housemates), when I got back after work, to 'my new temporary home'. I distributed what I can in clothes and personal items to friends. I even found a guitar for one of my friends that lost all his in the fire. At the very least, he would have music.
Then in the next year I would lose two dear friends from subsequent events post fire. One passed from illness that was caused by the stress of moving, moving and moving again post fire. Another friend, took her own life one night, after saying goodnight to her three young children and then hung herself on the shower rail in her temporary accommodations whilst her new home was being built, because her and her husbands' marriage could not survive their post fire stress filled life. She must have felt like there was nothing left for her. Depressed and alone. She was only 36 years old. I think of both of them often.
Whilst I take my daily walks, sometimes multiple walks a day, I see new homes still being completed and empty lots still abandoned. I see people getting on, in their post fire lives with their new homes, new cars, new holiday decorations, and new furnishings. And life does goes on.
This is a link for a video shot onboard the Berkeley fire engine entering Santa Rosa. https://youtu.be/Rdk4d74j3p8 This was my neighborhood burning down. In this video, from about minute 7-8, Mike Shuken and his team, decided that my house would be the house they can save. It will be their 'Line of Sorrow'. Which is a term they used for the line between the burnt down and standing houses. The chainsaw you hear in minute 7, is that of Mike cutting through my fence to save my house, and then my three neighbors' homes. This video was sent to me by my friend, saying in her text, "I think this may be your house". And it was! The video also helped me locate the firefighters so i can thank them. The following day Berkeley Fire Station no. 6 got a visit from me bearing gratitude and gifts. They still have the "Gratitude Plaque" I made for them, (pictured below), hanging in their foyer of the station, next to the photos of their lost firefighters. They explained to me that they rarely get to meet those people they've helped. So apparentley I was a very welcomed surprise.
In 2018, KSRO was behind a film produced showing the Sonoma County devastation. Both myself and my firefighter hero, Mike Shuken were interviewed in this film. If you get the chance, its called, Urban Inferno. Worth a view. Produced by a Santa Rosa native.
One personal story that I will never forget...as I am a music lover through and through, I want to share this last little memory of October 2017 with you....I was at a fund raiser in Santa Rosa, for the fire victims shortly after the fires. There were several bands playing. One of which was a friends' band, The Dylan Black Project. My friend, Terry Sanders' band. I went to the event, but for some unknown reason post fire I could not listen or enjoy any music. I went to this event thinking I'll stay for as long as I can then I 'll leave when it gets hard. I remember feeling like a rat in a maze, trying to get out of the building because music made me feel uncomfortable. I didnt understand it then, nor do I today. As soon as I arrived, I wanted to leave. Terry saw me trying to 'escape' and he approached me with his drummer and we three chatted. I told them, I was uncomfortable and apologized but I had to leave without seeing the band play. He begged me to stay, and whilst we were talking, the three of us, ackowldged that all three of us were wearing everything from all donated goods. All three of us! Including our shoes and socks! Terrys drummer lost his house in my neighborhood and Terry also lost his home, in Fountaingrove, both to the fires only a couple weeks prior to this conversation. When we spoke about it, all three of us in donated clothes, we laughed, and then he asked me again, to stay for at least the first song. I agreed I would. I ended up staying for his entire set. Our laughter, and Terrys band snapped me out of the unfamiliar uncomfortable feeling I was having around music.
Today, five years later, Terry Sanders, an ex fire fighter himself for 23 years, is now running for City Council in Santa Rosa. I will always be grateful to Terry, for the laughter, and the conversation that day, just before the gig. And his insistence that I stay for the music. Because living without music would have been a most terrible thing that the fire would've taken from my world. And I'm so grateful I got the music back in me that night.
At this time of year, I want to pay special attention to remembering and honouring fire fighters everywhere. I just wanted to take this little space in The Music Soup, to honour those who were strong enough to be here now, survive the fires, the confusion, the temporary homelessness, and the mental fatigue we all suffered. As well as the horrid 'survivors guilt' that those of us suffered, whose houses were not burned down. I want to honour those firefighters who were brave enough to work round the clock for days at a time putting out the fires and explosives all around town. And I want to personally thank my heroes, Mike Shuken and his badass team of firefighters at the Berkeley Fire Station no. 6 for saving my home on October 9, five years ago. I will never forget the humility, humanity and gratitude I experienced during this horrific time in the lives of so many in Northern California. And the kindness and generosity of those who gave to others.
So, next time you see a firefighter, smile, and know that these people can change lives. Maybe one day they'll change yours, like they changed mine. They have your back. I will always be forever grateful to all the firefighters that worked so hard to control our fires that burned for two weeks. And of course, I'm especially grateful to my heroes, Mike and his team at Berkeley Fire Station no. 6.