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A California Artist Learns to Let Go After Fleeing Wildfires

With more wildfires raging in California, a Sonoma County artist comes to terms with escaping the October fires intact

Smoke and flames are seen from Adam Shaw’s house one week after the fires started in Sonoma County, when he first returned to his home to survey any damage. Photos by Adam Shaw

A lot of people are unsettled by the wind, but I’ve always loved it. On Sunday night, October 8, 2017, in the small town of Glen Ellen, in California’s Sonoma County, the winds were howling with gusts in excess of 60 mph. I had been playing guitar and stepped outside to watch the moon and feel the warm, wild wind. Looking at the moon, I was thinking of the line in the novel The Sheltering Sky where Paul Bowles asks, “How many more times will you watch the full moon rise?” Whenever I watch the moon, that line serves as a reminder of the brief, transient nature of life, and as a call to pay just a little more attention to the fragile nectar of the passing moment.

Shaw photographed his guitars and two of his paintings just before the fires began. 

When I stepped back into my house, everything looked so calm and inviting in the yellow glow of lamplight that I decided to take some pictures of my guitars that sit in the living room beneath a couple of my favorite paintings that I made in the past few years.

After a while I started to smell smoke, which at first I ignored because I had smelled smoke the night before and called the fire department, and it had turned out to be nothing more than a neighbor’s fire pit. So this time I ignored the smell.

But something didn’t feel right. I got up and went to the window. I live on a hill in the heart of Sonoma Valley, and from my living room, I can look across the valley to the east. What I saw was a glowing orange flame racing down the hill toward my house. It was beautiful and terrifying. I called 911, and the woman who answered the phone told me that there were fires all over the area and that if I did not feel safe, I should leave. I called to my22-year-old son downstairs in his room: “Gabe, grab the animals; we’re out of here now!”

We put a leash on our Australian shepherd, Moe, and after a struggle we grabbed our cat, Lila May, who had lodged herself at the back of a top closet shelf, and put her into her carrier. Within five minutes we were out the door with nothing but our animals and the clothes on our backs.

Fleeing the Flames

I’m an artist, and I work at home. I had a collection of more than 200 paintings, and my house was surrounded by over 50 pieces of my sculpture. By the time we headed out, the howling winds were blowing branches across the road and driving was like braving an obstacle course in hell. Fires were blazing everywhere. I didn’t expect to ever see my house and lifetime of work again. And because fire seemed to be in every direction, I didn’t know where to go or how to get there.

We decided to go to my ex-wife’s (my son’s mother’s) house, 25 miles northwest in Santa Rosa, to be safe. (She was out of town that night, staying with a friend in Washington state.) Because of the fires, we headed south, to Petaluma, and came back along Highway 101 rather than taking the direct route along smaller roads, which were littered with blowing embers. Throughout the drive we could see fires blazing in the hills to the east.

We had been at her house for about 45 minutes when I started hearing popping sounds, or small explosions, which I guessed were electrical transformers. Then I started to smell smoke, and it quickly became overwhelming. I stepped outside, and ash was coming down like snow. The smoke was so thick that I couldn’t see the ground. My lungs burned.

The home of Shaw’s ex-wife burned down, though the garden was spared. 

In a scene reminiscent of a Hieronymus Bosch painting, people were running down the street covered in ash, screaming, “Fire! The fire is three houses away!” For the second time that night, we had to flee for our lives with our animals. Her house later burned to the ground.

Related: Contact Home Builders in Sonoma

We decided to head toward the beach. We wound up spending a sleepless night in a parking lot in Sebastopol, which by sunrise had filled up with evacuees. Over the next few weeks, parking lots all over the North Bay became de facto town squares, meeting places and drop-off points.

The day after we fled our home, I found out from my son’s 22-year-old friend Kacy — who had sneaked back into the valley, despite the mandatory evacuation still in place, only to find his house had burned to the ground — that my house was still standing but surrounded by a ring of fire.

My neighbor and two strangers from a nearby winery had been fighting off the fire around my house and two neighbors’ houses for hours with a rake and buckets of pool water before a team of firefighters arrived, dug trenches and finished saving the houses.

The author, second from right, poses with firefighters at Oliver’s Market in Santa Rosa, about two weeks after the first Sonoma County fire started on Oct. 8. The fires were still going at this time. 

 

Picking Up the Pieces

Flies were an unanticipated problem soon after the fires began. One week after the fires had started, and were still uncontained and raging in all directions, I saw a live Facebook broadcast from one of my neighbors who had stayed behind during the evacuation. She said they desperately needed fly strips for the food trucks set up at the Cal Fire station on Highway 12 to feed the first responders who were working 40-hour shifts.

They also asked for energy drinks, chewing gum, lip balm, eyedrops and smartphone chargers. Hearing this plea, I made a pilgrimage to Costco, loaded up my car and drove from Oakland, where I’d been staying with a friend, to Sonoma County. That was the first time since we had fled, fearing we’d never see my house again, that I had been back to see my sweet town, which was still on fire.

A spiral staircase near Shaw’s home in Glen Ellen

Three weeks after the fires had begun, the police let me drive up to my house to get some clothes and supplies, although my tiny town, Glen Ellen, was still under mandatory evacuation. (I returned several times to survey damage and grab some belongings before I was officially allowed to move back in.)

Related: Get a Quote From General Contractors in Sonoma

I sat in my living room with the windows wide open because the smell of smoke was even stronger inside than outside. I had left the windows open the night I escaped, and the house had filled with the residue of fire from nearby houses, which had already turned to dust and rubble. Ash lined my bathtub. I sat and listened to the birds, and although there were probably no more birds than usual, their song seemed wildly amplified, perhaps because in this landscape I didn’t expect there to be any song at all. The house buzzed with flies.

If you were to look at my house from above, you would see a black ring of scorched earth extending about 30 paces in every direction. Everything outside the ring was burned, and everything inside the ring had been saved. Covered with ash but still standing.

Many of my neighbors were not so fortunate. Entire blocks are nothing but rubble, with freestanding chimneys, melted cars and spiral staircases going nowhere.

Some 200 houses in a town of 864 people burned to the ground during the cluster of 21 fires, as of now the worst fire event in California history. The fires destroyed almost 10,000 structures throughout Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and Lake counties.

What the Future Holds

About two months after the fires, on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, I was able to move back into my house. For the first five weeks following my initial evacuation, the remediation services were so overwhelmed with work that I couldn’t get even a return phone call. Then it took another few weeks to get the workers out to my home. Every single surface in the house and its entire contents have been cleaned. It took a team of about 10 people working 12-hour days an entire week. But I’m back. And after living in one-room hotels, eating every meal in restaurants, being separated from the beautiful things I have spent my life engaged with and being deprived of a studio in which to work, the rhythm of daily life is beginning to set in.

Several people have asked me if I feel survivor’s guilt, or just assumed that I do. But I don’t. What I feel is survivor’s gratitude. And despite the sadness for the loss that so many of my friends and neighbors have suffered — my ex-wife was devastated at the loss of her home; my son acted heroically and did a lot of growing up — I feel a kind of freedom that is hard to convey. We love the illusion of control. But aside from where I choose to put my attention in any given moment, over what do I really have control? Everything just happens.

Metal safes and a bear statue are all that remain of a gun shop in Santa Rosa. 

I left my house thinking I would never see it again, and something in me surrendered. I adopted the attitude that everything is already gone. I have already lost everything, let go of everything, so in some amazing way, everything is free. I am free.

But how long does that kind of freedom last? How long before insight is swallowed by the insatiable momentum of the ordinary? In the weeks following the fire, kindness was in the air. In fact, all over Sonoma you started seeing signs reading, “The love in the air is thicker than the smoke.” And it was. People were buying one another drinks and meals in restaurants, going out of their way to help neighbors and strangers. Heroic acts were natural and spontaneous.

But as the smoke began to dissipate, people started honking at one another again, cutting each other off, expressing impatience and generally not seeing each other with the tenderness and concern called forth by tragedy. It is as if in a state of high alert, the very quality of blood in our veins is transformed. We run on a more refined fuel, and our thoughts and actions are elevated to a natural state of connection and compassion.

But I can feel it dissipate when I regard the piles of receipts I need to submit to the insurance company. I can feel it dissipate as I fall into the well-worn grooves of the habits and patterns that compose the rhythm of daily life.

Even the ring of scorched earth around my house has started to disappear as the rains have come and fresh green grass has sprouted from the black soil. 

Original article written by Adam Shaw on Houzz.

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