It was supposed to be a vacation of sorts. I was house-sitting for my grandparents in California wine country while they went on a long cruise to Australia. As a single woman with a remote career, I was the perfect choice. I would water the plants and sip expensive cabernet while they relaxed on the lido deck. It was a win-win.
I had been there about two weeks when the wind kicked up. I went to bed on October 8, 2017, thinking it might storm and wondering if I should bring in the patio furniture cushions. I decided against it.
The wind howled loudly, making it hard to sleep. As it got later, I began to hear other noises. It sounded like people were being executed in the streets. I heard tires peeling out and wondered if people were drag racing. When I heard loud knocking, I convinced myself that it was a criminal hoping to drag me to my doom on the pavement. I buried my head in the pillows. If I can just sleep until morning, this will all be over, I thought. But I couldn’t.
Finally, I got up, just after 3 a.m. The door from the garage to the house had blown open and the light was on. I remembered locking the door, but I didn’t remember leaving the light on. Someone was in the house.
Slowly, in my pajamas, I walked through my grandparent’s home, checking for something out of the ordinary. This is how I die, I thought, alone in this house with no one but my killer to hear me scream.
Walking past the front windowsill, I saw the pepper spray my grandparents had left for me, in case of emergency. With it in hand, I felt comforted by its presence, but I also knew it wouldn’t keep an intruder at bay for long. I looked out the tiny entry window, pushing away the curtain.
A piece of burning wreckage floated through the air and landed on the roof of the house just across the street. For the first time, my mind registered the heat and the smell of smoke. Though I couldn’t see the inferno, the signs were everywhere. This had gone way beyond pepper spray.
It’s always strange to look back on what you actually do in an emergency. First, I replaced the pepper spray on the windowsill, then went to get my phone and typed “Santa Rosa” into a Google search. A little message popped up on the main page: “This is a life-threatening emergency. Leave immediately.”
This is how I die, I thought.
Hysterical, I called my mother, two states away. I’m not sure what I thought she could do, but I wanted her to know. I wanted to hear her voice. Perhaps mothers are especially attuned to calls in the wee hours—she answered sleepy and scattered. She knew there was nothing she could do or say. She told me to stay calm, to keep her posted. She promised to pray. I collected an odd assortment of basics—a laptop, a sweater much too warm for California, yoga pants, my journal—and hit the number for a local acquaintance I’d had coffee with a couple of times while I’d been in town. My second call woke her up.
I punched her address into my GPS and ran to the car, the smoke thick around me like muddy water. Policemen were doing their best to direct traffic, and we crawled along in our cars, tense. I passed couples looking out their windows and standing on their porches, waiting.
Once I turned onto the main road, I felt a little calmer, even though we were barely moving. I began to sing, an attempt to soothe myself. “Jesus, lover of my soul, all-consuming fire is in your gaze.” I stopped abruptly, registering the lyrics. After a moment, I kept singing anyway.
The GPS instructed me to turn onto a street surrounded by fire. A semi-truck burned on the side of the road; parts of the street were slick with flames. I worried that my tires would melt, stranding me. This is how it ends, I thought.
On the freeway, I passed a sedan, about the size of mine, as it was consumed by flames. The sky glowed orange near the horizon, dissolving above into a bright yellow. If I didn’t know better, I’d have said the sun was rising in my grandparent’s neighborhood, but the thick haze of smoke and the Lite Brite of brake lights promised otherwise. Explosions filled the air.
When I arrived at my acquaintance’s house after nearly an hour (on a normal day, the drive would have been less than fifteen minutes), I told myself that I was safe. I told myself that the worst was over.
Yet I didn’t realize that trauma creeps into your bones and curls up, ready to wake and pounce. Perhaps that’s why when the Washington Post asked me to report from the ground in those early morning hours, I said “yes.”
At an evacuation center, I sat at a table with two elderly women who had watched their retirement home burn before their eyes. One of them wore a bathrobe—she hadn’t had time to take anything else with her. The other was missing her phone.
The retirement home phase of life was the pared-down version, they told me. They had kept only the things they truly loved with them when they entered—the sentimental furniture, the photos, the heirloom jewelry. Now everything was lost, a pile of ash.
“We don’t know where we’ll sleep tonight,” one of the women told me. The evacuation center, a church which had opened its doors, wasn’t a long-term solution. Still, refugees were flooding in.
“Are you sure you don’t mind talking about it?” I asked.
“It’s good to talk about it,” she said.
As I rose to leave, I noticed a commotion. The evacuation center was being evacuated; the fire was moving closer. This safe place was no longer safe.
After I filed my story, safe at my acquaintance’s house once more, I took a nap. I’d been up all night, high on adrenaline. It was then that I realized that sleep was a trigger. The last time I’d gone to sleep, I’d woken up in fear. My body resisted sleep, trying to protect me from going through that again.
Generous friends I barely knew let me stay with them, far from the evacuation area. In their house I drank countless cups of Irish black tea with cream and sugar, staring at the catalpa tree outside and absently petting their patient dog. For days I didn’t eat, saying no to the homemade soup and the fresh figs from the tree outside, until my knotted stomach relented, releasing enough to fit a yogurt inside. I watched hours and hours of The West Wing.
I couldn’t read, not more than a paragraph or two—I couldn’t focus on the words. Later, I would read Rebecca Solnit’s essay for the New Yorker about my own disaster. I would marvel, because it felt like she had followed me around. She stood at Coffey Park, a stone’s throw from my grandparent’s home, a neighborhood which no longer existed, now only charred chimneys against the sky; she even wrote about the truck that crashed into a fire station during one of my late-night panic attacks, just blocks from where I was staying.
During those days, nothing mattered except what was right in front of me. I remember hearing, as if through a fog, that President Trump declared the fires a national disaster. He wasn’t there to see me drive tentatively to the grocery store to buy some cheese, a pie, some halvah, anything that I could tempt myself to eat. He didn’t see the men and women crying in the store, their losses and the loss all around them only beginning to sink in.
Later, I would learn that my particular set of fires burned over 107,000 acres (an area roughly the size of the city of New Orleans). At least twenty-three people died and so many structures were destroyed.
It was the winds that made the fires (at least seventeen of them in all) move so fast, jumping over highways and houses, leaving neighborhoods looking like cruel jokes. It was those winds I’d heard first, lying in bed, whipping through the world at sixty miles per hour. Every day, while I waited to feel safe enough to travel home, my friends gave me updates. The smoke hung in the air. The fires weren’t contained, even a little, for many days.
Sometimes, when I was too anxious to stay in my room alone, I crept into the living room to sleep on the couch. Usually the dog would find me, laying down nearby. When the family awoke, they would do their best to tiptoe. They never knew that I did my best sleeping when others were stirring in the house. Then, at least, I knew we wouldn’t be caught unaware, should danger strike again.
There’s a game I used to play; maybe you’ve played it, too. What would you grab if your house was on fire? As it turns out, first I’d snatch up my to-do list. Then, I’d reach for my laptop, chargers, three extra pairs of underwear, and my favorite reversible yoga pants. I’d top everything off with my soft orange sweater with the daisy on it. Before I left the house, I’d grab the emergency contact list sitting on the table by the phone.
After I left, I remember regretting the clothes I thought I’d lost: my colorful romper, my favorite red shoes, and that black dress that felt like a nightgown. I hated that these thoughts kept coming back, causing me such anguish. What kind of monster thinks about melted shoes when everything is on fire? I thought.
When I tell people about the fire, they almost always ask about the house. “Is it still standing?” Sometimes they ask about the vineyards, wondering how much wine was destroyed. They do not ask: would you be dead if you had stayed inside? For the record, the house is standing. At this point, I always mention that the fire came within half a block. I don’t talk about the day I went back to collect my belongings, my heart pounding. From my grandparent’s front yard, I could see the charred remains of their neighbor’s homes. Somehow, their little cul-de-sac was spared. Outside on the patio I found charred debris, mostly unrecognizable except for a few singed pages of a children’s book, as if the wind had ripped off one page at a time.
The house is still standing, but the outlook is bleak. Look in any direction and you’ll see signs of destruction, and, hopefully now, of renewal. Over and over again, people said it would take at least ten years to rebuild everything that was destroyed. Who has that kind of time? As people do, in the aftermath of any disaster, we begin to rebuild anyway. It is in many people’s nature to try to put things back together again.
You can’t see the places in me that need to be rebuilt. They aren’t easy to type into a form or reference when requesting aid from FEMA. Even I don’t know where they all are, yet, over a year later. I am given to understand that healing will be slow.
In my trauma therapist’s office, we began to hunt down those places. This is called exposure therapy, and it’s basically the opposite of how I’ve dealt with most problems over the course of my life. Instead of running away from the thing that scares you, you run toward it. You rub shoulders with your fear in a safe context until you aren’t afraid anymore.
First, we make a fear ladder. We start with the things that I know cause me to be afraid: explosions, tires peeling out, the smell of smoke. Now, I know that the explosions I heard were transformers giving in to the blaze, but they sure sounded like machine gunshots, so I add that to my list. My homework becomes these things. I think about fireworks. I find a smoke-scented candle and breathe it in. I type “exploding transformers” into YouTube. Always, I tell myself that I am safe. Without knowing it, for the first time, I am practicing grounding: paying attention to where I am, to how my feet connect with the earth, and to breathing. I whisper into my own ear: you are safe, you don’t need to run.
Sometimes, I believe it.
In that office, I deconstruct some of this work. “When I’m worried about the wind, I can tell myself that I’m safe, but what about that windstorm we had a couple of years ago? People died.” My therapist doesn’t have answers for this. The world isn’t always safe. I’m not always safe. “Most of the time the wind isn’t dangerous,” I say out loud. She smiles. I try not to think about the rest of the time, when it is.
We’re talking about the wind because it whipped through hard in the week prior, whistling around my house while I tried to sleep. My roommate was out of town. Its fine, I told myself. It’s just wind. Go to sleep.
But that’s what you said last time, I thought, in response.
It’s been months since my trauma therapist passed me off to a regular therapist. I no longer answer the questions the right way for a PTSD or Severe Stress Response diagnosis. This is a good thing, I know. I’m usually not afraid to go to sleep, and most of the time I sleep through the night without waking up afraid. Many days I don’t think about the fire at all. But reading still comes slowly, and words don’t spring to mind as quickly as they used to. I take the time it used to take to do something and double it. Sometimes, I double it again. I look back to normal. Most moments, I feel normal.
Yet, in our world, disasters still happen every day. Today, winds whipped around my town as I went about my day, bringing smoke from a forest fire nearly an hour and a half away. My breath caught a little with every gust. It’s okay, I reminded myself. You’re safe. Maybe one day I will no longer think: That’s what you said before.
One night, I’m alone in my house when I hear loud popping.
I look out the window cautiously, hoping to see my neighbor putting out her trashcan violently or a motorcycle in desperate need of service. I see nothing. The street feels haunted.
I return to the couch, wrapping myself in a blanket and rocking back and forth. What could it be? Certainly it’s not more transformers exploding, right?
Finally, I screw up my courage and venture onto my front porch, craning my neck for any sign of what’s happening.
A colored burst catches my eye, then another.
I can’t think of a reason for this impromptu weekend display. Still, I stand on my porch in the cold and watch them skitter into the sky and explode into colored light. They are beautiful, majestic, dangerous. I stay outside until the last one bursts.
Rumpus original art by Lauren Friedlander.