Shell-shocked by the parade of tragedies

The fire in Santa Rosa changes everything we ever believed about urban area fires.

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It was Monday morning of last week when I broke.

I was finishing up my morning horse chores, gazing in despair at the surrounding Lake Solano hills, socked in with ghostly white drifts. It looked like a typical misty December morning.

The eyes can be deceived, but not the nose. The air was thick with pungent, choking smoke. Triple digit summer heat waves had already transformed the stark, dry hillsides into lifelessness. Trees and bushes looking like skeletons in the hazy air. It looked like the end of the world.

After so many fires in our area, year after year, this is our new normal. We’re either on fire ourselves or feeling the effects of fire elsewhere. Here in fire country, we don’t have four seasons, just two: Fire Season and Not Fire Season.

Driving back into town, drifts of fine ash swirled on my windshield, and it hit me: It’s not merely ash… it’s the remains of people’s lives, everything they own, animals, pets… it’s that old couple, he 100 and she 99, unable to escape, burned alive while clinging to each other… drifting across my windshield.

And I broke. Tears started streaming. And I’m not a crier. I’m just not. I can shut off my emotions in a snap, like a spigot. (Thank you, dysfunctional alcoholic household of my childhood, for this questionable “skill.”) I am a rock, I am an island. But once in a great while, particularly when I’m saturated with shock and grief, the spigot leaks. Right down my cheeks.

I’d already hit my saturation point after the Puerto Rico hurricane. Before we’d even begun to process the magnitude of that unfolding calamity, there was the Las Vegas massacre. The grief counseling hadn’t even begun for the survivors and one week later, the Napa Valley is an inferno. The column I’d written on Friday, Oct. 6, about the Las Vegas shootings was outdated by the time it ran in the Express the following Wednesday.

The tragedies are coming so fast and furious, all against the backdrop of a looming nuclear World War III. How can we mentally process all this? Hurricanes? Shootings? Lunatic dictators, both foreign and domestic? We’ll think about that later because right now, we’re running for our lives through the flames.

Who in a million years would have thought that Santa Rosa could burn to the ground? Entire neighborhoods reduced to ash in moments? ICU patients being rushed through parking lots on gurneys toward awaiting ambulances because a wall of fire was sweeping down upon hospitals? It was surreal.

Two years ago, Middletown was destroyed by the monstrous Valley Fire, and the black, smoking, stinking aftermath was stunning. But Middletown is tiny and isolated, surrounded by acres of wild, untamed land covered in thick brush; a tiny dot in a huge nest of endless kindling, and not equipped with an ample fire department or even a nearby one, or even a nearby highway where other fire departments could respond quickly. Having spent a lot of time in that area, I can understand how Middletown was swallowed in flames.

But Santa Rosa? Santa Rosa?

What the holy hell?

I used to believe that living in town insulated us from wildfires. Here in Winters, although we’re in the heart of fire country, we have an ample fire department, and many others nearby that can rush to our rescue in moments. At worse, a roof or two might be charred, but complete destruction from fire seemed impossible. A few folks might be inconvenienced while waiting for their insurance adjusters, but that would be the extent of it. The fire in Santa Rosa changes everything.

If it can happen there, it can happen anywhere, particularly here on the western side of Yolo County, which becomes a wind tunnel when the north wind blows. With mountains on both sides of the valley, and no tall structures or tree lines to create a buffer, the north wind hits us like a locomotive engine.

It used to be that a windstorm mostly meant broken branches to pick up and flattened fences to repair. But every year gets hotter and drier, and even substantial rainfall during Not Fire Season isn’t much help because triple-digit summer heat bakes it into even thicker kindling. Now, whenever the wind kicks up, it feels ominous.

I’d spent last weekend at a writers’ workshop in the Carmel Valley, sheltered from the wind by the Coastal Range. Coming home Sunday night, when we reached that long, lonely, stretch of 680 that skirts Travis Air Force Base, I noticed the car was getting buffeted about. When I got out of the car at home, a hot, angry wind was raging. Dread surged through me as I thought, “Please let there not be any sparks.”

By the time I awoke the next morning, hellfire was engulfing the Napa Valley.

I’m heartbroken for all those affected. And in Puerto Rico. And in Las Vegas. And, and, and. The magnitude of suffering and need is unfathomable. Where — how — do we even begin to give aid and comfort? In the boom, boom, boom of tragedy upon tragedy upon tragedy, you become shell-shocked with anxiety and horror… desensitized into a state of emotional paralysis because our minds just can’t grasp it all.

But we don’t have the luxury of paralysis right now. There are people, pets and livestock, that all need help, and they need it now. Rescue centers are popping up, funds are being raised, items being collected. My daughter even organized a little pet food collection to take to the Solano animal shelter, and this little act offered emotional relief. Helping out, in big ways and small, allows us to cling to hope that someday, somehow, things will get better. However, given the seemingly endless parade of tragedy, I fear that this too is the new normal. Compassion, generosity and sticking together will help us cope.

Ask not for whom the fire engine blares, it blares for thee.


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