Editor’s Note: Matt Villano is a freelance writer based in northern Sonoma County. His hometown, Healdsburg, was spared by the 2017 wildfires, but many of his friends from Santa Rosa lost their homes. The views expressed here are his. Read more opinion on CNN.
Two cats, my wife’s wedding dress, a case of my best brandy and some computer equipment. When it was time to leave my Sonoma County home on Saturday for what I thought could be the last time, these were the things I loaded into my car first.
What followed was a mishmash of mementos: The picture of me with my high school buddies at a regional choir competition, an empty Guarana bottle from that 1995 internship in Brazil, the horse drawing my oldest daughter made with charcoal when she was 6, a mini backpack filled with my wife’s great-aunt’s china. I also grabbed a box with the kids’ baby books.
I assembled the stash in a mostly desultory way. It turns out that no matter how many times you’ve covered disasters as a journalist in the past, you don’t really know what you’ll grab when you think your own house is about to burn down.
This was only the beginning of my experience as an evacuee of the horrific Kincade Fire, a conflagration that’s still currently wreaking havoc in the part of Northern California where I live. The good news: So far – miraculously – the fire has spared my hometown of Healdsburg. The bad news: Some of our friends and loved ones in neighboring communities have lost everything.
It’s not the first time we’ve all dealt with apocalyptic firestorms.
You might remember back in October 2017, when the Tubbs Fire ripped through the city of Santa Rosa in the middle of the night and more than 20 people died and more than 5,600 structures were destroyed. Many of the folks who lost their homes in that blaze had been in their rebuilt houses mere weeks before they got the evacuation order this time around.
A whole bunch of us got those orders Saturday. Nearly 200,000 in all. They came in quietly and unremarkably via text message, courtesy of an alert system called Nixle. Thankfully, we had enough time to leave without relying on local cops to drive around with bullhorns telling people to “Get out now!”
Most evacuation stories have three parts: What happens before the act of evacuating, the evacuation itself and everything that happens after that.
For us, the “before” began Saturday morning. The fire was about six miles away, but knowing winds were forecast to pick up, I packed clothes and passports and checkbooks in our Honda Odyssey and dispatched my wife and daughters around 9 a.m. Their destination: My sister-in-law’s house in Belmont, a city south of San Francisco, about 90 miles away.
The official evacuation notice came about 45 minutes later, informing the entire town to clear out by 4 p.m. I took an hour to round up the most meaningful items, working off a master list we made after the last big fire. As I ran back and forth to the Prius, I added impromptu choices – my Las Vegas Golden Knights Jonathan Marchessault sweater, a blanket my mother knitted for me when I was an infant – along the way. Even with a list, the process took about two hours. It included a lot of the time wandering around the house aimlessly, staring at things and wondering, “Is this the last time I’ll see that?”
Before I left for good, I tackled arguably the two most important tasks: Recording cellphone video footage of every room of the house, in case I needed the data for insurance; and using a wrench to turn off the flow of gas to my house.
I snapped a picture of our house from the street before I pulled away.
The drive out – the actual evacuation – was a scene from early episodes of “The Walking Dead.” The two-lane freeway running through our region was a veritable parking lot at times, with cars inching southbound at 5 mph. Every time I felt myself panicking or feeling claustrophobic, I looked out the window and spotted a friend or neighbor in a vehicle nearby. We commiserated. We traded snacks. The interactions were oddly comforting, making it seem that we all were part of something far bigger than the moment, like an apocalyptic Woodstock.
Four hours later, south of the city, I pulled off the road to pick up some supplies at a Safeway. This area was not affected at all by the fires – the neighborhood had power and people were laughing and smiling and texting about college football and going about their lives as they would on any other Saturday afternoon.
Wandering through the aisles, I was painfully aware of the fact that none of my fellow shoppers had a clue what I’d endured that day. I kept thinking about how they would get their groceries and go home to their apartments, while I’d get mine and might never see my home again. I wanted to scream.
Finally, I made it to my sister-in-law’s house, where my wife greeted me in the driveway. We embraced. We sobbed. We were safe. We were all together again.
After I unloaded the brandy and the wedding dress into the garage, I went out to the backyard to reconnect with my girls. The three of them – ages 10, 8, and almost 4 – were jumping on the trampoline and singing songs from “The Descendants.” In between tunes, they were joking and laughing. Without a care in the world.
That moment put everything into perspective for me – now that we’re safe and back together again, all we can do is live. The few days that have unfolded since then have played out in slow motion – lots of sitting around, the constant chatter of police scanners, and a veritable obsession with Twitter for updates from the field.
Yes, our community is still threatened by the Kincade Fire. And yes, our hearts are broken for those in our community who have lost everything. From this point forward, we must trust our first responders, hope that they can protect what’s left, and wait.