Oct 25, 2017
by Stephanie Hiller
We were spared, for the most part, thanks to the incredible efficiency and courage of our firefighters, sheriffs and local police; but we are stunned. Somehow we had assumed that our little haven deep in the valley was invulnerable; that life would go on as it had been going on for ages, with all the little stresses inflated by our anxiety and all the little pleasures guaranteed by our prosperity and our insurance policies. We never would have said we were immune to trouble – every life has a share – but we acted as if we were; and now we are stunned. Sunday, October 9 was an average, ordinary day, and Monday wasn’t.
At ten in the morning, as I drive back from the Eastside to check out the damage to Sonoma Garden Park (there was none), the streets are still deserted. There’s smoke in the air and no one is strolling around the Plaza. Half a dozen small fire engines from various faraway places drive down First Street East to turn on Spain, on their way out of town.
A dozen posters adorn the entrance to the Plaza, thanking our saviors. “There are heroes among us,” says one. Heroes come in many shapes and sizes; according to NBC News, 13 percent are nonviolent offenders from California’s prisons working the fire line for $1 an hour; 250 of the 3,800 inmates enrolled are women. (One reader at the website MarySue.com out of New York commented that if they are allowed to wield weapons like pickaxes and shovels, maybe they shouldn’t be in prison at all.) The savings to the state for using prisoners is $124 million a year.
Local food stores are stocked again. On Senior Discount Tuesday, the Sonoma Market was busier than usual, with almost as many staff persons as customers. What’s up, I asked as I waited at the register for the Internet to crank on to accept my credit card? They are workers from the Glen Ellen store, which fell to the flames.
Today, Safeway is one of the few places in town that is enjoying normal traffic. Makes you wonder whether local sources are the most reliable in an emergency.
Evacuees are returning home. The residents of Brookdale Sonoma retirement home were bussed to Redwood City and Santa Cruz. They returned October 16 and were met by a big welcome banner, a refreshment bar of cookies and drinks, and signs saying, “The love is thicker than the smoke,” inspired by a poster that had appeared at the Plaza earlier in the week.
A friend in affordable housing across the street from Brookdale elected to be evacuated to Petaluma by the Red Cross because she was having trouble breathing; she said she and her brother were treated very well.
I too was called west, to the home of a friend in Camp Meeker, outside Occidental, where I once lived. The air amongst the tall redwoods was blessedly clear, the tiny little roads as bumpy as ever, the town of Occidental held many memories of time gone by.
I enjoyed some happy fantasies of being returned to the West County, which were a good salve for the fear that my little Sonoma apartment might be turned to ash. But we kept on watching reports on KRON-TV and checking our cell-phones for Nixle alerts, as the Nun’s fire approached the hills above the east side of town where fabulous houses unseen beyond the gates inhabit the urban/rural divide.
The day before I left, while my host was out with her grandchildren, feeling temporarily like one of the homeless, I bought a roast beef sandwich (on gluten-free bread!) at the Bohemian Market and headed out to the coast to watch the sunset.
I was feeling very wobbly, much the way Pema Chodrun describes as that feeling of groundlessness we humans will do anything to avoid. But I felt better when I got to Salmon Creek in time for the sunset; and perched on a log I ate my delicious sandwich while the sun cast its gold upon the waters.
Down at the shore was a structure made of driftwood magically held in place without glue, expecting eventual dissolution from the waves.
Four people had gathered around it to pass a joint and play their musical instruments. Their first song had the refrain “everybody knows,” but it was much jollier than the Leonard Cohen song:
“Everybody knows/ the dice are loaded / everybody knows the good guys lost…”
Are we spectators at the end of the world, or its reawakening?
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