Post-Fire...One Year After the Tubbs Fire Destroyed Our Home by Michael Carlston, M.D.
By Michael Carlston, M.D.
A year after the fires, where are we? How did we get here? Where do we go from here?
Dwelling on the details of the challenges of the last year ― fire, dislocation, FEMA fraud, insurance companies, builders ― is largely a pointless activity when we are too busy working to pull our lives together, and the associated pain is still too easy to trigger.
I want to recount and reflect only so far as that process helps you and me go forward. The lessons so far are what we need to hold onto.
Some, about the fire and the violence of that night, are lessons I could pass on. The sulfurous smell of the still warm ashes of our house when we were first allowed back taught me where the phrase “fire and brimstone” come from, and why it is associated with the Devil.
Others are more human, useful, and comforting.
The first thing I want to say is that this event binds us all, not just those of us who lost our homes. We are all in this together.
If you didn’t lose your home, most likely you still felt that your life was threatened. That experience has a real and lasting impact. At a different time in a different setting, you would have been considered a victim. Please recognize that and take care of yourself as we all heal together.
Shortly after the fire, I wrote that the only way to move forward was together, arm in arm, as a community. The losses to this area were too severe for any of us to recover by ourselves. Truly, all we ever really have is each other.
The second point is that I detest the “V” word and want nothing to do with it. Admittedly, I lost essentially everything I ever possessed in the fire. I have had very few nights of decent sleep since then. High winds still rattle me more than they shake the trees. However, I am a survivor. I am not a victim.
As we mark this one-year milestone, where are we?
Literally, my wife, Melanie, and I are now back in Sonoma County after initially having to find housing in Marin. Life is much better. No more eating from a plastic box of lettuce with our fingers in our car, side by side with other fire zombies in the Safeway parking lot. Paper bags are no longer considered extravagantly oversized clothes closets.
Most of us have found homes to rent for the time being. We no longer have to test the generosity of our friends and the comfort of their spare bedrooms, or floors. Most of us are still nomads, but our homelessness was merely temporary. We are still negotiating with our insurance companies for help in rebuilding our lives. That is an annoyance. However, Melanie and I can too easily now imagine what it would have been like had we not had insurance at all though, so we are thankful.
The fire isn’t over though. Far from it. Santa Rosa is no longer like a war zone with hugs, but there is a long way to go. Fire survivors are all different, but one unifying characteristic is that none of us is past the fire.
Every day most of us have some fire-related administrative work. Those practicalities confront us over and over with the memory of the violent, abrupt change in the course of our lives.
A few are still dealing with their insurance companies demanding proof of the possessions they lost. Right after the fire, our insurance company representative told me I had to document everything, all the way down to how many nail clippers I had, how much they cost and, oh yeah, they needed receipts too. Cataloging every item, mentally walking through your destroyed home, looking through every drawer and closet, seems a lot like demanding that a rape victim recount every moment of their attack.
Those who are rebuilding are dealing with architects, permits and builders, encountering expected and unexpected delays, problems, and obstacles. Thieves are stealing tools from the rebuilding sites. A friend in our neighborhood told me he had fired his contractor after the contractor gave him an estimate of $1,050 a square foot to rebuild his home. For perspective, the first estimate our insurance gave us was roughly $230/sq. ft.
For eight months we were on the rebuild path. We spent hundreds of hours obtaining original house plans, developing new ones, working with suppliers of cabinets, flooring, windows, plumbing, etc. Insanity or serious illness seemed much closer at hand than a rebuilt home. We never received an estimate.
One contractor, in all seriousness, told us we needed to tell him what type of drywall wrap we wanted for him to complete the estimate. Huh? Another told us he would not give us a bid for the house until we specified the paint we wanted, or at least how many colors would be used in the house. Nothing we did seemed to be enough.