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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.

With all of this, plus trying to imagine life back in our wonderful home, but in a construction zone for years, with beloved neighbors all around, but others gone, with gorgeous views, but the views now reminding us of the path of the fire, we vacillated back and forth.

Do we rebuild? Do we buy a different house? The day my wife and I changed our minds every hour, it was clear we had to just throw in the towel, choose the easier path, and find another house ― which we finally did, moving in just recently. So we’re now “home”…at last.

Those of us who are settling into a new home have a different but overlapping set of tasks. We still need help from contractors. Our short-term relationship with our insurance company is becoming an unhappily long-term one. Insurance doesn’t cover land. So the insurance company subtracts the price of the land on which the new house is built from the settlement. Selling the old property to make up the difference doesn’t work well because, with so many burned lots for sale, you can’t match the price you have to pay for the lot on which your new, unburned house stands.

Identifying features of the new house that are not as good as the old house is one way of accessing the money the insurance company held back. That, however, has a couple of undesirable consequences. First, it means going through your lovely new home scrutinizing it for flaws. We would rather appreciate its qualities. The second takes us back to the problem of finding someone to do the construction ― now with a firm two-year post-fire deadline, unlike the extension allowed for rebuilding.

Overall, people have been fantastic, but price gouging is all too real. Rents are crazy, but after we had to commute from central Marin for 7 months, we are overjoyed to be living back in Santa Rosa. When you can’t get contractors to call you back, you are thankful when one does. Too often you then find yourself gasping at their estimate before taking a big breath, swallowing any anger, and asking how soon they can start. After waiting weeks for an essential safety upgrade at the new house, the workers told us that we were paying too much. We told them their boss set the price and he was the only one to call us back. No choice.

The next big lesson is about material things. I learned that stuff is more than stuff and that even when it is just stuff, that is what makes it important. I’ll explain.

Before the fire I understood something about the emotional attachment we have to objects, but not the real depth of their meaning. I naively believed that material objects are trivial. Only life is important. If you are a wandering monk in India with only a begging bowl, prayer beads, and your clothing, maybe so. For the rest of us physical reality is more complicated.

It seems that there are three categories of stuff: luxury items, mementos, and practicalities.

Neither Melanie nor I have had an instance of sadness because we lost some expensive/luxury item. However, losing the practicalities were disabling, and the vanished keepsakes will always hurt.

The practical aspect of the losses was quite surprising. From the moment you wake up each morning, everything you do requires objects. Try this experiment: Go lay on your bed and start to tally every item you touch or use in even a few minutes ― the pillow, blankets, sheets, mattress, frame of your bed, floor, toothbrush, soap, brush, and on and on and on. Now imagine all of them gone. It would be as if you were dropped naked into the world, reborn, but into an adult and probably somewhat damaged body.

To do anything you need “tools” you no longer have. My cousin helped us a great deal when he went out and bought us some pencils, a pencil sharpener, tape, a Swiss army knife, a scoop for dog food, and a laundry bag. That all sounds trivial, but not having those objects made life extremely difficult, because we couldn’t complete the simplest tasks without going somewhere to buy what we needed. On the most basic level, I now appreciate our lives are streamlined by hundreds of trifling objects accumulated over the years.

The losses from this fire are communal more than they are individual. Most obviously, our community is under severe stress in the ongoing struggle to reconstruct our homes, and our lives. When our home burned, the 2,000-degree heat (per our insurance company) vaporized connections to our ancestors and the past.

The iconic mementos, the physical reminders of lives and experiences that generations of my family had carried through their lives and carefully passed on, vanished in minutes (four minutes per a neighbor’s video). Our descendants will never see or touch them. My great-great grandmother Josephine’s wedding silver, forged in 1831, is gone. So is the tatting made with her own hands so long ago. Nearly all of my amazingly talented mother-in-law’s artwork was destroyed. Pictures, souvenirs from special times and places, a stone from a beach in Ireland, my wedding ring, ceramics my wife’s ancestors brought with them from Poland and Lithuania, a great-grandmother’s high school graduation pin and the bentwood rocker she used as a small child were all incinerated. The list for us is as long as it is agonizing to contemplate.

However, the greatest lessons of the past year are about people.

Stuff is more important than I thought it was, but people are beyond amazing. Our community is why we decided to come back. The people here are even more special than the beautiful place we all live in.

Thank YOU for whatever you have done for survivors and for the community. That “we” is why so few have left, and why I am optimistic that the community will more than recover in due course. I expect that, with time, we will make Santa Rosa, Sonoma County, and the North Bay even better than before.

We were humbled and surprised by people’s kindness. Strangers, acquaintances, friends, and family from all over the world reached out to help us. Their gifts of clothing, furniture, household items, and cash were amazing. Their affection sustained us.

The kindness of strangers was hard to bear at times. Many fire survivors tell me different versions of the same story. In a store or restaurant, the salesperson or manager discovered the customer had lost their home and then refused payment. This unexpected thoughtfulness led most of us to break down many times when we found ourselves the sudden recipient of these surprising acts of compassion by generous individuals who didn’t even know us.

Some of the people who did the most to help us were not the people who we would have expected to do so. That was a great gift of another variety. We discovered that even people who we think we know can be surprising and given such imperfect understanding, it is foolish to judge another person.

After experiencing extreme trauma, people can be overwhelmed. There have been suicides. I can understand their despair. I cannot overemphasize how important the support from others has been to every aspect of our recovery. Many other difficulties hit us during this time, not all of them related to the fire. A friend told me that I was living the Book of Job, Part Two. The caring behind the kind actions of so many gave me the hope and strength to keep on. It became clear that most people are much better than the terrible stories in some media have led us to believe.

Since the fire, one of our daughters gave birth to our first grandchild, the other just got married, and our son landed his dream job. Life goes on, healing us as it moves us forward. Our dog deserves some credit. His nose must have given him some warnings we never got. Since that night, he has been as fearful as us at times, wary of unfamiliar noises outside. Hopefully, we have helped him as much as his affection has helped us.

Everyone heals in his or her own way. A month after the fire we had friends over to our rental in Marin for my birthday. Many of them had also lost their homes. We had the party because we found ourselves craving contact with people, especially those close to us who had also suffered. Some didn’t come because they couldn’t bear a social event. However, most did come, driven by the same urge to connect that we felt.

The truth is that unimaginably horrible things happen to each and every one of us. That is how the world is. We must be resilient, nourishing ourselves and others, so we can rise again…

Michael Carlston, M.D. has been in private practice in Santa Rosa for over three decades, and specializes in an integrative approach incorporating the best of traditional medicine in combination with homeopathy and alternatives, and he is also a Sports Medicine specialist. Dr. Carlston is the author of Better Than Medicines – The Ten Essential Health Habits, a how-to handbook which equips patients to proactively address their own health needs. His detailed website includes his blog with 100+ posts offering practical advice and information on numerous conditions as well as various issues facing patients today, learn or phone 707.545.1554.

Immediately following the fires, Dr. Carlston was asked by the Washington Post to write an account of his ordeal (which was subsequently syndicated), here’s the link to that article:

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