On Sunday, October 7th 2017, my family and I went to bed just like we do every night. School lunches were packed and sitting on the counter ready for the next day. A load of laundry sat in the dryer ready to be folded. Our community of almost 200,000 people was going about its usual routine. We had no idea our world was about to be turned upside down.
I felt my wife get out of bed and assumed it was morning. The faint glow of what I thought was daylight came streaming through our open window. “What time is it?” I asked. “2 a.m. and I smell smoke” she replied. I sighed and rolled over, desperate to get back to sleep. I didn’t smell anything, but she insisted on going outside to check. She quickly returned to tell me she heard explosions outside. This news lured me out of my bed and I went outside to see what she was concerned about. The sky in front of our house was a red glow and we heard explosions in the distance. The blare of sirens reassured us that the fire department was already alerted to whatever this fire was.
But something didn’t feel right. Neighbors started pouring out of their houses, some packing up their cars and leaving. Our cell phones were oddly silent despite our expectation that if we were in danger, we would have gotten some kind of alert. The bells at the Catholic Church down the street started ringing at 2:30 a.m. We decided to turn on the radio and see if there was any information about where this fire was. The explosions were getting much closer and the red glow in the sky was growing. Within a minute of listening to the radio, we learned that our town was burning down around us. Flames were surrounding our town on three sides and moving at a speed of over 200 feet per second. Cell towers were overwhelmed so none of the calls we made to alert our friends would go through.
The hour that followed was a chaotic blur that is etched in our minds forever. We pulled the kids out of bed and told them to grab anything that could not be replaced. The four of us frantically ran around the house grabbing family heirlooms, photos and packing overnight bags. We crated our three cats and put our fire safe containing important documents in the car. Adrenaline was coursing through us, propelling us to grab everything that could possibly fit in our cars. We had no idea where we were fleeing, so we packed some of the emergency food and water that I always keep on hand. My fourteen-year-old was sobbing, looking for her favorite childhood blanket. My mind kept jumping from being ultra-focused to going blank. I couldn’t remember where basic things were and I kept coming back to the same thought: how did this happen?
The hours, days and two weeks that followed were a painful mix of emotional trauma, sleep deprivation and extreme stress. The National Guard and first responders from all over the country and even Canada, rolled into town. Pictures of the devastation dominated my social media newsfeed. My friend’s homes burned to the ground, with many getting out with only the pajamas on their backs. Hundreds of people were unaccounted for. For two full weeks the fires raged; the wind would shift and flames would change direction, threatening different neighborhoods. Night brought a sinking feeling since the darkness hampered the firefighting efforts, and seemed to carry with it a fear of the unknown. Two out of our three hospitals were evacuated and closed, with flames licking their walls and patients in gowns loaded onto buses. Thousands of people were living in shelters, sleeping in their cars and tent camping in parking lots. The collective grief in our community hung in the air, almost as thick as the toxic smoke that burned our throats. Entire portions of our city were destroyed.
My family and I evacuated to my parent’s house, 30 miles north of Santa Rosa. A couple of days after the fire started, I began getting messages and texts from nurses. People with ostomies were living in the shelters and they had no time to pack their supplies when they evacuated. Since hospitals were contaminated and closed, getting supplies from them was not an option. I alerted UOAA of the issue as I quickly started organizing an effort to gather donated supplies from manufacturers. Living through that experience taught me many things about disaster preparation as someone living with an ostomy.