MEMBERS ONLY: Life in the Santa Rosa Firestorm

by Bob Cesca

I’ve had an interesting week. And it all began with something inside my computer called “classpnp.sys.”

Not in a million years will I fully understand what this goddamn file does, but without warning, it stopped loading correctly thus preventing my computer from booting. Three years ago, at around this time of year, I nearly had a nervous breakdown (not exaggerating) when the same computer needed a completely new motherboard, power supply and cooling system. (In case you feel compelled to dash into the comments to tell me I need to buy a Mac, bear in mind that with my PC, I can replace individual internal components when needed. With Macs, I’d have to replace the whole damn machine.) Only at that time, I was living in Kona, Hawaii, where everything takes longer — they call it “island time.” Being a northeasterner, I hated island time. Three weeks went by before my computer was repaired, preventing me from doing either my podcast or publishing articles here. Frankly, I thought I’d go insane waiting, incapable of doing my job while letting down all of my listeners and readers.

Long story short, it was with significant stress that I finally stopped trying to fix my computer last Friday and instead packed it into my car for the drive to “Computers & More,” an excellent repair shop in eastern Santa Rosa. Naturally, the next two days involved me pacing around my house wondering how long it’d take to fix this time. I wouldn’t say it’s PTSD, but past experience had me off-balance, on panicked footing. 

Little did I know what was in store for Sunday night.

My computer was supposed to be ready by Tuesday the 10th. It wasn’t. Instead, the city of Santa Rosa, which I’ve called home since mid-Summer 2015, was attacked by the most catastrophic firestorm in the history of California. I write “attacked” because this wasn’t any ordinary wildfire. It was an atomic bomb, minus the radiation, touched off in the heart of the suburbs north and east of center-city. 

The power went out in my apartment Sunday evening at around 9:30 p.m. Pacific daylight time. But it quickly came back on a few minutes later. Not so bad but for the fact that I had to reset all of our digital clocks, grumbling the whole time about how inconvenient it was. During the brief outage, meanwhile, Kimberley Johnson, my girlfriend and popular author/blogger, noticed the intense winds outside. We later discovered the “wind event” featured gusts of 75 miles-per-hour, which is, suffice to say, quite powerful. So it must’ve been the wind that knocked the power out again at around 11 p.m.

This time, we decided not to fight it so we went to bed a little early. Fast forward several hours when Kimberley rousted me awake, informing me that our neighbor across the hall knocked on our door to inform us that everyone was evacuating due to a wildfire that had apparently jumped the 101 freeway and the Mark West Creek near our apartment complex. The Mark West Creek part turned out to be a false rumor, but sure enough, one glance out of our bedroom window was enough to know there was a monster fire just south of our place. The sky was alive with a sickening orange glow that I’d seen before — the most memorable occasioning being the glow from my brothers’ bedroom back in 1981 when my house burned down due to an electrical fire. A story for another time. Needless to say, I’ve been through fires before.

As I struggled to shake off the grogginess that accompanies 3 a.m. wakeup calls, I checked the emergency Twitter accounts and websites for the Santa Rosa area and learned that we, in fact, weren’t being evacuated but that we should be ready to roll at any moment. Without electricity or adequate light, and with the sounds of sirens and of exploding propane tanks outside, we slowly gathered “go bags” with the bare essentials in case we needed to bug-out. I feel like I emotionally experienced the loss of my things while figuring out what to save — mentally evaluating which possessions would be acceptable to burn. It felt like I was saying goodbye to nearly everything I owned. My movie collection, my desk, my audio equipment, my clothes, my collectibles, my keepsakes. I imagined it all charred or melted in a blackened, flattened arrangement of nothingness. Again, I’ve seen this before. In 1981, I sifted through the remains of my Star Wars toys as a shocked nine-year-old, the day after my house burned. This time, it felt like it had already happened. Like a bad memory before the fact.

Dawn arrived Monday morning without any orders to evacuate. Outside, it looked like a Mad Max film. The sky was a gross yellowish-peach color, with a snowfall of ashes descending from the smoke that blanketed the air for miles around. It smelled like death at the end of the world. This is what it’ll look like when Trump triggers a nuclear confrontation, I thought.

Santa Rosa on fire (via the AP)  
Santa Rosa on fire (via the AP)  

They’re saying a downed power line in the mountains east of town sparked the initial fire, and the 75 mile-per-hour winds carried the firestorm like a blitzkrieg marching at the doublequick in a southwesterly direction into the neighborhoods of Fountaingrove, Larkfield, Wikiup, Rincon and, finally, into the Coffey Lane area, just a few blocks from where I initially lived when I first moved here. The Trader Joe’s grocery store where I used to shop was severely damaged. The Mexican restaurant next to it is gone. The Applebee’s and the McDonald’s a few blocks north were burned to the ground. But the Coffey Lane area was a catastrophe. You’ve probably seen the photos (including the one above) of a neighborhood that was almost entirely wiped off the map. Some locals barely made it out of their homes before the fire overtook them. One family, documented by the local paper, entirely lost the home they had just purchased three months ago. The photo in the paper showed the married couple retrieving goldfish from their coy pond — on orders from their daughter who “ordered” her parents to rescue the fish. On Tuesday, I bought coffee for a group of officers from the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department. As we talked briefly, they told me that three of their comrades lost homes, others weren’t entirely sure where their families were. Yet there they were — doing their jobs. Public servants at their finest.

Over the next several days, Kimberley and I just sat around our place. Stunned. Anxious. Stressed. Grateful for our good fortune. Begging for the return of some kind of normalcy. It wasn’t until late Tuesday that I realized my computer was probably gone, given how “Computers & More” was on the edge of the evac zone, flanked to the north and south by massive fires.

Nevertheless, when events like this occur, there’s a tiny collection of upsides, weirdly. First, you begin to crave the things you once took for granted. A hot shower. A hot meal. A charged cell battery. Your routine. Your favorite TV show. The “Starship Enterprise” mechanical hum of your various appliances. Enough light in the bathroom to shave. You also regain new layers of respect for the aforementioned public servants whose job it is to literally save us all, irrespective of which political party we support or where we came from. We never have to ask them to do it. We never have to thank them when it’s all over. We never fully realize that they’re human beings with lives, life-partners, children and homes, too. But there they are, stepping up when needed to do the impossible work of saving lives while stowing their personal grief. They stand courageously between us and the abyss.

An estimated $1 million in damage was caused to the Stoke Ranch on Old Redwood Highway north of Santa Rosa (Via The Press Democrat)
An estimated $1 million in damage was caused to the Stoke Ranch on Old Redwood Highway north of Santa Rosa (Via The Press Democrat)

As a card-carrying leftist, I believe in the power of government as a place where The People come together to achieve good. The 8,000-plus first responders who landed boots-on-the-ground in Sonoma, Napa and Lake Counties deserve medals, they deserve our enduring support and gratitude, and anyone who tries to undermine our invaluable emergency services including, unfortunately, our current president, ought to be opposed with every breath we can muster.

Along those lines, as I drove around charging my cellphone and surveying what happened, I didn’t bump into a single human who was talking about Trump or Hillary or Bernie or any of the divisive topics we read about every day. For the duration of this calamity, a sense of unity prevailed. Until now, I wasn’t sure whether it was possible, but there it was. Here, amid the destruction, were all Americans, dealing with a crisis that didn’t discriminate between black and white, or between immigrant and lifelong native.

It’s Friday now. This morning, the electricity was restored by PG&E, the infamous utility corporation made famous by Erin Brockovich. We’re waiting for a technician to stop by to restore our gas hot water heater. But north of here, authorities just evacuated Geyserville, while fires elsewhere continue to destroy the Annadel area southeast of Santa Rosa. This isn’t over yet, and our “go bags” are still stacked next to the door.

As for my computer, I called the shop today just to see if anyone would answer. Not only did a guy answer the phone, confirming that my computer still exists, but it looks like it’ll be repaired in the next day or two. At least that’s what I’m hoping for. All-in-all, the normalcy I craved in the belly of the crisis might be here before the end of the weekend. Life will go on, but now with a renewed sense of good fortune. Kimberley and I were extraordinarily lucky given that the orange glow we witnessed early Monday morning was Larkfield and the Coffey Lane area, just a stone’s throw away. The evacuation zone remains a half mile down the road. This isn’t over yet, but it feels like we’re much nearer the end than the beginning. Thousands of people lost their homes — five percent of all real estate in the county. 15 of my neighbors are dead. But fate spared me again. 

None of this will ever be lost on me.

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