I saw it last night at midnight — the glow from the ridgeline. So that’s what the smell of smoke is from, I thought. And then I turned on the radio.
Now, 12 hours later, my city is on fire. Santa Rosa, home to so many strong, wonderful people, my home where I was born and raised. The Luther Burbank Center, where I went to kindergarten, my senior prom, countless concerts. Cardinal Newman High School, which I grew up next to, where I learned to skate. Coffey Park, where my friends and I decided to start our first band. Kmart, where my mom bought all my school clothes every year.
And hardest of all to fathom, Wikiup, where my dad’s house — a house he built himself, where he’s lived for almost 30 years — is in serious danger, with flames spreading rapidly all over the area.
My dad is not alone. When we finally evacuated a few hours ago, my wife and daughter and I, we hastily threw things into the car. All those things run through your head: Grab photos. Letters. Clothes. The cat. Water. A 72-hour emergency kit. What else? A gas can. Will we really need to put gas in the car? Why didn’t I turn off the gas main at the house? What else did I forget?
These thoughts come at a manic pace when you’re driving out of town with thousands of others, all wondering if they did the right thing, all worrying about their loved ones and homes.
A fire on this scale is completely unexpected. Santa Rosa doesn’t get natural disasters like this often. Before today, the most devastating one of the last 100 years came in 1969, when a pair of violent earthquakes struck the city. Hit hardest was the downtown area, and the city has never been the same: ugly ’70s concrete brutalist architecture rose up from the rubble, and the downtown core was bisected by a giant imposing shopping mall, giving everybody something to constantly complain about ever since. You’re not a true Santa Rosan if you don’t.
This is different — far more destructive, far more unimaginable. Nobody will grouse about this one for style points. Hopefully nobody will politicize the leveling of Fountaingrove, the sprawling hillside neighborhood that’s home to the city’s wealthiest business owners, developers, lawyers, politicians and doctors, because just down the hill, Journey’s End Mobile Home park is reportedly gone too. Coffey Park is still burning. Hopefully nobody will use this as a springboard for whatever niche issue they push. There is no cachet of cool in celebrating any of this.
Because today? Santa Rosa has taken a beating and as I write this, I’m not sure when we’ll be able to fully get back up. Whether you once climbed the hill with friends up to the Fountaingrove Round Barn to explore the inside at night, or you took a first date to Willi’s Wine Bar, or you parked afterward at the city’s inspiration point make-out spot Altruria Drive on a Saturday night, you know how this hurts. Even the things you love to hate, like KZST, the middle-of-the-road radio station which plays incessantly in every dentist’s office in town — when you hear even they had to evacuate their studio, you can’t help but pause at the disrupt of it all. Santa Rosa without KZST means that something is seriously wrong.
And today, I just have to say: this is how we do this. Gathering around KSRO for live updates from the great team there, following Kent Porter for his stellar photos, listening to KQED Forum for the multitude of callers from all over the region, and of course, turning to social media to provide support, information, help with lost pets, offers of places to stay, and more. Giving out water and food. Opening up our homes. I have seen so many displays of togetherness from total strangers this morning that I’ve lost count. You hear this same exact thing about every community in the wake of every tragedy. But in Santa Rosa it really is true.
In the time since I started writing this, amazingly, my dad’s house looks to be safe for now, as does mine. Safari West says all their animals are OK. The Luther Burbank Center’s main theater may actually be safe after all.
But so many others have lost everything. Entire neighborhoods destroyed. Other cities like Kenwood, Glen Ellen, Sonoma and others are hurting like we are. Now’s the time we do the work we do best — helping each other, listening to each other, and rebuilding.
A famous resident of ours once wrote that this is the chosen spot of all the Earth as far as nature is concerned. Let’s make sure that as we get through this, it’s the chosen spot for human nature too.