Jill Permutt and Joan Tanzer live in different cities, and have never met in person, but now they are connected through a tragic similarity: they have both lost their homes in fires.
Permutt and her husband fled their home in Santa Rosa during the wildfires last week. Tanzer lost her house in the Oakland Hills fire in 1991.
Until last week, the two women were strangers. But then a mutual friend told Tanzer about Permutt, about how her entire neighborhood in Santa Rosa had just burned to the ground. Tanzer called her right away, and since then they’ve talked several times on the phone.
“You’ve lost everything in your life. Now you have to write it all down.”
Tanzer and her husband are retired and now live in the small town of Aptos, south of Santa Cruz. Permutt and her husband are staying at a hotel in Santa Rosa. During her conversations with Permutt, Tanzer is sympathetic, but also blunt about how hard the recovery process can be. She says it took her 15 years to really rebuild her life and identity after the Oakland fire.
Tanzer’s daughter was only 8 at the time of the Oakland fire, so helping her cope was an important part of the process. And that disaster occurred during the pre-Internet age, when you couldn’t save electronic copies of anything to “the cloud.” When the Tanzers fled their home, Joan managed to grab a few photo albums, but the rest of the photos were lost. She did manage to rebuild some of the family history later, by asking friends and relatives to comb through their own collections for photos of the Tanzers, and send her copies.
In some ways, the recovery process will be different for Permutt. She kept a lot of financial documents online. Some of her treasured photos are backed up. And all three of her kids are grown and gone, living elsewhere, with their own careers.
But Tazner warned Permutt that she and her husband are in for a stressful time.
“Kiss your hubby a lot,” Tanzer advised. “Really, you’ve got to take care of yourself and your twosome. I really think that that got overlooked. We had a support group afterwards. There were 13 of us, seven divorces. These weren’t new marriages, these were established marriages. The strain of even renovation is a big factor in divorce. But doing this is just crazy.”
Tanzer’s support group in Oakland was called the Optimists. The neighbors swapped tips on dealing with insurance, and talked about how to help their kids feel safe again. Tanzer, for example, changed her work schedule so she could spend more time with her young daughter.
Life after fire can be surprising
Tanzer says life after the fire was full of surprises, both good and bad. Stores gave her discounts , and co-workers left little gifts on her desk — practical things, like pantyhose and underwear. They even threw her a fire recovery shower — kind of like a bridal shower, to replace all the pots and pans and household things she had lost.
In Santa Rosa, people have been doing wonderful things for Permutt and her husband, too. Some have dropped meals off at the hotel.
All that attention can be healing for fire victims, Tanzer said. But it can sometimes feel invasive, too. After the Oakland fire, her neighborhood became a kind of spectacle. For example, a bus full of Japanese tourists once drove through the neighborhood while she was digging through the rubble of her home.
“They were coming out of the bus to take our picture, as if it were some other kind of entertainment. That really upset us,” Tanzer recalled.
It was almost Halloween, so Tanzer put a pumpkin out, right in front of her burned house. She wrote on it with a marker: “Keep Out! This is still our home!!”
When she’s talking to Permutt, Tanzer shares lots of stories like that one — the bizarre and surprising tales, along with the moments of loss.
One surprise for her was feeling the trauma of losing her home in her body, physically. When she was cooking in her new kitchen, she’d still reach out to grab for a spatula in the place it used to be, and her had would grab emptiness.
“You can’t figure out why you have such a bad headache after you made a bunch of pancakes,” Tanzer said. “Because nothing is where you thought it was.”
One way Tanzer coped with the fire was through art. For months after the fire, she collected boxes of debris from their old property, remnants of her old life, like blackened coins, twisted forks, and a melted menorah. She used some of the materials to make sculptures and collages. It was a kind of therapy for her.
Tanzer hopes her stories will help Permutt prepare for the strange psychological space she will have to inhabit in the coming months and years.
Permutt said some of Tanzer’s advice has been great, but she can’t absorb all of it right away.
But the practical tips have been quite helpful, Permutt said, including Tanzer’s referring her to a trustworthy public adjuster, the same one Tanzer used after the Oakland Hills fire. Public adjusters help catalogue lost belongings and negotiate with insurance, in return for a cut of the claim.
But Tanzer knows that many people affected by the fire don’t even have insurance. “This is a disaster upon disaster. It’s not just an emotional disaster but it’s such a huge financial disaster. The people who will lose their jobs, as well as their dwellings. And what happens to them? What resources are available to them? What about the people who work for the wineries?”
What not to say to a fire survivor
For the many Californians who want to reach out and help , Tanzer has advice about what not to say to a fire victim:
“Don’t say ‘What can I do for you?'” she instructed. “Say ‘First I’m going to bring over this to you’ [or] ‘Where will you be? I’m going to bring this for you,’ ‘What do you want me to store for you because you don’t have a big place…'”
“Say what you’re going to do,” Tanzer explained. “Don’t make them think. Just make the offer.”
Tanzer’s phone is ringing a lot these days. Other survivors of the Wine Country fires are calling, eager to hear from someone who’s actually gotten through this, and can talk to them from the other side.
It’s therapeutic for her, too.
“It makes me feel like something good can come out of the fire, if I can help somebody else.”