What It’s Like to Lose Your House in a Wildfire

Image via Ryan Koven.

Lest you forgot amid the sea of other bad news, much of the
state of California is still burning to crisp in a number of
devastating wildfires showing no signs of slowing down.

In Northern California, firefighters are struggling to contain
16 separate blazes which together have killed at least 26
people and destroyed an estimated 170,000 acres of land.
According to the Los
Angeles Times
, 30 air tankers, 75 helicopters and 550 fire
engines carrying several thousand firefighters have worked to
combat the fires, their jobs made ever more difficult on
account of the dry winds stoking the flames. Across the state,
around 50,000 people have evacuated their homes and sought
refuge in shelters and hotels.

“We’ve had big fires in the past,” Governor Jerry Brown said
during a briefing with state and federal officials. “This is
one of the biggest.”

A close friend of mine is one such evacuee. He happened to be
visiting his parents in Santa Rosa in Sonoma County when
firefighters pounded on his door at 2 a.m. on Monday, screaming
that everyone needed to get out, now. Ryan grabbed his
laptop and his still-mostly packed bag of clothes, and he and
his family loaded hurriedly into the car, pulling out of the
driveway as the fire tore through the open grasses that
surrounded his neighborhood. Looking back through the rearview
window as the flames closed in on his house, Ryan said he was
first awed by the size of the fire, which lit up the sky like a
sunrise. “My first thought was, that fire is fuckin’ awesome,”
he told me Thursday. It wasn’t until later that it fully
occurred to him that the enormous flames devouring the street
were going to consume his house, too.

Before. (Via Google street view)

After. (Image via Ryan Koven)

After some initial confusion, Ryan and his family arrived at a
nearby community center repurposed as an evacuation shelter.
The auditorium had been converted into a sleeping area, and
more and more people kept arriving as the morning stretched on.
Several buses filled with occupants from area nursing homes
arrived, having literally driven through the fire to get there.
“It was a madhouse,” Ryan said.

But the madness was short-lived, giving way in the ensuing
hours to a surprising level of order. Ryan is leaving Finley
Community Center today, and said he experienced none of the
traumas that sometimes accompany life in
emergency shelters. Help has poured in from many of the
resource-rich counties surrounding Sonoma, a luxury that
many—like the tens of thousands seeking refuge in Puerto Rico
and the Carribbean following the natural disasters there—do not
have.

An abundance of food was donated by nearby restaurants, and the
Salvation Army brought truckloads of clothes and books for
inhabitants to peruse. Trailers with showers arrived on
Tuesday, though few people opted to use them, perhaps because
the water only runs cold.

Several major insurance companies have set up tents so that
people can begin the long process of filing their claims,
though most people haven’t thought that far ahead yet. Red
Cross volunteers have showed up in droves, to the point that
authorities had to start turning them away. This being Northern
California, lots of people have procured guitars.

Very few people have any idea what’s become of their homes,
since roads are still largely closed as the fires continue to
ravage the area. Ryan decided to walk the two miles back to his
on foot, and found that his house—and entire neighborhood—had
been burned to the ground, his once leafy street now an
apocalyptic scene of smoldering rubble. Random items remain
charred but intact, like wine bottles, and, strangely, washers
and dryers seem to have withstood the blaze, he said.

Even three days later, Ryan has not fully absorbed the shock of
what having lost his family home will mean. Artifacts from his
childhood, old school papers, paintings, notebooks and everyday
detritus that collected for the 26 years that his family lived
in their Santa Rosa home are now gone. Many of the things lost
will never be missed, but Ryan knows that eventually the day
will come when he’ll think to look for some forgotten photo,
and remember that he can’t.

“It won’t be one realization, but a thousand little ones,” he
said.

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