Most (if not all) of you heard about the absolutely disastrous Atlas Fire that struck our area of Northern California last week. Atlas affected Napa, Santa Rosa and parts of Solano County (where we live) and cut a mind-blowing path of devastation in a short period of time. That fire, combined with the Tubbs fire became the top story in our country for the week that it raged out of control. The Atlas Fire has now burned over 51,000 acres and destroyed large sections of California wine country. It has been responsible for 42 deaths, 90 structures damaged and 481 destroyed, including a few here in our valley. As it was happening, I knew I wanted to write about our experiences so that I would always have a record but I haven’t been able to sit down and actually DO it until now. So here it is, as best as I can remember it with as many photos as I can include :).
On Monday, October 9th the kids were all out of school for the Columbus Day holiday. We had planned to travel up to Placerville with a few friends to visit Apple Hill. The night before I noticed that it was incredibly windy. Like, EXTRAORDINARILY windy. Wind is not uncommon in our area but this was out of control. I also remember waking up several times in the night to the smell of smoke. But it didn’t smell like wildfire smoke; it smelled like my neighbors had a nice wood burning fire going. That smell combined with the cold and wind made for a cozy night of sleeping. We always sleep with our upstairs windows opened…and so over the night our house filled with that smell of smoke. By Monday morning, the smell had intensified and now had a different odor; much more like a wildfire smell. Texts from friends started rolling in and I got on Facebook to check out what was happening. Atlas Peaks was what was happening and the smoke was rolling in from Santa Rosa and Napa. We live about 10 minutes from Napa and our hills in Green Valley back up to Napa. The air outside was already thick with smoke and so leaving for Apple Hill seemed like a great idea. I packed up the kids and left. I honestly did not know how bad it was or how bad it would become…
When we got back from our Apple Hill adventure around 3:00 PM Monday the fire situation was much worse. Now there were rumors of evacuations just down the road from where we live and where some of our good friends live. My nieces and the kids aunt and uncle live down that street and it soon became clear that they were going to need to evacuate; naturally we wanted them with us at our house.
Over the next nine hours we moved in the Clawson family (our friends and family), their dog Mia and a friend of my son whose family was also evacuated. It was a flurry of activity late at night getting beds and bedding set up. Thankfully we have lots of bedding and towels and I had done our “towel” laundry just the day before. Our house isn’t huge but it is amazing how comfortably 11 people and a dog fit without having to carve out too much space. School was canceled for the following day for my elementary kids; on Tuesday afternoon, school was canceled for the whole district for the rest of the week. Other districts nearby and eventually around the Bay Area cancelled school as well mainly due to bad air quality. Here is a news video of what these early days looked like in our area.
The duration of the week from Tuesday until Saturday was filled with a ton of smoke, anxiety, fear, some tears, worry, late nights and early mornings interspersed with a lot of fun, five teenagers, WAY too much food and endless treats, inside jokes, serving at our local deli, crafting parties…and the list goes on and on. I have never spent so much time on my phone in my whole life as I did between Monday and Friday of what we now call “Fire Week” in our family. The updates were of critical importance to our lives and homes, as well as wind updates and fire hot spot updates and city updates and county updates and state updates and and and. You get the picture. Add to that constant texting with friends and neighbors and family and oh my gosh. SO much phone time. I actually texted with friends and family I don’t regularly communicate with; an added bonus of Fire Week. Also, Facebook was awesome during Fire Week. It was a fantastic way to get up to the minute information from our community. Next Door was also a great resource.
On Monday before things got bad I threw a few important things into the trunk of my car. By Tuesday night I had pulled all of our important and very hard/impossible to replace documents and photos, most of our computer/camera equipment and go bags for each person into my car. By Wednesday morning my car was completely ready to roll should we need to leave at a moments notice.
There is a lot of clarity that comes when you think you need to evacuate your house and you may only be able to take a few things with you. Most of our documents and photos could be resurrected through the cloud. Clothing and furniture and super cool pieces of decor can be replaced. We would miss them, sure, but ultimately it isn’t that big a deal to replace them. That is what insurance is for and thank goodness, we have good insurance. The original adoption decree and accompanying documents from our Ethiopian adoption are irreplaceable, however. These are original Ethiopian documents and we would not be able to get those back (especially now that our US adoption agency is closed and gone for good). The scant paperwork I have about my youngest two children is of vital importance to me and so that was what I grabbed first. Then the passports and some important papers, most of our Chatbooks because the kids love them so much, the baby books and my husbands mission journal from his time in Japan. Walking around through my house I realized I have awesome stuff…but I don’t need any of it. All I needed was my family.
We made the decision as a household of now 11 people and a dog that should we need to evacuate my house we would all go somewhere together. We would not split up to different locations; we were a family of 11 for the time being and needed to travel as one. We had wonderful friends reach out to us and offer to house our rag tag crew and it meant a lot to know that so many people were watching out for our corner of the Bay Area.
The smoke in our area was the worst on Wednesday. The air was so thick with smoke that there was no way to even keep it out of our house (despite having all doors and windows closed). It burned our eyes and after just a minute or two outside it was hard to take a deep breath. If I had to rate which day was the most stressful it was Wednesday. It looked like our neighborhood was going to be evacuated and based on air quality alone it didn’t seem like we would be able to stay in our home much longer. Fire trucks kept coming in and out of our neighborhood until they finally just parked at the entrance. Wednesday was scary. There wasn’t even time for proper emotions; it was just be READY TO GO.
My greatest fear on Wednesday wasn’t actually my home or neighborhood. It was for the elementary school our kids go to. Their school was the only school in the mandatory evacuation zone for our county and those red dots for hotspots kept creeping closer and closer. From our perspective, it didn’t look great that the school would escape unscathed. Just thinking about it brought me to tears and I realized just how much that little country school means to me and my family. Spoiler alert: the school was saved and is in perfect shape thanks to the efforts of our heroic firefighters.
The fire was a half circle around our section of the valley and neighboring valley so there was no way to get away from the fallout. Chunks of ash floated through the air, we had to wear masks to go outside or even drive in the car, and the light outside was always a strange tannish-orange. Kind of like a cool filter on Instagram…but sadly real and super smelly. For the first few nights, flames were visible on a nearby ridge and they turned the sky above the ridge dark red. It was spooky. There were helicopters and retardant carrying planes around our valley and A LOT of firefighters and first responders. Despite all of these efforts, the fire was 0% contained for the first three days. Then it was 3% contained and we celebrated that small 3% because it meant progress (as of this posting, the fire is now 95% contained – my heart is filled with so much gratitude for that number). The week brought more and more containment and greater numbers of firefighters and first responders, even National Guard. Seeing Humvees in my valley was a first time occurence.
In between our worried and anxious research/texting/phone-holding were fits of laughter, viewing of “Nacho Libre“, pancakes for dinner, decorating our ever-present breathing masks, late night trips to the grocery store and TJ Maxx, thrifting, Jenga, puzzles, midnight homemade ice cream creations, both long and hurried conversations with friends, our teenage boys making repeated trips up to Rockville Park to survey the fire damage and a lot of candy and sugar. Like, small buffets of it.
By the way, a house full of kids who can’t go to school and also can’t go outside is kinda crazy town. It’s like a vacation but with some serious barriers. The teens made it work with lots of video games (the boys), ipad time/music/tv/makeup and nail situations for the girls and my little kids watched enormous amounts of TV interspersed with coloring and naughtiness. It was hardest for my two youngest because they are very energetic and had nowhere to expend all of that energy. I even tried to take them to a trampoline place and an indoor playground nearby but both were closed due to the fire. Yikes. Somehow we (and they) survived but it was a little dicey at times.
Thursday brought better containment and the lifting of the voluntary evacuation next door to us (our neighborhood was under evacuation advisory; our friends that stayed with us were under mandatory evacuation). Thursday also brought us an opportunity to volunteer to make sandwiches for the firefighters at our favorite local deli, Napa Deli. Napa Deli became a place where the Green Valley community came together to take all of that anxious energy and put it into service and it was such a godsend for us and for the people we were serving. I have always loved Napa Deli but after Fire Week they have my heart and my business forever. They closed down the restaurant for an entire week and through their own inventory and donations, fed 1500 firefighters a day for a week. Pretty incredible. It was a place that our teens were able to work and see their friends (and teachers and principals) and for the adults to work alongside each other and do something good. What a blessing Napa Deli was during Fire Week.
Friday brought less smoke and slightly cleaner air. Saturday we awoke to clear BLUE skies and no smell of smoke! It was amazing. We still experienced smoke in the early mornings and evenings but during the day things were better. Everyone who had been evacuated in Green Valley and Suisun Valley was able to return home by Sunday afternoon. Hallejuiah.
Signs cropped up all over our valley thanking the firefighters and first responders. It was (and still IS) impossible not to get emotional seeing those signs. I have always loved our valley; it is truly special even when stacked against other beautiful wine country areas. After Fire Week I adore our valley that much more. Seeing how close the fires came was evidenced by the VERY visible burn lines on our hills. I feel panicked knowing how quickly all of this beauty could have been wiped out, and feel terrible for so many families and businesses in Santa Rosa who lost everything.
A saying started cropping up during Fire Week: “The love in the air is thicker than the smoke”. I believe that is true. I’ve never felt more love and friendship and a spirit of service in our community before…and we are a friendly bunch. It was truly a feeling of “We are all in this together” and man, that felt great. I love my community. I really love and appreciate the sacrifices of our firefighters and first responders. These men and women are the definition of heroic and we owe our homes and lives to them.
The kids missed a week of school which is pretty unprecedented in our area. We continue to pray for complete containment of the fires and for the safety and well being of our firefighters. My younger two kids will probably always remember Fire Week because it was so disruptive to their normal routines; the older kids will remember for sure.
As for me, I will never again take blue skies and clean air for granted. I’m thankful that we were able to take care of others who were not able to be in their homes and to have fun while doing it. I’m thankful for good friends and family and community. I’m really thankful for firefighters. I’m thankful for technology and social media that made receiving and disseminating information easy in the middle of a crisis. I am thankful for the lessons I learned during Atlas Fire. We discovered that while we are prepared, we aren’t prepared enough. Once everything quieted down I took two days and redid our 72-hour kits and go bags for each person. Now I feel much more secure in our system should we need to leave our house. We truly saw what was needed in a go bag for an evacuation situation and now I think I have it just right. I pray I never need to use it…but if I do, I am ready. So long Atlas Fire. I hope we never see something like you again.