Halloween After the Fire

A California county that burned two years ago has learned to endure a blaze—and to simulate normal life as it tallies the damage.

A golf cart greets evacuees at a Halloween party at a shelter at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds.
A golf cart greets evacuees at a Halloween party at a shelter at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds. April Glaser

SANTA ROSA, California—Wine Country was on fire this week, for the second time in three years. The Kincade Fire forced more than 180,000 people in Sonoma County, California, to leave their homes, which officials feared could be engulfed in a fire that had doubled in size in less than a day. By Monday, it had grown to twice the size of San Francisco, and 5,000 firefighters and first responders had poured in from all over the country. By Wednesday, they’d done much of their task, and most of the evacuation orders were lifted. But once people were allowed to return home, they weren’t sure what they’d find. Would the electricity be on? Would their house be covered in ash? Did they even still have one?

The first thing most people returned to was a traffic jam. The roads leading up to the reopened evacuation zone were packed all Wednesday evening and into Thursday. Local radio hosts attributed it to “repopulation”—a term I heard every 10 minutes as I scanned the dial driving into Sonoma on Thursday, just in time for Halloween. According to reports from CalFire on Friday afternoon, the fire is now 68 percent contained, though about 121 square miles were burned. Of the more than 350 structures that authorities say were destroyed, about 170 of them were homes. Compared with the Tubbs Fire, which blazed through the area in 2017 and destroyed roughly 4,660 homes, 167 feels like a blessing.* Except if one of the homes was yours.

On Thursday afternoon, I visited a school, an evacuation shelter, and a first responder camp in Santa Rosa. For many of the residents I spoke to, the Kincade Fire felt like a drill. They evacuated in 2017 when fires barreled through the Santa Rosa area. Some of them had lost their homes in that fire and started over again. One woman who was staying at the evacuation shelter at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds told me she figured that since a fire had scarred the area so recently, it wouldn’t burn again for a very, very long time. By the time it did, she had hoped local authorities would find a way to better manage the electrical systems that started the Tubbs Fire and other conflagrations across the state. But residents have now learned that when it comes to wildfires, you can’t count on any particular outcome. The Kincade Fire was bigger in size than Tubbs and the evacuation order was bigger, too. Though Kincade didn’t burn in areas that are as populous as the Tubbs Fire did, the wisdom and fear left by the horror of 2017 had stuck with the entire region. Authorities told people to leave and most heeded the warning.

“We still can’t get sleep. We’re scared still. The trauma that you go through, worrying that you’re going to lose everything you have,” Veronica Chavez told me. “You don’t know if something is going to happen to your kids. And the kids can’t get sleep.” I met Chavez standing on a blacktop outside the Santa Rosa City School District building with her children. They had evacuated Saturday night and went to her sister’s house out of town and had just returned home Wednesday. Chavez said her house in Santa Rosa was safe, but it reeked of smoke. Teachers and administrators had organized trick-or-treating and a Halloween party for families returning home.

There were costumes for kids, candy, games, plates of food, and a sense of relief. Parents were happy their children were distracted. There were tiny giggling witches and superheroes and devils and pumpkins and tigers and zombies and ballerinas and even some firemen, laughing and sorting candy. It almost felt normal. Kids weren’t the only ones filling their bags at this Halloween, though. A local food bank had set up a truck and parents were standing in line to collect pears, jars of applesauce, bread, potatoes, cantaloupes, and cans of diced tomatoes to take home. I asked one boy in face paint, Christopher, what he was supposed to be for Halloween. “A scary thing,” he told me. Another young girl behind him in a Wonder Woman costume chimed in quickly, “Haha, you’re not scary.” One of the teachers told me that they felt like they knew what to do after the last fire. They needed to create spaces to be together.

All kinds of spaces are made for people to come together during and after a fire, like the sprawling camps of firefighters and first responders from all over the country that had taken over massive fields adjacent to the Sonoma County Fairgrounds. Rows of trailers and tents and trucks stretched across fields usually reserved for Ferris wheels and flea markets. I saw crews in trucks from Arizona, Montana, Alaska, Washington, and Oregon. There were supply tents, packed with hoses and masks and axes and whatever else is needed to battle the blaze. There were medical tents. There were also tents with inmates in orange jumpsuits. One first responder explained that the prisoners get time off their sentence for doing this dangerous work. They make between $2 and $5 a day, and $1 per hour while they’re fighting fires. (After the imprisoned firefighters get out of jail, however, many of them won’t be able to get jobs doing this kind of work, since state law prohibits agencies from giving an EMT certification to any applicant on parole or probation or who has committed a felony in the past 10 years.)

A truck at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds used to transport inmates fighting the Kincade Fire.
A truck at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds used to transport inmates fighting the Kincade Fire. April Glaser

Just around the corner from where the inmates were camped, evacuees were housed in a cavernous events building filled with hundreds of cots cloaked in white sheets and folding chairs strewn about. By Thursday, after most of the evacuation orders had lifted, the ad hoc shelter counted 200 people still there around lunchtime, down from the 600 who were staying on Tuesday. The space was set up by state and local officials and was partially staffed by volunteers from the Red Cross. One of the volunteers, who came up from the South Bay and had also worked at evacuation shelters during the Tubbs Fire, told me that things felt easier this time. She said it just seemed like folks knew what to do, that people “knew the drill.”

Behind the fairgrounds, there was another Halloween party. There was a picnic table filled with jack-o’-lanterns that evacuees, adults and children, had carved from donated pumpkins earlier in the day. A band was playing. Local volunteers who didn’t have to evacuate were there—many had heard about it on Facebook—dressed in Halloween costumes, serving popcorn and apple cider, and handing out candy. Again, the kids were laughing and running around. “I love Halloween,” one little girl in a skeleton costume told me. The people who were still at the shelter Thursday night decided to stay either because the evacuation order hadn’t lifted where they lived or because they didn’t want to come home to a dark house. “It’s triggering to do this again,” one woman dressed as a cat and handing out candy told me. She left her home in 2017, but this year she decided to stay despite the orders to leave.

Everyone was tired. It’s not easy to sleep in a room with hundreds of others when you don’t know what will happen tomorrow—if you’ll even have a home to come back to. But what was perhaps most exhausting, what made people shake when they thought about it, was remembering that this happened only two years ago. They’re getting better at this. But this is also a reminder that it could all happen again very soon.

Correction, Nov. 2, 2019: This article originally misstated the number of homes that were destroyed during the Tubbs Fire in 2017.  It was roughly 4,660, not 2,900.