Deb Smith and her mother, Sandy, had been forced to evacuate before. That time, they hadn’t been together. In 2017, Sandy, 78, a stroke survivor with close-cropped hair, had been in a nursing home in the Fountaingrove neighborhood of Santa Rosa recovering from bronchitis when she’d been woken up at 3 in the morning. “They woke us up,” Sandy said, “and said ‘Hurry up, get up, and come. Don’t pick up anything, just come.’ ” She was loaded up into the front of an ambulance and watched as other patients were taken out of their wheelchairs and loaded into vehicles, too. “I watched the flames shooting up as high as you could see.” (“Right there, on either side of the street,” Deb interjects.) “I understand they melted,” Sandy said of the wheelchairs that were left on the sidewalk. “That’s what I’m told.” Two years later, they’ve had to evacuate again.
Evacuations are alarming in their own right, even when the wheelchairs don’t melt and you return to a thankfully unburned home. Residents become something else—evacuees—and that nerve-wracking, provisional redefinition of one’s place in the world seems poised to become a more common aspect of California life. Fires have never been rare here, as many Californians are quick to point out; still, it’s concerning that even places that burned just two years earlier are once again at risk. Being an evacuee—in California for fires, and elsewhere for other disasters influenced by a changing climate—is a limbo state that more and more Americans are regrettably learning to occupy. And it’s hard in ways that even the happiest outcomes don’t quite paper over.
This time, when they received the evacuation warning on Oct. 26, Deb and Sandy were together, as they have been for most of the last 11 years. I met the pair at an evacuation shelter in Petaluma, where they’d spent four nights after leaving the double-wide they own in a Santa Rosa mobile home park for people over 55. “This time we found it was a really different experience,” Deb, a former hospital chaplain, told me. “We were going to bed, and Mom picked up her iPad and just looked at where the fires were. … So I called to see if there would be a warning the next day because we didn’t smell smoke or anything, and they said ‘You are not on a watch, you are on a warning, you need to have your car packed and be ready to go on 5-minute notice.’ And it was just accident that we happened to know that. We’re both disabled … and all of a sudden we’re loading up things.”
What things? I asked. It’s something I’d been thinking about myself. A day or two earlier, the Lafayette Fire had been within a few miles of my home. We were in no immediate danger, but the East Bay hills have burned before and it’s possible they’ll burn again. So I’d suggested to my partner that we pack as an experiment, just to get used to the idea. We had an emergency kit we’d assembled in case of earthquakes; on top of that I threw in some underwear and socks, chargers, a backup drive, and a toothbrush, with a bag of dog food and some leashes. I’ve long been proud of my ability to travel light. “That’s it?” he said when he saw my tote. “That’s all you want to save?”
I realized, then, that I’d misunderstood my own assignment. I thought we were packing only what we needed to survive a few nights away from home. I hadn’t appreciated what evacuating really means: saying a provisional goodbye to everything but what you can carry. And figuring out what the discrepancies are between what you must bring and what you can.
“Took us about an hour and a half to get everything packed and to get the car loaded,” Deb told me, ticking off things she was trying to remember that night—her mother’s medical equipment, medicines, everything the cat needed. “And just after we got the necessary things, there was room for one box for things we wanted, sentimental, to put things in the trunk. That was kind of hard.” She chose some pictures and a few mementos. “And I put my mom’s great aunt’s beautiful dish in the freezer, because if it burns then the freezer would protect it.”
When, at 3:30 a.m., they finally found a shelter with room that also accepted cats, she discovered she’d forgotten a few things. She’d remembered pillowcases but forgotten pillows; brought her mother’s nebulizer but forgotten the medicine that came with it. They were working on getting this last one fixed; she’d put a blanket into the pillowcase to make Sandy a pillow. It’s hard enough not to forget things for a short trip—even when you aren’t rushed or scared—but it’s something else to reconcile the two separate challenges of a) packing all you and your loved ones need in the short-term and b) packing all you might want to save of your life as you know it.
Everyone I spoke with last week praised the shelters in Petaluma and Santa Rosa, which have basic medical services and Wi-Fi and serve three hot meals a day. The children were well taken care of—one center had a designated kids’ room where people were leading the kids in crafts. There were coloring books and activities. But even the best shelters can’t disguise the disruptions an evacuation can pose. Not a soul I spoke with wanted to complain; they maintained that they were well-provisioned and grateful. Still, one obstacle bleeds into another, and the difficulty of meeting everyone’s needs leached out, sometimes in the middle of answering a different question. When I asked René Chavarria how he and his wife, Rufina Sanchez, decided what to bring with them from Windsor—they’d evacuated with their three children, Rufina’s mother, and five birds—he said he “told her to grab the important papers and a couple of changes of clothes for each person. My mother-in-law is getting dialysis, and so we had to … make calls looking for a place where they could do it for her close to where we are here in Petaluma.” (They found one.)
The people I spoke with were upbeat about their own situations. Whatever stress they felt frequently manifested as concern for their dependents: children, elderly relatives, and especially pets. Many evacuation centers have “family” sections for kids and parents, and the kids seemed to be doing OK (“not a single tantrum,” Pat Cleland told me, amazed). But most of the people I spoke with were older; pets were their main concern, and planning for pets doesn’t always work, even as caring for pets can seem like the apex of a life conducted through routine.
Cyndy Williams slept with her cat’s crate on her (very small) cot to comfort her. I had met Oscar Rodriguez, of Windsor, as he was letting his dog enjoy some time outside his crate. The police had given his family six hours to evacuate. The first priority: “His stuff [nodding at the dog]—his food, his water, his leash, a few snacks. Some sweaters. Cable stuff to be able to charge mobile devices, and his medicine. That’s about it.” Evacuating with animals is fraught for obvious reasons, and shelters that accept animals tend to require them to be in crates. Deb and Sandy spent most of their first day in the car to give their ailing cat a break from being enclosed. Under evacuation conditions, his crate was too crowded with his litter box and food. “Normally there’s a lot of room,” Deb said. “But I worry about him, he’s got intestinal cancer, I know he doesn’t feel good, and—” here she started to choke up. The only time I saw her cry was when she thought about failing those depending on her.
I don’t know if the first evacuation is the hardest, but it certainly seemed to me that, for the people I spoke with who were in the midst of their second evacuation, the first one was easier to talk about. They were relieved to have found a place to be and happy to offer advice. But having some distance from that earlier emergency seemed to make the darker parts of the present experience—the pain and fear and uncertainty—easier to access. There’s Dennis, 69, who evacuated Larkfield to a Petaluma fairground. He and his wife were rightly proud of the system they developed after evacuating the first time: Yellow backpacks contain the barest essentials, plus differently colored bags for progressively more ambitious evacuation plans, depending on the time and space they have available.
He’d left several guitars behind, but he’d thought a lot about what to bring and what to leave and was relatively cheerful. But he couldn’t tell me about this evacuation without calling up the last one. And his account of that one was noticeably less filtered. “We could see the flames over the tops of buildings and trees, which, a half mile away, fire above us, that’s pretty tall,” Dennis said. “So we had like maybe 10, 15 minutes to get out.” As they were leaving, they realized the assisted care facility near them had been caught off-guard: “I helped one lady. I had to lift her out of bed and I know she was in pain, because she looked like she was not going to be around for a long time, and it wasn’t very easy to lift her, because I’m not really that much in shape, but did my best and tried to apologize to her.” Here, Dennis had to compose himself.
Those I spoke with have since been cleared to return home. If you evacuate but eventually get to return to an unharmed home, as most of the people I talked to did, there is a sense in which the ordeal doesn’t quite “count.” It’s hard, in the abstract, to understand what it means to pack up far too little and sleep in a warehouse filled with strangers, suddenly vulnerable and dependent, with little control of your life, waiting to hear whether your home still exists. If your home survives, the relief can obscure but not obliterate those frenzied moments you spent when you had to fully plan for a different outcome.
I’d expected to find shell-shocked people with frayed nerves after four nights away from home, sleeping on little cots in large rooms alongside dozens of strangers; instead, most were positive and proud of how well they were doing. “We keep joking, it’s like being on a cruise ship,” Cyndy Williams said. Cyndy and Pat Cleland lived in the same community. Their power was out on the night they had to leave, and they’d had a hard time finding out where to go. They asked a police offer where they should head around 3 in the morning. He’d told them “just go south.” Jim Stoops’ car had broken down, and the first shelter he went to was full. He’d packed his important papers, cash, some valuables, but other details had escaped him. “I had sets of clothes, pants and shirts, but I didn’t bring any underclothes or socks,” he said, grinning. “I wish I’d brought a comb.”
Most of these people are going to be—in purely practical terms—fine. The fire in Northern California seems unlikely to spread, and the evacuation orders have been lifted. They will get to return home, their power will be restored, and they’ll be able to resume the lives they had to provisionally abandon. But they’ve gone through something, hard though it might be to talk about the magnitude of the upheaval while they’re still living it. If there’s anything I’ve learned from those gamely enduring their second evacuation, it’s that the memory of the first—which they can talk about, since it’s over—stays with them still.