Shoshana Hebshi at her home in Santa Rosa
Shoshana Hebshi at her home in Santa Rosa

My community is healing, but the heartache still lingers

I only recently began driving over Fountaingrove Parkway again. It’s the easiest route to get to Highway 101 from my house in the Rincon Valley neighborhood of Santa Rosa. Since the fire, I’d been avoiding it, taking other, less direct roads, trying to avert my attention. I have several friends who lived up there. Their lots are cleaned now, like nearly all of the other hundreds of lots surrounding theirs. Leveled, as if a house never stood there. Empty lots, razed trees, fences removed. For sale signs.

Now, six months out from the Tubbs Fire that destroyed so much of this and other northern Santa Rosa neighborhoods, as I drive to one of the highest points within the city limits, I am transported to the early morning of Oct. 9. I see the fire in my mind and retrace its path. I think about what it must have been like, to be jolted awake by neighbors honking, calling or pounding on doors, or to the smell of smoke, and to look outside and find a glowing ridgeline to the east, a wildfire licking at the black sky and moving right toward you and everything you hold dear.

I try to imagine the terror and panic some experienced, while others adhered to a clear-headed emergency preparedness checklist with adrenaline pumping. The frantic gathering of what only five or 10 minutes could spare: the children, the dog, important papers, a family photo album, car keys.

I try to imagine this because I was not there. I was in a hotel room in Ashland, Oregon, with my family.

The fire missed my neighborhood by less than a mile.

We awoke that morning to calls and texts asking if we were OK. We had no idea that our neighbors had banged on our door at 1:30 in the morning to make sure we got out. We had no idea that several of our friends’ homes had been consumed by the fire. That people had died. That the entire county was in a state of emergency.

It was a sunny but chilly morning in Ashland. When we went across the street for breakfast, we battled powerful winds, the same winds that had made flags look like they were going to fly off their poles along I-5 as we drove up the evening before.

We checked in with whomever we could reach: friends at an evacuation center, friends in more centralized neighborhoods who were considering leaving though they had not yet been evacuated, friends who had no idea of the status of their home or belongings. We were still unsure of the status of our own.

The fire missed my neighborhood by less than a mile.

We drove home on Oct. 10, still unsure and anxious. We stopped at our house, though the neighborhood was evacuated. The sky was brown and thick with smoke. Our eyes were watering and our throats hurt. We grabbed musical instruments, birth certificates and insurance documents, food that would otherwise perish since our power was off, wine, photos and clothes. We packed both cars and headed to my sister’s house in Piedmont. It was nearly as smoky there.

A week later, we returned to our house. The evacuation order had been lifted. Fountaingrove Parkway was barricaded. I checked in with neighbors and for the first time put their numbers into my phone. I cleaned the refrigerator, the floors, the walls, changed the sheets. It was all I could do.

Some things were normal; the grocery stores were open, people were on the roads. The yoga studio where I teach reopened for classes. Schools were still closed, but some routine came back into our lives. I started thinking, what could I do to help?

I turned to what I know: feeding people.

I began cooking for all my friends who had lost their homes. Some were not ready to receive meals yet, others were. I brought them as much food as I could, in reusable bags and Tupperware they could keep, since they had none. They were all adjusting to their new rental homes, to their new circumstances while trying to navigate insurance claims, FEMA aid and an outpouring of support from the community.

As weeks and months passed, the acuteness of the disaster response dissipated, but a new, slow-burning anxiety and nervousness set in. Two months after the fire, we all were moving forward in one way or another. But the trauma was still there.

One day not long ago, warm, strong, easterly winds blew like they had on Oct. 8 and 9, and it seemed everyone I came across was jittery. When I heard sirens, I paid attention to where the sound traveled as they passed in the distance. I made sure I knew where all of our documents were.

Six months out, I have visited friends’ lots on which they plan to rebuild, taking in the spectacle of what had been and how the surrounding nature has recovered faster than our emotions. I have seen housing plans and stood impressed with the vision and the intention. I have listened to many stories about house-hunting and uncertainty, understood their anxiety and marveled at their resilience. We all have our stories. We still carry our heartache. But as I drive over Fountaingrove, I see new blooms among the charred and barren landscape. I see preparation. I see change, and I know we will all be OK.

Shoshana Hebshi
Shoshana Hebshi

Shoshana Hebshi is a freelance writer and former J. copy editor living in the North Bay.