Conditions near Santa Rosa, Oct. 28, 2019. /Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department-Twitter
Conditions near Santa Rosa, Oct. 28, 2019. /Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department-Twitter

My dad’s escape from smoke-filled Sebastopol

The knock on my father’s door in Sebastopol came last Sunday around 4 in the morning. It was very, very loud.

That was a relief to me, my two siblings and his former wife, because he is hard of hearing and lives alone in a senior citizens apartment complex. The Kincade Fire that erupted near Geyserville Oct. 23, the day after his 93rd birthday, was spreading at an alarming rate, and if the order came to evacuate, we wanted to make sure he heard it.

He did, and despite the predawn hour, it was not entirely unexpected.

Throughout the previous day, our group emails and text messages had gone back and forth trying to assess the urgency of his situation. My sister was in Washington, D.C., attending the national J Street conference, and my brother was at home in New York. Sebastopol was only on alert. But what if that changed? My father no longer drives. If he had to leave, how would he do so? Who would make sure he got out of there OK? Where would he be taken?

My brother got through to the Sebastopol police. If an evacuation was necessary, he asked, what would happen to the 200-plus elderly residents of the complex? The facility has no manager on weekends, and there is no designated bus for residents without cars. The police dispatcher passed the question up the line. Someone will help them, my brother was assured.

Remembering the Santa Rosa and Paradise fires, we wished we could be so confident. My sister reached a staff person at the apartment complex who told her that residents were “on their own” to evacuate.

I was in San Francisco, the closest of us to Sebastopol. “Pack a bag,” I wrote him late Saturday. “Hearing aids, glasses, I.D., meds, money.”

My father, who moved from Berkeley to seemingly safe Sebastopol about a decade ago, had taken pains to attend local earthquake preparedness drills. He assured me that “the authorities” trained for these kind of emergencies and knew what to do. But were they really prepared for a fast-moving fire, record winds and widespread power outages all at once?

We checked the news of the fires obsessively as the evacuation zone grew throughout the day. By evening I couldn’t stand it any longer. “I’m coming to get you,” I wrote him.

He wrote back immediately. “Traffic unpredictable. If you attempt to drive up you will probably need assistance yourself. DO NOT COME. ” And that was the last I heard from him.

I awoke the next morning to a long string of texts from my siblings on the East Coast. The evacuation call had indeed come in the night and Dad was in a car with someone named Paul, a stranger from the complex who had knocked on his door and offered a ride. The residents had done their own job of pairing up carless seniors with drivers.

Sebastopol — so cute and livable on a normal day — had turned into a parking lot, and even if you could get to a highway, traffic was barely moving. In Paul’s one cellphone communication with my brother, he said he was going to try the winding back roads between Sebastopol, Petaluma and Bodega Bay. He was a local performer and had traveled around most of the county.

It was after dawn when the two men pulled up at a Starbucks in Mill Valley. At that moment, my father recounted later from the safety of his ex-wife’s East Bay home, Paul suddenly realized that, in his haste to evacuate, he’d forgotten to bring any money. My exhausted dad — only somewhat more prepared — was happy to give him a hundred-dollar bill.

I reached Paul late the next day and learned that he is 69, teaches arts in the schools, and was “camping out” with family in Marin, which was without power. He told me to say hi to my father, his new friend.

They’re fine now, unlike so many whose homes have burned. But retirement in Sonoma County feels ever less tenable. I can’t stop picturing the scene of Dad and Paul fleeing the chaos on dark country roads, the smoke at their backs, reliant only on instinct.

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull is J.'s Culture Editor, and was a longtime J. freelance writer before that.