The aftermath of the Sonoma County wildfires…a personal story

I do not know why I awoke at 2:30 am, but I did. Was it the smell of smoke, needing to pee, hearing the phone ring, or an angel watching over me? It really doesn’t matter. What matters is that I did wake up.

My neighbor had called me and even banged on my front door, concluding I was gone for the night. He and another neighbor were evacuating together, as she could not get her car out of the garage.

I did hear the phone this time and decided it was the electric company calling to tell me the power was out, which I already knew. I went back to bed and then a little voice said… maybe you should listen to your message. It was then I saw the text alerts and the missed calls and heard the voicemail saying, “Evacuate immediately.”

I threw on some dirty clothes, ran to my garage to get my cat carrier and saw my neighbors preparing to pull out of the driveway. They stopped, and helped me get my cat and my neighbor’s cat into my car. I grabbed my phone, iPad and charger and off we went – making our way down the hill at 2:45 am, where it looked like rush-hour traffic.

Everyone on the roads were cool. Cars took turns at the intersections, proceeding very orderly. Four of my neighbors took refuge at a local Denny’s about 10 miles away. It was 3 am when we sat down with others who had also run out of their homes with little to their names.

We watched as the fire grew brighter and closer, and we all agreed – we have lost our homes. I began to feel the shock setting in – cold, clammy skin and disbelief. We drank coffee, ate pancakes and hash browns, all compliments of Denny’s.

Three hours later, Denny’s was evacuated and we all headed in different directions. I had made contact with my traveling neighbors, and their son-in-law would meet me 20 miles away to collect their cat. It took me one hour to go 20 miles. Again, people were cool, pulling over for ambulances that were relocating the seriously ill from the two evacuated hospitals.

I headed for friends, where I knew I would be welcomed and safe. The smoke was so thick that a shelter-in-place order was issued. But no one had to tell us not to go outside. Two days later I moved to another friend’s home. He was out of town and appreciated someone being there to keep an eye on his place.

The winds were unpredictable, and for five days all I wanted to know was, where was the fire and which way was the wind blowing. We had heard our homes were still standing, but that was no guarantee about the next day.

I cannot begin to describe the devastation in my neighborhood. Within a 5-mile radius, I believe 75% of the homes are gone. My favorite cleaner’s, along with the entire neighborhood shopping center, burned out. It looks like a bomb went off. The fire was so hot (2000 degrees we have been told), that almost everything is melted. A Caltrans employee friend told me they registered flames that were 50 feet high, moving 200 yards per second in the canyons. I never thought I would be in the center of a national disaster, especially one so fierce and deadly.

Everyone knows someone who lost a home. My neighbor’s daughter was killed by the fire, as she is disabled and could not escape the flames. We are so deeply saddened by the destruction and loss. There is a collective sadness that is felt by all. Yet, we are bonded; a stranger hugged me today when I asked about his home.

Now the shock is beginning to fade. I have had moments of staring at a store clerk and saying to myself, I know he is asking me card or cash, but I don’t know the answer. And I can’t even say that! I have days of sadness and I am angry at times. I try to remember to have compassion when someone does something I think is stupid or disrespectful. Maybe they too are angry.

In moments of great stress or tragedy, I contract and focus only on what needs to be done next. It is my coping skill and works well. My focus found an opening – a policeman who was driving people to their home for 30 minutes to see their damage or get pets or other personal items. I was able to get my computer. A few days later I was able to get the remediation people in for an estimate long before the area was opened to residents only. My place was cleaned as soon as we were allowed back into the area.

I am lucky, I have my home, I am back in, and the insurance made it very easy for me. But that story does not address the “trauma” held in my body – the contraction, disassociation, hypervigilance, and fear.

If you work with me, you know I say that the emotion you feel in your body is just energy that needs to move. Or if you have tightness, breathe into it and soften it with your breath so it too can begin to move. Our bodies are designed to take care of our safety, belonging, connection, and dignity. We shape in response to all of life. Trauma, though, shapes us in unique ways. Those long-held shapes produce stories that we begin to believe are true forever and ever.

I have learned these past weeks that all releasing comes in its own good time. While I have wanted to be complete with feeling the sadness and anger, the sadness and anger too has its path.

I am much better; I feel my energy collected, and I am more in my body. I am calmer and have a stronger sense of ground. I can focus again. And while I want to be, I do not consider myself “done.” As with all of us, the feelings, emotions and sensations continue to come, informing us that we are, in fact, alive. To the degree that we can allow ourselves to deeply feel and move our energies and sensations through and onward, is the degree to which we meet and begin to know ourselves.

To my clients who work openly and courageously with the sensations they fear, let us keep working toward the freedom you crave. We shall travel this path together.

My condo community


Area devastation

A friend’s home


  1. Chris Davis on November 15, 2017 at 11:36 pm

    Lovely post, Merle.

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