At 11:02pm, October 8th, 2017, I answered my landline.
“THIS IS SONOMA COUNTY SHERIFF EMERGENCY COMMUNICATION – EVACUATE IMMEDIATELY – THIS IS AN EVACUATION CALL – THIS IS NOT A DRILL – EVACUATE IMMEDIATELY – THERE IS A WILDFIRE AND MARK WEST SPRINGS ROAD MUST EVACUATE”.
I don’t remember the exact wording, but that robo-call really wanted me to wake up and pay attention. I had already been patrolling my driveway for an hour. There was too much smoke, thick, choking smoke, although I could not see fire anywhere. I have chronic asthma and I am always alert to such pollutants. My husband and son were traveling out of state, so this was a solo evacuation; I was on my own.
October 7th was the annual California QSO Party. My friend had travelled up from Fresno to join me for a well needed, laid-back contest. We weren’t running numbers this year, just having fun. Her husband had gone Silent Key in July. This was the CQP to have fun. We made just 90 QSO’s in 24 hours. No rush, no worry, no sweep. At the end of the contest, for the first time in my ham life, I sent in our log before shutting down the computer. Good move. Several hours later, my house was vaporized. But I digress.
My dad moved to a skilled nursing facility in 2006. I moved his ham radio equipment to my household knowing “I can listen, but I can’t press the red button”. Darn it! After 50 years of avoiding his ham overtures, he’d finally caught me. I earned my tech license in 2006, earned my Extra in Oct 2009 and was granted his call on December 23, 2009. I had a new addiction – contesting and net control. I joined the ACS (Auxillary Communications Service), got my Sheriff’s volunteer ham radio operator ID, trained in traffic control and emergency services, and learned how to stay safe in an emergency. This saved my life and those of my immediate neighbors; who knew?
After I sent in our log for CQP 2017 and sent my friend on her way back to Fresno, I settled into my evening routine. After nightfall, I started smelling wood burning smoke, and too much of it. I had feeds for the sheriff and City of Santa Rosa Police notices forwarded to my cell phone. My memory is rather blurry, I’m relying on the official sheriff and SRPD published feeds to confirm times. At approximately 10:45pm, I received a feed that Porter Creek had received evacuation orders – at which point I put both cats into their carriers and “staged” them with my briefcase, purse, phone, Rx bag, and power cords at the front door. My dog was passed out on the bed. I walked to the top of the driveway and watched the full moon go from crimson red to completely blacked out – not good. At 11:02, I received the EmComm call on my landline. I raced over to the closest neighbors and woke them up; and phoned the further neighbors, rousing them – FIRE – GET OUT NOW – EVACUATE NOW!!!
After loading both cats, my luggage, and my very old, slow walking dog into my car, I went back into the house for food. As I reached for the dog food, I heard in my head “NO!”, so I moved away towards the front door. I asked “what do I need before I leave?” and heard in my head “YOU NEED TO GET OUT NOW! LEAVE NOW!” It was actually more expletive, but you get my drift. I grabbed my flashlight and sleeping bag, locked the front door, got into my car, and drove away.
At 11:26pm, I left my driveway, two-tenths of a mile north-east of Riebli Road. Driving down Mark West Springs Road was surreal. I knew there were fires at Riebli and Sky Farm, visible from the road, but all I could see was dark smoke, like an inverse valley fog. There was no one on the road with me till I got to Old Redwood Highway where the sheriff had set up a road-block. I drove south on 101, again finding no one on the road with me heading southbound. I was in a between-evacuations bubble, for which I am grateful. Emergency vehicles sped north on 101. I drove to our shop in Roseland where I spent the night watching the emergency feeds, talking with various friends “yes, I am safe”, helping other friends figure out what was going on. What a crazy night that was. How thankful I had my office in Roseland with both cats and the dog.
Fast forward to November 18th. My friends have put my family and pets up in their home in Penngrove while we search for our new home. We are safe, we are loved, and my pal and I are working single station multi-op for North American Sweepstakes – it’s a perfect book ending of ham radio; how it keeps me happy as a hobby, how it prepared me for this emergency. Thank god for ham radio.
I am also grateful to my quilting guild, synagogue and temple, RSCDS, the greater Sonoma County community, and my dear friends who we were staying with over the holidays while waiting to close escrow. I used to think I had too many hobbies! Thank goodness for them all. It takes an extraordinary community for such mega-disasters. I’m also grateful for my studies in Kaiju. This fire definitely qualified.
Here is my house several weeks after the fire. How the hell the antenna stand and rotor are still up I have no idea. The pole the rotor is attached to was stainless steel, but the chimney cap was aluminum, thick aluminum, true, but it should have melted! There are rolls of LM-400 coax in the backyard – they shrunk by about 400% and shattered. Weird.