Saturday, October 21, 2017

A Living Nightmare (warning: foul language ahead)

I've been trying to find the words on how to explain how everything went down on October 9th in the dead of night. I was sound asleep. I heard the buzz of my phone ringing on the nightstand, I looked at the screen and saw "Private Number", this usually means work is calling so I grabbed it. 

"Can you come in?  We need help." said the shaking voice of one of my oldest friends and the only person I'd want to call me in that situation because she conveyed exactly what I needed to know. Get Here Now.

I flew out of bed, dressed in the dark, brushed my hair and ran out the door.  I didn't brush my teeth, I think I put on deodorant but ... I'm not sure I did that either.  I was part way down Guerneville Rd almost to Stony Point when I remembered that I should tell my husband that I left the house for an emergency at work and to not call me when he woke up.  I didn't know what I was responding for.  My fear was an officer involved shooting where a deputy was seriously injured or worse.  I was stopped by Guerneville and Stony Point and couldn't go any further because there was a fire truck blocking.  I mentioned to my husband that there was a small fire there and turned and headed northbound to Piner Rd.  I made some remark that I had been looking forward to sleeping in that morning but that I would be at work. Looking back, I am so irritated with myself for being so flippant. 

But honestly ... I still had NO idea why I was going to work.  I'd looked at my phone and seen several pages from work asking for help but I don't wake up to the page.  I set my ringer to ON because the SWAT callouts come through as a regular call.  When I did scroll through my texts as I was leaving the house I saw several Nixle pages that led with "Evacuation" but most of them were also from SRPD.  Still relatively clueless to why I was going.   My head was like "there's a fire somewhere that the PD is dealing with"

I turned onto Piner Rd and everything was dark.  The power was totally out.  No stoplights, etc.  I drove slowly (lots of traffic) and made my way to where Piner Rd and Coffey Ln intersect. It was here that everything I know changed.  It was very very dark, and there were people literally RUNNING across the road and down the sides of the roadway.  I remember thinking "What the fuck is going on?"

We all drove slowly, dodging people, using stoplights that weren't working as stop signs and then when I turned onto Bicentennial to come over the overpass to work ... I saw precisely WHY I was coming to work and what the shit was happening all around me.

The sky burned a hellacious red I have never seen before.  I've only read about that kind of sky in writings of the apocalypse.  My stomach sank to the my feet, and my entire body began to shake.  For the first time in my career as a dispatcher, I was one of those people heading towards the danger while the rest of the world ran the other direction.  I drove up Ventura towards the Sheriff's office and the lights in the parking lot went off, and then came back on, but then went off again.  The wind whipped everything around.  I parked haphazardly and leaped from my car thinking "This is it.  The world is ending ..."

Sara was getting out of her car, with the flu, and I remember calling out to her "WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE!  YOU'RE SICK!' She just shook her head and replied something to the effect of 'they needed help!'

We went inside, I ran up the stairs and ran into the dispatch center.  I found a desk and dropped into the chair, logging on the computer.  WHile it was still booting, I began answering calls.  I still didn't know where the fire was (other than just about everywhere) because there was no official way to brief me on what was happening considering the phone lines were out of control. I picked up calls and asked people "Do you see flames?" and when they said "YES!" I almost yelled back "GET OUT OF THERE"

I took call after call after call, telling people to leave, telling others we would try to get to those they were asking us to check on.  The first hour and 20 minutes FLEW by and I made eye contact with that same shaky voice that called me and she asked if I was comfortable taking the radio.  I jumped right in and the next 7 hours went by in a slow moving, yet incredibly fast moving blur.  Evacuating people from another two very different parts of the county for two completely separate fires than the first, deputies watching fire approach them once again, one deputy reporting lines down in a spot and another replying that that was their only way out.  But, thankfully ... they were all able to get out of their just fine and it wasn't a repeat of what my friend had to go through with a deputy trapped with 35 civilians as the fire raged around them and being forced to just wait and see what happened.

During this craziness, my eyes kept flicking up to the angry red sky. And then, flames burst into the air and appeared quite close to the building I was sitting in.  Our power was out, our water wasn't working, the air in the room was very thick with smoke.  I told our sergeant on the air that there were flames outside. One of the deputies responded to the intersection near our office and told me that it was further away.  The fear in my heart eased a little bit. We were also told that the fire dept would defend our building because we were the source of communication for everyone out there fighting the fires.

That sky was so red. Those flames were so high and kept going. I remember looking at my co-worker, John, and asking where the planes were to help.  He replied that they couldn't fly until the sun was up.  My whole body shook because it was after 7:30am.  The sun should have long been up by then but it was still completely pitch black outside (and red). 

As dawn finally broke and the sun finally was able to lighten the smoke so that we could see ... the reality of that nightmare began to fall upon us. Countless people I know lost everything. Deputies I spoke to repeatedly throughout the night and morning knew their homes were lost but never stopped moving.  People I spoke to may not have made it out, and the fear of a rising death toll made me feel physically ill. And, it wasn't over.  We were still actively evacuating people, still actively chasing the fire as it raged all over.  It felt like a nightmare that would never stop.

I had started shaking with that red sky and I didn't really stop for days. I live in Northwest Santa Rosa, west of Coffey Park by about 3.5 miles where I was safely out of harm's way for the time being.  But I was fearful because every day it seemed like the evacuation area spread, and we just couldn't get any containment on that fire.  I never would, in a million years, have expected a wildland fire started almost near the Napa County line to take out houses in Santa Rosa. It was no longer out of the realm of possibility that I could be in danger. We were ready to evacuate if we needed to.  I begged the husband to stay home until we knew there was some containment because I needed him to tend to the animals.  I was committed to work ... I couldn't get them out if something happened.

The first night, I leaped out of bed with every sound my phone made, I kept jumping up to check the sky for that same red. When a nixle would come out, I'd devour every word, wondering if I needed to go back to work. I was OK, my house was OK, but the way I looked at the world had completely changed.  People I know well were devastated by this and I can't even begin to pretend that I understand what they are going through, or that I can even imagine what they are going through. I was coming in to work every morning at 2:30-3:00am because I couldn't sleep. I'd see that drive all over again, I'd see those flames and feel that terrifying feeling of the horrific unknown staring at me.  I can still see it and still have dreams that involve flames.

I've never felt so helpless and scared in my life. I would take those calls at work and ... not have answers for people.  I still am in a position where I don't have the answers that people want from me.  I still shake when the words "red flag warning" are mentioned on the news, I was shaking while watching freaking Spiderman: Homecoming, because there was a wall of flames and I just saw that view out the window at work ... where I felt like a sitting duck ... waiting for it to get closer.  I got nervous last night because the wind was blowing when I took the dog out.

I am also a major Empath.  I feel for other people WAY too much. So, my heart is constantly broken for those that have been absolutely destroyed by this.  For the animals lost, the human lives lost, knowing we did absolutely everything we could do but it still wasn't enough to beat this monster.  I've been head down, dialed in at work, hour upon hour of fire fire fire. Constantly having to tell people that I can't accommodate their request, knowing that it's not what they want to hear. 

It is going to be a massively long road ahead.  Our community needs to stick together, help those that need help ... be kind to everyone you come across. Everyone has some sort of struggle in this. While someone's home may still be standing, they could be affected in other ways. It's just better to be kind. We are one County. We are all in this together.

Stay strong, Sonoma County.

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