When Everything Burns - OZY | A Modern Media Company

When Everything Burns

When Everything Burns

By Ruth Shields


Because fire is, apparently, going to be a continuing feature in our futures.

By Ruth Shields

As Australia burns, my mind returns to Friday, Nov. 1, 2019, around noon. I’m out in my socks walking down Moultrie to send my friend’s whole family home to “repopulate” Sonoma County. I hug Amy’s hand through the window and watch her car pull out, loaded to the brim.

Next, it’s Merisha’s turn — with Woody tucked into his car seat behind her and T-Bone wagging at me through the back window. The smoke is still too much for me, so I hug Dave goodbye and leave him to help Jessica and baby Owen leave next.

Upstairs, I turn the air purifier on and close myself and my cat, Michelle, into my old bedroom and lie down exhausted.  

Ten days earlier, the sky was blue, the air was clear and the temperature was in the high 90s. I opened the window to cool down, and there was just enough smoke in the air that I found myself thinking, “What if I have to leave on foot?”

Paul had recognized these and other symptoms in me and had intervened and trained me in a PTSD-disappearance protocol …

Awake, I got up and talked myself through packing: “I can put Michelle in the cat carrier across my front. I can carry my knapsack on my back.” I slipped my laptops and chargers into my knapsack, then added my life insurance policy, passport, wallet, checkbook and two thumb drives containing my language revitalization work. 

I sat down and looked around. “What else would I take if I had a car?” Two years ago, I had stood here in this same room and said goodbye to almost everything I owned. I found myself looking around at everything again and making the same assessment I had made then: “It’s all replaceable unless it’s irreplaceable.” I pack my books on Cherokee and Choctaw, the cards for the game I’m designing and some business books.

When I awoke the next morning, the smoke was thickening, and I ran around coughing and closing up the house. I dumped clean clothes on the bed and, without thinking, picked up my duffel bag to pack it. Michelle — ears flattened to her head, body flattened to the floor — streaked past me out of the room. I couldn’t find her hiding place, and I told myself again: “It’s OK. The fire’s 20 miles away. It’ll be all right.”

I put out food and water, and then stoically — with false confidence — left everything in my room except my knapsack and duffel bag. In the car I borrowed for the weekend, I pulled on an N95 mask, adjusted my glasses over it, turned the air on to “recirc” and blasted the A/C to cool off. 

As I arrived in San Francisco, text alerts warned of probable power shutdowns through Monday. The smoke was bad enough that I decided to stay in and start monitoring the Air Quality Index on PurpleAir.com. I was hoping the winds would blow the smoke out of the South Bay while somehow not fanning the fires up north. 

By morning, against my wishes, the fire had spread south, and Healdsburg and Windsor, just to the north of Santa Rosa, were being mandatorily evacuated. I shot all my friends a quick text — “Are you safe?” — and started calculating whether I could zip back up to get Michelle or not. I talked with Tatiana, and we determined that there’s enough space at her house to accommodate me, plus Joy, plus everyone at my friend Linda’s house, if need be. 

I realized I’d been glued to the news coverage of the fires, and I was starting to have post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms like two years ago. Recognizing the symptoms, I left a message for my friend Paul asking for help. I spoke for a while with my mom, who moved on to other topics; I found her ability to do that so strange and remarked on it. 

Paul called me back, and I described to him my feelings of panic, of not being able to decide what to do, of crying suddenly on and off. I told him that people who were talking about “normal” things seemed insane to me. Two years ago, Paul had recognized these and other symptoms in me and had intervened and trained me in a PTSD-disappearance protocol he uses with military veterans.

As I talked with him this time, I started moving my right hand over my left, trying to remember the protocol, and I managed to describe what I was doing well enough for him to be able to remind me of the rest. I counted out the hand repetitions slowly — “One, two, three …” all the way to eight — and then switched sides. I concentrated on the counting and the motion. It reminded me of trying to pat my head and rub my belly at the same time; the concentration required helps calm me down. 

That night, in a beautiful house in Portola Valley, people I lived with for nine months 39 years ago were moving from room to room in ever-changing groupings. Two of us beamed at each other and kept hugging each other. Another enfolded me in her amazing smile. People asked about someone who couldn’t come, and I remembered to pass along her greetings to them. It was like speed-dating, but we all already wanted to go out with each other. There wasn’t enough time, but there we were, and it was the time we had, and it was all perfect.

In between worrying about what was happening at home, I let myself be there with those friends and let their best wishes comfort me upon parting. I drove north on 280 in an eerie darkness, sighing with relief when I passed the turnoff for Pacifica and saw the lights of San Francisco were still on.

The next morning mandatory evacuations emptied the city of Santa Rosa, except for the downtown area. It took my housemate Joy seven hours to reach San Francisco with Michelle the cat in tow. Our friends arrived two hours later, and, for the next five days, 10 of us camped out at a friend’s house in Bernal Heights.

We were among 190,000 people who’d headed south into the Bay Area. More than 4,000 firefighters fought the blaze, stopping it just north of Santa Rosa. It’s been awhile since the fire. But at least now I remember the PTSD-disappearance protocol.

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