In my years in Radio I’ve been a part of relief drives for everything from apartment fires to earthquakes to tornados and hurricanes and mass shootings. But I’ve never been in the position of needing assistance like they’ve gone through in Santa Rosa. So instead of trying to pretend that I have a clue, I’m turning it over to Joss from Froggy 92.9. And I should let you know off the bat that Rob & Joss are a couple that have been together for years, in case you’re kind of wondering what the deal was with them living together.
In the early hours of October 9th I was sound asleep when Rob burst into my room. I heard “Jocelyn” and I sat right up. I was a bit surprised to hear my name in the middle of the night. He goes “It’s Rob” – the light was on. I was looking at him…he’s fully dressed for work and looking at me. I look at the clock thinking that I overslept for work and he was coming to get me…but it was like 1:15am. He goes “There’s fires all over Sonoma County and they are evacuating my mom” I lept out of bed going “We have to get on the air!” He goes “yes!” So I throw clothes on thinking “Good Lord -we just covered the Vegas shooting last week! What now?”
Rob had tried to go into his mother’s neighborhood – but he was blocked. It was truly by a MIRACLE that his sister got his mother out of there. It was through a series of phone calls between his niece and sister that created the miracle that got her out alive. They said the wind was blowing so hard that the car was shaking as they left.
My parents are staying with me in my condo up here in Windsor while they wait to move to Arizona. I wasn’t even going to tell them that we were leaving. But as I stood in my kitchen, the lights flickered. I thought “shit…” so I ran up and told my mom and handed her her cell phone. As I left Windsor, the lights at the intersection by the freeway went out.
Driving southbound on 101 there was an orange glow behind the Walmart shopping center. A HUGE orange glow. Rob looked over and knew that the neighborhood he grew up in (where his mother was rescued from, they had that house since 1964) was in very serious trouble. We got on the air at 1:45am. I posted on Facebook before we got on that we were there, and if people could safely call us to please do so. We were on until 8:15 when our sister station KSRO took over and started to simulcast on Froggy.
People called us who had been stuck in traffic for an hour, crying. We had women trying to get out of the huge retirement community Oakmont who were trying to figure out where to go. There was a guy who called and said that fire was “skipping up Cleveland Avenue.” There were rumors that Kohl’s, Kmart and Coddingtown Mall had burned to the ground (of those three structures, it was only the Kmart, although the current rumor is that Kohl’s sprinkler system went off and damaged the inside of the store- but I am not sure if that is true. There were many other businesses beyond that that were lost)
In the process of all of this, Rob told me that he got word that his mother’s house was gone. He left the room and I squatted down on the floor and tried not to hyperventilate. His mother was taken to a hotel south of us in Rohnert Park.
The station filled up with evacuated employees, children, dogs and even a white cat.
We stood in the parking lot looking at the glow of a fire that was probably about 4 or 5 miles away…I asked a fellow employee “when do we leave?”
When we flipped to KSRO, Rob and I got on the road to go back to Windsor. The freeway was blocked where the fire had jumped from Rob’s mother’s side of town to the Kmart, Applebee’s, Mcdonalds and the neighborhood you may have heard about “Coffey Park” So we took the backroads, heading west through Sebastopol and Forestville and then North into Windsor. Every gas station was full of people. I had a quarter tank of gas that morning. I will NEVER have less than a half of a tank again. The gas stations up in my neighborhood were full of people or out of gas and cordoned off. Let that be a lesson.
Rob had to get to his adult son and I had to get to my parents. My dad has COPD, so I was very concerned about him dealing with the deteriorating air quality.
When we made that drive, the sky was black.
I feel weird saying it since there is so much devastation, but Windsor came out ok. This is a humbling experience. But we were scared. Everyone I knew had bags packed. Neighbors were checking in with neighbors. There were also a series of small fires that seemed to be popping up. When one appeared on Windsor River Road I told my parents that I wanted to leave. We packed my dad’s car with a few important things. A little dog that my grandfather had carved, Rob’s dad’s American flag from his funeral, Rob’s rings, the binder with my trust and a good amount of booze – OH and my cats, of course! In the event of an evacuation, you’d be very surprised at what you don’t take. I always pictured in my head what would go…but I left a lot of that behind. To be clear -this was only a precautionary evacuation on our part. Not mandatory.
We took our passports. I told my parents I didn’t care if we drove all the way to Canada. We went as far North as we could and then ran into another fire that blocked the freeway (the Redwood Fire in Mendocino County) So we turned around and miraculously got a hotel room in Ukiah. I spent the night in the bathroom on an air mattress with an angry cat. I got up at 3:30 the next morning to head back in to Sonoma County.
I got in to Windsor at about 5:15 and got to fill up my car! It would be a long time before we were out of the woods, so I told my parents to fill theirs too. The drive to work was dark and smoky and sad. There were three exits blocked off between Windsor and Santa Rosa. Police cruisers blocked the road, the stoplights in the neighborhoods flashed red. I got to work and burst into tears. I could have lived a hundred lifetimes and have never seen something like this coming.
Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday seemed to all blend in to one clump. It was all about evacuations, donation sites, shelters etc. We had our phones on us at all times waiting for evacuations. I think it was Wednesday that was really scary – I got home and the sky was orange and it was windy and i saw someone getting into their car with a cat carrier. I wanted to leave Windsor again, and after arguing back and forth about it with my family – we decided to stay in Windsor and stick together (I was also trying to get my parents to just leave and go to the East Bay)
The week itself was filled with trips down to Rohnert Park to visit with Rob’s mom and bring her necessities etc.
We were truly in survival mode the first week. Saturday morning brought more evacuations near Rob’s sister’s neighborhood. Her husband had spent the week there in the back of his pickup truck keeping an eye on things. He actually chased off a looter! LA Fire Department actually emptied his pool to fight the fires and THEN filled it back up again for them!
As a broadcaster- I’ve felt about an inch tall. The need is so great – it’s hard to even know where to begin. When something happens somewhere else, even maybe in the next county, it’s easy to jump in and organize a drive or a fundraiser. But when it’s you – you’re actually in survival and reporting mode. It’s about taking care of family and friends and making sure what you’re reporting on the air is accurate and relevant. At this point we have some irons in the fire for community outreach and yesterday we had the good fortune of doing a remote where our listeners signed “Sonoma County’s Biggest Thank You Card for First Responders” We have received many thank you’s and compliments from our listeners for thing things we’ve said and for being there for them…but I dunno. I feel really tiny and inept. But that’s just my feelings. If that is how I feel, I have it pretty good compared to the people who have to completely rebuild their entire lives.
Here’s a pretty cool radio miracle for you. KBUL 981 in Reno did a supplies and money drive for us! The did a 12 hour drive at their Walmart and filled a Uhaul AND gathered money for our local credit union who has a special fund. JJ Christy – the afternoon guy brought everything in. It was truly awesome. It’s one thing to do a drive or fundraiser, it’s another to be on the receiving end. The feeling is totally different. I will never approach another fundraiser or drive the same way – it’s a powerful, magical, incredible feeling when another community helps yours.
Each day we inch toward a “new normal.” Devastating isn’t even big enough to describe the destruction here. Houses were left in piles of ash. Honest to God. Sometimes when you see a fire, there is at least something left. Not in these cases. It’s just ash with very little that is recognizable. Rob’s sister has gone to the house to “sift” – but Rob can’t bring himself to, yet. I don’t know if he ever will. I went in to Coffey Park with a press pass and it’s alien territory. It’s like a moonscape. You can see for blocks in either direction where the houses once stood.
Almost everywhere you turn, someone has lost a house. There are at least four businesses in my neighborhood alone where business owners are now homeless.
The feeling I have within me is that there was a “Before” and an “After” I’ll say to Rob “So – do you remember in our “before life” blah blah blah… It was only for the grace of God or the Universe that I didn’t lose anything in this. Again, it’s a feeling of being grateful and humbled. I am one of the fortunate ones, therefore I must pay it forward and help others. But again, the need is tremendous. So, I look at each day and go “where is the biggest need within my circle?” Is it helping Rob’s mom? Does Rob need my support? Is it something on-air? Is it work for a client (I also do sales now) is it something for a stranger or friend? Then I take care of as much as I can…and start again the next day. These are tiny tasks – eating an elephant one bite at a time. That is how I approach it. Other people have different things on their plates and often bigger things.
There are moments – especially in the evenings where I am completely struck by the enormity of this. The feeling that what we had in the “before life” will never be the same. The feeling that Rob’s beautiful family house is gone. It’s actually life changing and perspective changing. I am fortunate enough to have a feeling of peace and priority in my soul that wasn’t there before (again, I know that not everyone here has that – so many have lost so much) My biggest fear is that I go back to the person that I was before Rob burst into my room that night.
Here’s the takeaway I really need people to have. Sonoma County/Napa/Mendocino County has been terribly hurt by this. We may be down, but we’re not out. There is a hell of a lot left here. There are still world class wineries, wonderful food, beautiful scenery, a museum and an ice-rink dedicated to Charlie Brown, the list goes on and on. Please come see us. Tell your friends to see us. Tell your radio friends to let their listeners know that there is a lot here and it’s a beautiful place. The best part? The people. The kindness and love the past few weeks has been breathtaking. I feel a different level of love for my community.
Today Rob’s mother moves from the hotel to his house. Tuesday my parents move out of my house. So even in our own personal realms there are new beginnings. Each day we move toward the new normal.
Enjoy each day. Love each other. Be kind. Life can change so damned fast.