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I Thought I Knew What It Was Like to Be Displaced. I Was Wrong.

October 11, 2017
by Glen Martin

As the late, great Tom Petty put it, you don’t have to live like a refugee. Except, of course, when you do, as I recently found out.

Or at least, like an evacuee, which can feel distinctly refugee-esque to a citizen of a developed country who has never been forced to leave home and possessions due to conflict or natural catastrophe.

I have covered genuine refugees displaced from their homes and farms by combat between government soldiers and insurgents in the Philippines. And as a reporter whose beat sometimes included wildfires, I’ve interviewed scores of evacuees forced to leave wildland blazes. As a young man working as a firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service, I had often helped, cajoled, or otherwise convinced rural residents to leave their homes in the face of encroaching flames.

Many of these people ultimately lost their houses. More accurately, they lost their homes: not just their abodes, but the structures that harbor their loved ones, their pets, memories, and their treasured possessions. The most treasured, as they told me so often, were photos of their children, or a letter from a beloved relative, or a beautiful stone found long ago on a beach. No one I ever talked to pined for a lost Corvette or big screen TV.

To the north, a ragged line of flames illuminated a ridge of the Mayacamas Mountains. Even as I watched, the fire progressed inexorably downslope to the Rincon Valley, the Santa Rosa suburb where I live.

Their stories were moving, painful, and when they cried, which was often, it seemed the only appropriate response. I was deeply and sincerely sympathetic. But I was not empathetic. Partly, it was due to my training—I was there to report or expedite fire suppression. And partly, as I look inward, it was due to a character deficit. I don’t always come easily and naturally to empathy, to genuinely sharing a stranger’s pain. A physician friend once told me that one of the first things they teach you in medical school is that you are not the patient: if you do your job, you can’t invest too deeply in the patient’s dilemma. You are there to heal or ameliorate, not emote. That seemed right to me, something I could profitably apply to my own line of work.

Then came the knock at my door at 2 a.m., and my perspective changed irrevocably. Groggy, I dressed in jeans and a T-shirt and opened the door. An acrid cloud of smoke wafted in. “It’s burning all around,” my neighbor, a retired California Department of Forestry battalion chief told me. “We have to evacuate.” I ran to my backyard, elevated a ladder, and climbed on my roof. To the north, a ragged line of flames illuminated a ridge of the Mayacamas Mountains. Even as I watched, the fire progressed inexorably downslope to the Rincon Valley, the Santa Rosa suburb where I live. To the northwest and west, fire had already engulfed the Fountaingrove highlands, an enclave of expensive homes just across a road from our neighborhood. Exploding propane tanks and transformers sounded like artillery barrages. I slid down the ladder. My wife was already packing. In fifteen minutes, we had buckled our wide-eyed five-year-old into his car seat, and packed the car with clothes, important papers, and a few inherited paintings with more sentimental than monetary value. Then we were gone, fleeing through the dark ahead of the roiling flames and detonating propane tanks.

We drove aimlessly around Santa Rosa until dawn, pulling over regularly, phalanxes of engines speeding toward the fires with lights blazing and sirens screaming. Most of the traffic lights were out. By 7:00 a.m. we were prospecting along with hordes of other evacuees for coffee, but virtually every Starbucks—every business and gas station for that matter—was closed. Finally, we discovered that a Safeway near our home with a Starbucks outlet was open. I got in line with about 40 other people, and ultimately was served by a single heroic and unflappable barista. A couple in front of me were gabbing brightly; the woman was petite, deeply tanned and wiry, the man short, white-haired, chubby and wearing horn-rimmed glasses and black T-shirt covered with dog hair. I realized by the tenor of their conversation that they had lost their home. Ahead of them, a woman sobbed quietly; another woman stood next to her, an arm around her shoulder.

Without the flames impending and immediate immolation threatening, we found we couldn’t leave our home. Intellectually, it may make sense, but emotionally, it is insupportable.

I was served two grande cups of dark roast. Fortified with caffeine, we resolved to return home. The neighborhood was largely deserted; the flames up on Fountain Grove and the Mayacamas slopes were obscured by palls of smoke. I climbed up on the roof and hosed everything down. I conferred with my wife. We’ll stay here, we decided. We had just broken out the propane stove and were preparing tea when sirens blared from police cars creeping down our street. Officers on PA systems ordered everyone to evacuate. We left again.

We returned and were evacuated twice more; as of this writing, we’re back again. We have friends who are anxious to shelter us, but without the flames impending and immediate immolation threatening, we found we couldn’t leave our home. Intellectually, it may make sense but emotionally, it is insupportable. Nor are we alone. Thirty percent of our neighbors are camped out in their cold and dark houses. We had one confirmed case of looting in our neighborhood, and several times people in trucks or on dirt bikes have cruised slowly down the street in a suspicious fashion. So we founded a watch group, with teams of two patrolling the neighborhood throughout the night, spelling each other at two hour intervals. Neighbors who were strangers or at best casual acquaintances are now my friends.

My wife is from a village in the Philippines and has been evacuated several times due to hurricanes. Her family once lost their home, so this is nothing new to her. She is serene. Our kid views it all as an exciting adventure, and is thrilled by the spectacle of fire, smoke, and chaos. For me, I thought I had understood the evacuees I had interviewed as a reporter, even comprehended the feelings of the people now suffering in Puerto Rico. I hadn’t. It’s still unclear if our home will survive. High winds are forecast for this afternoon, and again later in the week. We’re living moment to moment, and our vision has constricted. We’re focusing on the immediate state of the weather, whether we have enough propane, water, and food, and whether any gas stations near us are open. We no longer think of Trump, or North Korea, or paying the bills, or even other people living in similar circumstances. We are in the eternal Now. We can’t afford to be anywhere else.

UC Berkeley Department of Environmental Science professor and wildland fire science researcher Scott Stephens has conducted extensive research on climate change and wildfire trends in the American West, and his work strongly suggests what we are now enduring in Santa Rosa is a portent, not an anomaly. And it’s not just wildfires. Hurricanes, floods, drought, even famines and plagues—they are all likely concomitants of global climate change. It’s likely that many people are destined to learn the hard lessons that are now enforced on me.

Glen Martin is a veteran environmental reporter and regular contributor to California. 

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