BOOM, BOOM, BOOM! BANG, BANG, BANG!
What the heck? What is going on? I wake up frantically. My dog is running down the stairs barking.
We had lost power twice tonight, once with a pop, and by all measures, it is still out now. It's pitch black except for a weird noticeable glow. I've only been asleep for an hour, and now this.
I run downstairs, and there are lights on in my driveway. What is happening?
I open the door, and two people with flashlights jump out, running at me frantically. I slam the door shut and yell, “I don't know you. Get back. Get back!”. I think I am about to be robbed during a blackout.
“Three fires are surrounding us! Get out of here now!” they holler as they get back into their car and speed off. I look up and realize that the weird glow is red. That it is fire. These are my angels. They have come down and woken me to a hell storm. Saving my life in the process.
And they are gone like that. Knock. Knock. Run. Yell. Leave. I assume they are at the next house.
Man, what the heck is going on. How is it time for an evacuation?
It was a day like most. In-laws were over. We went walking in Spring Lake Park, soon to be surrounded by fires, had lunch, and a mid-afternoon tea with friends. We played and laughed—usual Sunday afternoon shenanigans with a toddler.
The only unusual thing was the wind. Around 6 pm, having dinner with my wife and son outside, I noticed that the wind was stronger than usual and going the wrong way.
There is usually a gust from West to East. It comes from the ocean, up over the mountain, through the valley, and into our yard.
Today it was coming from East to West. Strange, to say the least, and strong.
Still, I paid it little attention. We had not even lived in our house a year and continued to learn of its ins and outs.
We went to bed or tried to go to bed.
The wind was ferocious. As I lay in my second-floor bedroom, I felt the house shake, and the windows creak. I could not sleep and was up intermittently checking windows, doors, and other creaking items. It was a strange night, to say the least.
Later I would hear that the wind was on average 50 mph and went up to 70 mph at some point. These winds helped spark and spread the fire across the countryside that led to so much devastation. (Later, I would read that these winds occur rarely and called El Diablo in Northern California. They truly were the devil).
I am still lying awake in bed. I have been here for an hour and a half already. The power is out, and that loud pop had been weird. So I get up and walk around the house.
I look outside, and the furniture is flying everywhere. I start bringing things inside—umbrellas, couch cushions, car toys, bubble machines, workers gloves…everything.
The wind is nuts. This is nuts. I have lived here a year and never felt these kinds of gusts. I look over to the side of my house and notice an absence.
My 30-foot tree is gone. The trunk broke in half, and now the tree is in my neighbor's yard. I climb the fence and peak over with a flashlight.
Good, no damage is done to their furniture or house. Still, what a pain. I will need to call an arborist in the morning to cut this thing down.
As I am standing there, I realize that the rest of the tree is swaying and that I should go back inside. It really does not seem safe to be outside tonight. The winds may lift me away.
1 am…I finally get some sleep.
Finally, 1 am rolls around. I am able to put my head down out of exhaustion. The wind is still raging, but I tell myself the house will hold.
As someone who has lived through tornadoes in Nashville, hurricane-level winds in Memphis back in 2003, and seen the destruction of hurricanes in New Orleans, I know what winds can do…but still I tell myself it will be okay.
As I lay my head down, I look out my window and see a glow. I think it is pretty and snap this picture to share with my wife in the morning. I have no clue that it is an omen of what to do. Finally, I get some rest. My eyes close, and I fall asleep.
2 AM…the Knock and Evacuation
Exhausted and with only 1 hour of sleep, I hear a thump thump thump. Then another thump thump thump. My angels have arrived.
Time to get out. I am frantic at this point. The most frantic I have been.
Three fires! Surrounding us! What does that mean? How much time do we have?
Who the heck knows, and I am not waiting to find out.
Still no power. Time to mobilize.
I panic. I truly panic. Here I am, a Cardiologist, used to high-stress situations, and all I can think of is yelling at my wife—no cool, calm, and collected demeanor here.
Running upstairs, I scream, “WAKE UP! WAKE UP!”
“We gotta go! There is fire all around us! We gotta go!”
She gets up and grabs our son.
I run to the closet and put on jeans, no belt. Grab my glasses, and head to the garage.
Power is out.
Manually open the door and move our car out.
Put son in the car. Put the dog in car.
There is a red glow all around us. 360 degrees of red. Very eerie. Very strange.
In and Out
I run back into the garage and grab a bucket of camping gear to get a lantern. This bucket of arguably useless stuff (in relation to passports, birth certificates, checks, etc.) is the only thing that makes it to the car.
My wife grabs the lantern and runs back into the house. She grabs clothes for my son and a pair of underwear and a bra. Toothbrushes.
She comes back.
I run in. Close the garage door. Run inside. Grab our wallets, one pair of underwear, and dog food. I run back into the car.
Time to go. Things that are left that I wish we had taken include wedding bands, passports, birth certificates, checks, and computers.
We had a vital document fire safe right there by the camping gear, yet in my frantic exit, it was left.
(To be fair, I still think I made the right choice. I had no clue where the fire was or how fast it would spread. I just wanted us to be safe).
On the way out, we call both our adjacent neighbors and convince them to leave. A friend happens to text us to come over. Their father just left his house with fires raging 100 feet away.
They provide shelter that night. We have a destination and head that way.
(Ed. while we made phone calls, many others stayed until the last minute knocking on doors to ensure everyone knew. There is a story of a retired police officer who was sawing down a tree in the road so individuals could safely leave. Our realtor spent 45 minutes making sure others were awake that by the time they left, they didn't have time to grab anything. The fire was too close. Talk about heroism.)
This is crazy. There is zero visibility due to smoke. The mountain is glowing red, and embers are flying all around us.
Power is out, and the street lights non-functioning. The only colors are the red glow of the hills, the lights of the cars, and the colored lights of emergency vehicles. All of this is skewed by the smoke.
People are leaving. None of us know if we are driving into fire or safety.
We go drive and hope. We make it to the interstate. Numerous roads are closed along the way. Down 101, we head to our friends.
On the way, there is a car on the side of the road that is flaming. The hood is on fire. The tires are on fire. The flames seem 10 feet high.
I feel like I am watching a Terminator movie.
Smoke, soot, red embers, and now a car on fire.
The interstate is strangely empty despite the evacuations. We drive and finally pull off onto our neighbor's exits. People seem to be going the opposite direction from us, but we just continue on our path. In my mind, I wonder if I should be following everyone else.
We finally make it to our friends. Relative safety. No immediate evacuation, though the fire is close.
We sit around a table and have a drink. We are not out of the woods yet.
For the next 2 hours, we listen to fire reports and make sure we don't have to leave. We have three kids running around and playing. 2 kids upstairs sleeping. None of the adults are sleeping.
6 am rolls around, and the sunrise is amazing—a beautiful red glow among an otherwise smokey morning.
We stay for lunch and allow our son to sleep in and then play. His life was just turned upside down, and he has no clue. We then drive through the thick smoke to my sisters-in-law, where we will be staying for the near future.
News of the devastation comes in. By all accounts, our home is burned to the ground, but I have no actual visual confirmation. That will come the next day.
The planning begins for the next stage of our lives…We have our lives and our neighbors. We lost our possessions, but that is the way it goes.
We are lucky. We made it out alive. At the time of writing this post, 15 people died, and countless others are missing from the Tubb's Fire and the other Sonoma and Napa County fires.
If you include the other two fires raging in Northern California, this has been the worst fire in modern history (worse than the 1991 fires).
We left with ourselves, and I am grateful we are safe…but we left a lot of important documents, clothes, etc. behind. I want to take a minute to discuss the importance of an evacuation bag.
This is different than an emergency kit. We had one of those. It had food, water purification tablets, a radio, etc. in it. If we needed to live for a while without electricity or water, this kit was available. I did not grab it, and it burned to the ground.
What I am talking about is a “get the hell out of dodge right now” bag. Something that is in an accessible location (like the garage) that you know to grab in case you have to evacuate immediately as we did.
What should be in the evacuation bag?
Here is what I recommend from what I wish we had:
- A checkbook.
- We left all of ours at home, making some things difficult the following day. As a digital bank user, I do not have a local bank to count on when all of this happened for checks, debit cards, etc.
- Spare credit card if you have one.
- A lot of us credit card churn and thus have a credit card or two lying around. Put one in your bag.
- Basic toiletries for your family.
- Toothbrush and toothpaste. Deodorant. Spare prescription glasses if you have them. Floss. A few pairs of contacts or even a box.
- Socks and underwear.
- A few t-shirts and a pair of shorts, jeans, and a fleece or coat. Kids clothes.
- For the young ones. Consider putting a stuffed animal (maybe a duplicate of their favorite stuffed bear) and a blanket in there.
- A back up of your computer.
- I had not been backing my computer to the cloud and had used an external hard drive. Since I left my computer and hard drive at home, all of those documents are now gone. Consider backing things up in the cloud. That way, it is always available in case of a fire.
- A fireproof safe.
- I updated this on 10/16/17. It looks like my safe did not tolerate the intense heat, and all of my vital documents are gone. Beyond a fireproof safe, consider a safe deposit box at the bank. You can place the rarely used documents there, such as birth certificates and social security cards.
- The safe should have vital documents, including passports, birth certificates, house deed, and car titles. Pretty much anything of legal importance or personal importance to you. It should be small and easily picked up to put in the car. Ironically, I had a safe like this, and it was in the garage by my camping equipment. I completely forgot to grab it and am just hoping that the safe is still there and not melted when we finally make it back.
- I also had a jewelry safe in my room. This safe was screwed into the wall. Unfortunately, I had my passport, checkbooks, and birth certificates in this safe, and they may not have survived. I will know more once we can get back up.
- Here is an Amazon link to buy one. I get paid a little bit if you do purchase it from Amazon today.
- Dog/Cat food and their collars.
- We grabbed dog food and a leash, but we forgot the collar with vaccination tags. No big deal today, but if our dog needed boarding, it may be an issue.
Other recommendations from the comments of our readers:
- Backing up your important photos and files on a Cloud. I am using the Google eco-system, but Apple also has a good system.
- A first aid kit
- Consider leaving vital documents in a bank safe. These may include birth certificates, car, and home titles, etc.
- A video of your entire house for the insurance company.
- A list of emergency numbers, including family, friends, banks, and schools.
- Cell phone and computer charger
- List of items to bring
- From Dr. Sam in the comments section. These are items for physicians evacuating to a hospital to help care for people further that he compiled.
- Bubbles to blow in the wind/card game?
- Canned soup and beans
- Can opener
- Sazon spice for beans
- Paper plates/bowl/disposable silverware
- Dried fruit
- Small cooler apples/carrots/potato peeler
- Water supply
- Life straw
- bathroom bag
- Sleeping bag
- Cash in a money belt
- Life vest
- Laptop/phone/cords/surge protector/battery for phone
- Door wedge (to close the door in the room while sleeping in case of looters, etc.)
If you are truly sentimental, then consider keeping your pictures and photo albums in a bin in the garage. That way, they are available if you want to look through them, but also quickly put in the car in times of an evacuation.
Also, please learn how to open a garage door manually. It is relatively easy to do but not something you want to figure out in the middle of an evacuation. There is a story of a woman having trouble getting her garage door open. Luckily a good samaritan stopped and helped.
Finally, remember that everything but your lives is replaceable. It is inconvenient. I left many things at home, but we can find this stuff over time. I can get a new passport, new checks, new underwear, etc. Just be safe and get out. Remember, the purpose of an evacuation bag is so that you can still get out quickly while having the essential items.
Two Weeks Later
It has been almost two weeks since the fires started on October 8th. We know our home is gone despite not being allowed reentry. Some of this is due to the continued search for missing persons, reminding me of how fortunate we are. The other part is due to Hazmat and the electric company needing to ensure safety for residents.
Every time I think of the missing and the now dead, I am saddened and deeply grateful. The fires started at 10 pm. They spread rapidly, covering ground faster than any of us could outrun.
We are fortunate for the knock on our door at 2 am…
To get out…
That all we lost was our home and earthly possessions.
The wave of emotions over a week or two after such a disaster is funny.
The first 48 hours are pure adrenaline. Living the experience, the jump to action the following day, and the lists, lists, and more lists.
The shock continues throughout the week. Depending on your personality, there may be tears, laughter, or quiet. I learned that I am somewhere in between laughter and quiet. I tend to make light of grave situations. It is my coping mechanism. Sometimes inappropriate. Sometimes ineffective. But mine either way.
At other times I just sit quietly. I think the exhaustion of the ordeal sits in, and I become an introvert. I don't answer calls, engage minimally, and just zone. Some might call this depression. They are probably correct.
Waves and Stings
Then came Monday. One week out. I went to our new apartment and walked in. We downsized from a McMansion (3100 square feet with a killer view) to a 700 square foot 2 bedroom/1 bath. We are fortunate to have found anything as there was a housing shortage in Santa Rosa before the firestorm. Now with an additional loss of 5% of homes, the situation is much worse.
Still, even with my rational brain telling me we were lucky, my emotions got the better of me. On Monday, I felt the loss of our home. It is not so much the possessions, but the community we had built and our home, which was a place of many gatherings.
Things are just that, things. But throughout the week, there are moments where those things halt you in your track. Like the lost birth photos or the earrings, my son picked out as a mother's day present. Those moments come, stab you, and then leave much like a bee sting.
Now it is Friday, and I am exhausted, but I see traces of my everyday life. Each time it feels normal, I take a moment and breathe. I know that in 3 months, the new routines will have set in. Will we still be in our current apartment? I am not sure, but we will always be together, and that is all that matters.
1 Year Later (from Good to Great)
We are one year out from the Tubb's Fire. It has been a challenging year but a year of great growth. Growth for myself and growth in my relationships between the people I care about most. I am appreciative that we survived and appreciative of the clarity one receives when they lose every physical possession in their lives. With no physical items holding you back, it is easy to see the future.
So today, I will write about where my future is taking me. This is less a reflection on the past year, but on the next few to come. So without further ado, let's talk about going from Good to Great.
From Good to Great, the last year.
Most of us sitting here typing words into a computer have it pretty good. We have the financial well being to not be hustling all day to make ends meet. We have the education and know-how to start a website and produce legible content. In other words, we have it pretty good.
Still in life, even for those who have it good, we must find ways to improve it. To go from good to great. It is part of the human psyche and what has driven us through centuries to build cities and inventions, to modify our surroundings to fit our otherwise weak bodies. We are always striving for great, myself included.
Life has been pretty good for me. I came from an educated immigrant family, worked hard, received a solid education, and became a physician. I have a loving and strong-willed wife and a healthy and strong-willed son. My parents are still alive and healthy, as are my siblings/in-laws. Life is good.
When we lost everything in the Tubb's Fire last October, we had a hiccup in that progress, but still were good. We had our lives and health despite losing our possessions. We were well insured due to a solid insurance agent and were able to piece back our lives. Others were less fortunate. People who lost lives, who were not insured, who have been so devastated that they could not go forward or moved out of town due to the shear stress of the entire situation. We have all suffered small traumas and stressors since that day, but we persevere. Personally, for me, there have been stressors, and maybe this is left for another post.
Today, let's focus on going from Good to Great. Life is strange and beautiful. It provides us all with opportunities and challenges. 2.5 years ago, I moved my family cross-country to live the California dream. We had loved New Orleans, but California promised many things, including proximity to family, fantastic weather and nature, and a good job. Twelve months ago, I thought I would be here for the rest of my career.
Then the fire happened, and we had time to reflect and reset. We enjoy Santa Rosa, the people, nature, and the wine…man, do we love the wine. But the California dream has not been all it is cracked up to be.
First, there are fires. Since last year numerous fires have burned, and this means poor air quality while also being on edge. I don't imagine this will be improving as the years go by.
Next, while our family was close by distance (approximately 50 miles), that equated to 2 + hours of driving to see them. This is not close.
Then there is the cost of living in California. Between property costs, property taxes, and income tax, we ended up tying a lot of money into just living in California.
Finally, I miss academics. I miss the interactions with younger persons who are training and the diversity of thought. I miss working at a large institution with access to all of the tools Cardiology has to provide. Despite knowing that being in private practice has made me a better physician, it is not the right fit for me.
Southern Living is Right for Me
For these reasons, my wife and I have decided to make some changes. To go from Good to Great. How might you ask?
We are moving back to my hometown in Tennessee!
I have accepted a job at a large academic center and will be teaching and doing research once again. While we are sad to leave our friends and family on the West Coast, we are excited about the new experience.
So How is This Great?
There are a few reasons this move makes sense.
- Family- By moving back to Tennessee, I will be working with my brother, live 10 minutes from him and two other cousins, live 20 minutes from my parents, aunts, uncles, and grandmother. Plus, my son will have five cousins near his age to grow up with.
- Academics- I get to teach, do research, and take care of patients. Even better, I will be able to take care of Veterans and also focus on a sub-specialty that I am passionate about (cardio-oncology).
- No state income tax. Yup, there is no state income tax in Tennessee, and they are getting rid of dividend income tax too. This will equate to a large chunk of savings for us.
- The property is cheaper. I can buy a lovely, new 2500 square foot home in my town for between $600,000 to $700,000. If I am willing to commute to work and live 15 minutes away, that price drops pretty quickly. Compare this to my $1,200,000 twenty year home in Santa Rosa.
- Property taxes are cheaper. Significantly cheaper.
- We will be back in my beloved New Orleans. I am hoping we will visit at least once a year.
Steps to Making it Happen
Once I obtained the job, which was the first step to make this move happen, we decided not to build our home in Santa Rosa. It has been a stressful process, and that was even before breaking ground. I received my job offer on Friday.
We were set to break ground the following Friday. I pulled out of the contract on Thursday. Stressful and down to the wire, but the correct choice. Now the lot is in escrow and should be closed by the time you are reading this. At the first anniversary, we will be landless and putting the Tubb's Fire behind us.
We will use this opportunity to move from Good to Great!
I am excited, and I guess the point of all of this is to take the unexpected in life and let it lead you down a new, potentially better path. Never stop adapting and changing.