For me, the Valley Fire began with a text message. That text read: "Don't worry, but there's a huge fire." It was sent by my 16-year old niece who was visiting from Wisconsin with her parents. She had stayed at our new home in Hidden Valley Lake while the adults spent the day at the coast. We had just sat down for dinner at Lucas Wharf when the text arrived. With her text, Charlotte included a picture that looked like, well, like something from the gates of Hell. And it had been taken from our balcony.
|Photo taken from the balcony |
of Julie's home
What I remember of that evening - for lack of a better phrase - was organized chaos. My husband, brother, sister-in-law and I rushed from the restaurant. Charlotte called the police. We navigated numerous road closures while Charlotte kept us updated with frequent text messages: She was in a police car. Fire was blazing on either side of her. Sirens blared.
It was after midnight when we reached Charlotte at a gas station in Lower Lake. That night we stayed with friends who welcomed us evacuees with open arms.
One of the longest nights of my life followed. But the next few days were even longer while we sat in vain and wondered if our home was still there. On day three we were told conclusively: our home had been destroyed.
I'm not proud to stand up here and say that I struggled with that news. We had just moved from Sonoma County to Hidden Valley Lake. After a year and a half of searching for that right place to put down roots, we had found a beautiful home with sweeping views of nature. We could see the magnificent Mt. St Helena from our kitchen, dining room and bedroom windows. We had amazing views of Cobb Mountain and rolling green hills dotted with Douglas Fir, Madrone and Oak Trees. Deer wandered through our yard daily. Coyotes howled at night. And living in our backyard was a fox who neighbors said had whelped nine litters. It was a magical place filled with nature, beauty and serenity. As I thought about our home, I looked down at my wedding ring and was glad that was with me. I then looked at my husband, my brother and his family, and felt tremendous gratitude that we were all safe.
That afternoon I received a phone call. "Hi, it's Katherine Brown." My tired, emotionally-weary brain tried in vain to remember who Katherine was. "Julie! It's your neighbor Katherine. I want to tell you: Your house is fine."I responded with impatience: " Katherine, it's..." She interrupted me. "Julie, I'm standing in front of your house and I'm telling you, your house is fine. I'll text you a picture." And she did. And the house was indeed still standing.
For the next two days, my husband and I volunteered with relief efforts. We worked with the Sheriff's Department arranging short 15 minute visits for people to check on their homes, their animals and grab necessary belongings. Most didn't know what "home" would look like, if "home" would even be there, and if their pets were dead or alive.
We were set up at Lower Lake High School in a packed gymnasium of desperate yet hopeful people. And generous and patient people. Many of these people came back after their visits to thank us for our small role in getting them home for a brief time. I saw elated elderly people, hugging cats on their laps. Kids smothering their dogs with love. People with stories of homes that were untouched by fire. And I saw the opposite. People who had lost everything. People whose homes and all worldly possessions except the clothing their backs, had been reduced to rubble. Shell-shocked children, quietly sitting next to parents not knowing what to do next and parents who had yet to figure that out. I saw poor people who had been evacuated three times this year alone, and this time they weren't so lucky. I saw people without insurance, people who literally now had nothing and no safety net who nonetheless said: "We'll be okay." And I saw many people helping to make it okay.
I witnessed so much generosity and it made me love Northern California even more.
The Valley Fire made me realize how precarious good fortune is and how quickly it can turn. It also made me realize that we are generous community, deeply in tune to those in immediate need. When there is a crisis, people of our community respond. It also made me realize that now is the time to focus our attention on working together to ensure a catastrophe of this magnitude doesn't happen again. While we must pay attention to the immediate, our generosity cannot be confined to the immediate. It also needs to focus on the long-term. We need to invest in proactive measures to help prevent these tragedies. And when they do happen, we need to help restore our whole community, and our environment, so they can thrive together well into the future.
I now look out my windows and where I used to see rolling green hills and mature trees, I see black ash and a charred landscape. Where I used to hear the birds singing, now I hear the constant sound of chain saws cutting down dead trees. Last night, for the first time since the fire, I heard coyotes howl again. It was the lonely sound of a few, not the raucous yipping that used to wake me at night. I'm am starting to see the deer return. In fact, just this morning, I saw a buck and doe creep across our front yard. Maybe it's my imagination, but there isn't that spring in their step I remember, and they certainly aren't around in plenitude like they used to be. I haven't seen or heard the fox since the fire and I wonder if she made it.
This year alone, 12.5 million trees have died in California fires. We all wonder, how do you rebuild a community after a disaster like the Valley Fire, but how do you rebuild and restore a healthy forest? Keep in mind, the tinder from these 12.5 million trees is in the forest bed lying in wait to become fuel for fire in the future. How can we be proactive and mitigate the chances of catastrophic fires while we restore forest health?
Tonight you have that opportunity. Tonight, I ask that you help Pepperwood capitalize on its new partnership with the Federal Bureau of Land Management. and invest in our Fire Mitigation and Forest Health Prevention Fund-a-Need.
By raising your paddle:
- You will support the engagement of youth in fire response and fuel load reduction.
- You will support work here at Pepperwood to demonstrate and test best practices for fire mitigation.
- You will support engaging our students, university researchers and citizen scientists in the necessary monitoring critical to understanding the drivers of fire risk, forest health, and wildlife response.
- And you will support community outreach efforts to empower the many agencies we partner with - agencies such as the Land Trust and the Open Space District, who have representatives here tonight - to mitigate fire risks and other climate hazards on their own properties. You will also support landowners - landowners like many of you here tonight - to do the same.
Working at Pepperwood has taught me that we can't prevent fire. Moreover, working here has taught me that we shouldn't. Fire is necessary to forest health. But we can mitigate the risks of catastrophic fires such as our recent Valley Fire.