Friday, people were already wearing masks downtown; I saw one young woman in a stylish paisley model. The fire was thirty miles north, but the air was already dense. Sebastopol is south and west of the last two years’ infernos, and we have a cooler, damper microclimate that has kept us safe. That was then, this is now.
Saturday we got an evacuation warning, like a weather alert—it means get ready, but don’t panic. So we pulled out a master list and started packing, pulling vital documents, assembling all our backup hard disks, putting together a week’s worth of stuff like vitamins and underwear. We brought the cat carriers into the house, left them open, and sure enough the cats checked out the accommodations.
Come seven p.m., bam, the power went out. We have a short-term battery backup for the computers, so we had time enough to transfer some files and shut everything down safely. Then it was flashlight time. Looking at the list, we were in pretty good shape, and figured we’d finish when we had daylight again. We have a fireplace in our bedroom, so we lit a nice fire and enjoyed some warm quiet time before trying to sleep.
I put my iPhone beside the bed instead of leaving it downstairs, a wise choice. The first emergency alert came around midnight; the phone lit up and let out three donkey brays. No map, and the text wasn’t very clear, but I understood that the town of Healdsburg was under mandatory evacuation. (That’s half an hour’s drive north.) Then there were two more alerts, adding nearer areas. At 4 a.m. we got the alert that might or might not mean that Sebastopol was on the list, so I put on my clothes and went down to the office. The backup battery had about fifteen minutes left, just time enough to boot the computer and search for a map of the fire emergency areas. Yes. We had to get out.
Conrad started the trips to the car, I got some remaining things from the list, then grabbed a nearby cat and got him into a carrier with surprising ease. At last we were just about out of time and had everything we were going to be able to be able to take. Shadow was calm in his carrier, and all we needed was Garfunkel.
Garfy? Nowhere to be seen. That was odd, because these cats are good buddies and stay close together. I know, because a few times one has sneaked past me into a closet and my alert to let him out was a brother-cat standing watch outside the door. We went from room to room with our flashlights, then went around again looking in all the unlikely places, trying to think where we might have missed. No luck. With a growing sense of dread, I agreed with Conrad that we had to set a hard deadline of fifteen minutes. He took Shadow out to the car.
I’d been avoiding tears but was about to lose it—and suddenly had a thought. Our back room has a guest bed I’d built long ago, two modular twin platforms that can stack to make a day-bed. I got down on my knees with the flashlight, lifted up the bedspread, and sure enough, there were bright green eyes back in the far corner. Now what? The outer frame sits low to the floor; the bed itself has space for a cat but is too low for a human to reach in. Push came to shove, we took the beds apart, hugged the large uncooperative cat and put him into his carrier.
6 a.m., pitch dark, we were trying to get out of town to head south, but even our back county roads were bumper to bumper and not moving at all. We reversed and tried a different back-road route. The cats started crying, doubly agitated by being separated and being subjected to a bumpy ride and the low-frequency rumble of tires. Every time traffic came to a total halt I twisted myself around and got my face close to them, trying to soothe their distress with my cat version of baby-talk. It helped a little.
But where to go? Our son in San Francisco was willing, but their apartment is very small and they have two cats of their own. Friends in Vallejo were out of town, and to complicate matters, there was a new fire in that area. We found a little independent coffee shop on the north side of Petaluma, a tiny area that still had power. While Conrad went in for carry-out coffee, I arranged food, water, and litter-pan in the back of the Prius, then freed the cats. We sipped our coffee, comforted invisible cats huddled under the seats, and tried to be rational.
I got out my phone and started scanning the contacts list for any folks this side of San Francisco. It didn’t take long. I called Beth Craven, who said yes, of course, cats and all, and gave me directions. Their part of Santa Rosa didn’t have power, but there was no threat of evacuation. Beth and John are two of the absolute best theatre professionals in the whole North Bay, and we’ve known them off and on for decades. Friends, colleagues, and best of all, only a half-hour from our own home.
I’m writing this on Monday. The wind will get wild again tonight so predictions are impossible. The good thing is that the valiant firefighters have made progress establishing perimeters to keep it more or less contained. Bless you, Beth and John, and the firefighters, and the shelter volunteers, and all those whose prayers have been pouring out.