Commonweal Voices from the Fire Zone

Though Commonweal is located on the coast of Marin County—south and west of the North Bay fires—many staff, board, and community members live and are in Sonoma County right now. Many are affected by the fires. And the tragedy of what is lost and what is still happening throughout the North Bay is staggering us all. But in the midst of it, people are coming together, neighbors are helping each other, and communities are bringing physical and emotional support.

Facebook is playing a large role in sharing these stories. While news stations, text update services, and many other good sources are sharing the devastating facts of what is happening, a discriminating Facebook viewer can see individual voices emerging from their walls. These voices tell stories of compassion, community, and courage. Compassion for our North Bay neighbors and friends, but also a sobering new kind of empathy for all those suffering from natural disasters around the world.

Oct 9, 7:51p

Update for loved ones. We have been evacuated because of the fires. We are holding space at the synagogue with other families evacuated. The synagogue should remain safe, but your prayers would not be misplaced. Ana B’koach anyone?
—Irwin Keller, TNS-Sonoma Host (Facebook)

Oct 9, 8:25a

We are at the synagogue, ready to leave at a moment’s notice with family, cats and torah. Sonoma State has been evacuated, the northern neighborhoods of Rohnert Park as well. We have no idea what is happening on the mountain and our land. Trying to practice non-attachment.

The air is thick with smoke, and the light is ominous… The fires are raging all over Sonoma County. We are OK. Please feel free to come by the synagogue if you need a place to go: 85 La Plaza in Cotati.

We’ll keep you posted.
—Oren Slozberg, Commonweal Executive Director (Facebook)

Oct 9, 12:51p

You know how a room gets when someone tries to light a wood-burning stove and doesn’t know what they’re doing, and the house gets full of smoke? That is what this town is like right now. The light is tainted by a deep orange hue. The fire station is quiet, even the streets emptied out. All we can do now is wait.

We learned that one of our neighbors stayed up on the mountain. And as for now, there are no flames in the immediate vicinity of our road. Now we can just hope that the winds stay down. Now I’ve been awake for 36 hours straight, haven’t done that since 1982. How long can you run on Adrenaline? I’ll go rest, nothing to do as nature does as it does.

Thank you for all the offers for places to stay. We are going to stay at Ner Shalom for now, as the alerts here have been downgraded and there are over 25 people here.

I’ll post any news if they come up. If anybody knows people that need a place to go they are invited here. 85 La Playa in Cotati. There is plenty of food, games, and corners to rest.
—Oren Slozberg, Commonweal Executive Director (Facebook)

Oct 9, 6:09p

The “Chorus of Evacuees,” a video posted by New School-Sonoma Host Irwin Keller with his fellow displaced congregants.
Irwin Keller - Facebook video
—Irwin Keller, TNS-Sonoma Host (Facebook)

Oct 10, 8:38a

The skies are still a deep gray, and the air is still, and has more texture than air should have. The Fire Department asked that we not sleep at home, not to mention its not that hospitable without water, electricity or connectivity. So our family stayed at the synagogue and with friends. There is a sense of urgency, but all we can do is wait. So we’re waiting.

There is an ice breaker that asks people to share what they would take in case of a fire, as a way to explore one’s values. It am starting to think that physical things lose value when fire is near, even objects infused with history and memories. Yesterday, filling the car with albums and heirlooms felt more like an obligation than a desire to preserve. Maybe non-attachement is actually a little easier when forced to make such choices.

As far as the details. Our home on Sonoma Mountain is adjacent to the Nuns Fire which is burning in Southeast Santa Rosa, mostly in the the Oakmount and Kenwood communities. The fire is 0% contained. The road at the bottom of our mountain is closed (for those who have visited us, Pressely/Roberts are closed at the beginning of Lichau). The fire itself is about 1.5 miles away and moving north away from us. Fortunately, there is almost no winds, so the movement is slow. There are concerns that the winds might pick up tonight so we will probably not be sleeping at home tonight.

We are grateful for the outpouring of offers to house, to help and to pray. Knowing that there is a community to fall back on is reassuring. We are blessed to know that we can be of service and also be supported.

I need to remember to breathe, though not too deeply….
—Oren Slozberg, Commonweal Executive Director (Facebook)

Oct 10, 8:47a

A quick update to all of you who have been wondering how we are. The last couple of days have been surreal and terrifying. We are safe for the time being and as long as the winds remain calm, we should be okay. The layer of grief that is settling like ash on this community, is staggering. Homes, loved ones, memories, those objects that hold a feeling of the sacred…GONE. Thank you all for your prayers and love. It is what remains.
—Francis Weller, Commonweal Cancer Help Program Psychotherapist (Facebook)

Oct 10, 11:31a

Fire got you down? Looking for something hot, wet and sexy to pass the time? It’s called dish duty at your local hospital or shelter. It’s what they need all day.
—Amber Faur, Commonweal Visual Thinking Strategies (Facebook)

Oct 11, 11:26a

Starting the day with a quick update, since I won’t be able to answer all your kind messages. The fires continue. Our house made it through another night, but the flames are close, and it all depends [literally!] on which way the wind is blowing. Oren and I are staying at the home of our friend Leiah. I got my first shower in 72 hours this morning, and it felt like a spa day.

Thank you all for your continued prayers. Many people have asked how they can help. Really right now it’s about housing and clothes. There will be more needs later.

In this moment, many congregants are displaced. I am currently actively seeking a place for a family of four, including 2 adult disabled children, any length of time, starting tonight. It must be wheelchair accessible. If you might be able to do this tremendous mitzvah, private message me. It’s important. Thank you!

Oh –– and last thing –– happy [government-sanctioned] anniversary today to my husband, Oren. So blessed to have you here next to me today.
—Irwin Keller, TNS-Sonoma Host (Facebook)

Oct 11, 2:45p

I am thankful for community and family today. I evacuated my Glen Ellen home at 2:30 a.m. Monday when a neighbor knocked on my door until I answered in person. The wind was wild and smoke was already heavy in the air. I went directly to a close friend’s in Sonoma. Within hours the power went off and by dawn it was clear that the best move was to head south to my daughter’s in the east bay to stay.

On Tuesday morning we decided to head back to see if the house was OK and look for my cat that was left behind. At the coffee shop in Berkeley we ran into Maite Iturri, Principal of El Verano Elementary School, also staying with her son in Berkeley. A miracle. We asked what can we do, and she suggested we bring supplies to her school which was open as a distribution center for donations for families in the Springs neighborhood north of the town of Sonoma.

We went to Target and Ace Hardware for masks, water, diapers, etc. and drove to Sonoma and dropped them off.

Around noon we were allowed into Glen Ellen to see that my house was standing. Fire reached within 50 feet of our homes. A ditch had been dug behind our houses as a fire stop and thankfully it worked. I am still not clear who dug the ditch but clearly it saved “downtown”, the post office, the Glen Ellen Market and the restaurants.

From all I have heard, people are getting in touch and making sure everyone has a safe place to stay. We are all waiting for the weather to be more favorable and firefighters able to control the fire. Lots of prayers.
—Robyn Muscardini, trainer in Commonweal’s Visual Thinking Strategies Program (email)

Oct 11, 3:50p

Dogs. Who can take dogs? Who doesn’t love dogs? Especially in a crisis! A Ner Shalom family will likely not be able to find housing unless someone can take their dogs temporarily. Any length of time buys us time to find further solutions. If you can take them, say so below.
—Irwin Keller, TNS-Sonoma Host (Facebook)

Oct 11, 5:26p

Deep breath.

We were just informed that there they are preparing to evacuate the retirement communities in Rohnert Park as they are afraid that the wind will push the fire back here. We are loading our cars so we are ready to leave the synagogue if we have to. In that case we will be coming to Bolinas.

Katherine has left Sonoma as they gave warning to the town of Sonoma to be ready for evacuation; they are going to San Rafael.

I’ll keep you posted.
—Oren Slozberg, Commonweal Executive Director (Facebook)

Oct 11, 12:00p

Herbs to help you deal with the wildfire smoke – Living Medicine Project

—Penny Livingston, Co-Founder, Regenerative Design Institute at Commonweal Garden (Facebook)

Oct 11, 12:15a

Another day. The winds are staring to pick up, and our concerns with it. We are sitting at the synagogue, with sirens blaring around us. The fires are more contained then before, so grateful to the fire fighters that have come to Sonoma County from around the country.

Today was our anniversary. After 14 years together, Irwin Keller and I got married legally on Oct 11, 2008, in the six months between the CA Supreme Court decision and Prop 8. We used Ruth’s words to Naomi fromthe book of Ruth as our wedding vows “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay”. In the last few days we have stayed true to those words. While forests, homes and objects are vulnerable, love, compassion and community will survive this fire.

It has been a long and tiring day, not because of the efforts, but for the pressure of the unknown, the thick air, and for the endless waiting. We are in an apartment, generously given to us by Leiah Bowden, a Ner Shalom community member. We have made three plans for tomorrow to take care of kids, grandma and dogs. One plan if there is no evacuation, one plan if there is a voluntary evacuation and a plan if there is a mandatory evacuation. So I can rest now.

The house is still standing, and everyone is safe. That might change later tonight, but right now I’m grateful.

—Oren Slozberg, Commonweal Executive Director (Facebook)

Oct 12, 8:15a

I want to thank the folks on Facebook for all their quick attention. Their were so many responses to my request for lodging and dog care for one of our families! They are now set for the time being, although it will take more time before we know what all the needs are going to be. I may be back on here asking for things again in a week and a month, and I hope I can count on your vigorous response again.

For those of you beyond the Bay Area who have been asking how you can help, the answer is undoubtedly financial. A quick Google search will give you ways to donate. If you are specifically thinking about helping my community, you can click on the link below. Where it asks you to write a message, mark “RDF–Fire Relief”. I will then use that money to help families who have lost their homes or who have lost loved ones or for whom the fire has produced extenuating circumstances. And I thank you for this impulse to help. (Note that when you donate, Ner Shalom’s secular name, “Sonoma County Synagogue Center” will appear. It’s still us.)

On the personal front. It’s Thursday morning and our house continues to stand as far as we know. The air is still, which is good news. We continue to hold tight, hold space, and hold out hope.

—Irwin Keller, TNS-Sonoma Host

Oct 16, 10a

At about 1 a.m. on Monday Oct. 9 the smell of smoke woke me up. I went to the front of the house and I could see the horizon glowing red to the east. It was terrifying. I got in my car and started driving east. The red glow was farther away than it looked. It was coming from an active fire on a high ridge behind a few of Sonoma’s historic wineries. The people who had gathered outside their houses to watch told me the flames were moving away from us. I went home and the red glow faded to yellow. But the strange warm winds were still gusting fiercely. I closed the windows to keep the smoke out, and tried to sleep.

At about 4 p.m. today, Monday Oct. 16, the U.S. Postal Service delivered our mail, as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
Of course, what happened in Sonoma and Napa this past week was the biggest wildfire incident in California’s history. The numbers are staggering and the disaster is far from over. More than 40 dead. More than 100,000 people displaced. Nearly 7,000 buildings destroyed. Tens of thousands of acres of the landscape ravaged from many fires burning simultaneously. And more than 9,000 blessed men and women who came here from near and far to try to protect a beautiful region beloved around the world.
I have certainly never lived through anything like the past week, a slow-moving nightmare that kept changing hour to hour.
At times it felt like being in a war zone: helicopters overhead, National Guard on the town Square, yellow smoke-filled light, sirens, streets barricaded, more sirens.
But most of the time, it felt to me like sitting in the waiting room of an intensive care unit for days on end (the only experience I have ever lived through worse than this). Nothing to do but wait and feel helpless. Very little information, but you grasp at the fragments you do get. All the while, your life, your love, is in “intensive care,” tended to by skilled strangers. I couldn’t focus. Sleep was even harder to come by than usual.
Wait. Pray. Hope. Try to figure out where fate had blown the flames next across the vast expanse of the wine country.
In the early morning hours of Saturday Oct. 14, it was our town’s turn. The winds returned (not as bad, but just bad enough). And the best efforts of the fire fighters to build a perimeter around Sonoma failed. The wind was too much. Several houses burned to the ground little more than a mile from our house. CAL Fire then threw everything it had at the eastern edge of Sonoma for the next 12 hours or so. They cut the electricity to that part of town, ordered people out in the adjacent areas, hosed down the historic buildings on the Plaza and fought like hell. Eventually, they turned the fire away. The town was saved. And with it, our home, and the life we have built here over the past 15 years.
We had left on Wednesday afternoon when the advisory evacuation started, with sirens blaring and megaphones telling people it was best to leave, now. We decided not to wait until that order became mandatory. Dear friends in Marin, about 20 miles away, took us in. We had had two days to decide what to take with us—a profound luxury compared to those who escaped with their lives and little else, or didn’t escape at all, when the firestorm had started in that malicious Sunday evening wind.
Amazingly, once the fire had turned away from Sonoma, and another day of fire fighting had taken place, and the air had cleared some, and we learned that we actually had electricity at our house, we drove home. We went to the grocery store cooked dinner for six on Sunday night, and drank way too much wine.
And then the mailman came today. And the semblance of normalcy seemed disorienting in its own right.
The crisis is not over. The healing of people and the land will take a very long time. But we have returned to our home and to our lives–fragile, still in shock, heartbroken by what we have seen and what so many have endured, but also profoundly grateful. And changed forever in ways we will only be able to fathom over time.
In the distance, a siren sounds.
—Katherine Fulton, Commonweal Board of Directors