• author
    • Debra DeAngelo

    • October 13, 2017 in Columnists

    Shell-shocked by tragedy

    It was Monday morning when I broke.

    I was finishing up my morning horse chores, gazing in despair at the surrounding Lake Solano hills, socked in with ghostly white drifts. It looked like a typical misty December morning.

    The eyes can be deceived, but not the nose. The air was thick with pungent, choking smoke. Triple digit summer heat waves had already transformed the stark, dry hillsides into lifelessness. Trees and bushes looking like skeletons in the hazy air. It looked like the end of the world.

    After so many fires in our area, year after year, this is our new normal. We’re either on fire ourselves or feeling the effects of fire elsewhere. Here in fire country, we don’t have four seasons, just two: Fire Season and Not Fire Season.

    Driving back into town, drifts of fine ash swirled on my windshield, and it hit me: It’s not merely ash… it’s the remains of people’s lives, everything they own, animals, pets… it’s that old couple, he 100 and she 99, unable to escape, burned alive while clinging to each other… drifting across my windshield.

    And I broke. Tears started streaming. And I’m not a crier. I’m just not. I can shut off my emotions in a snap, like a spigot. (Thank you, dysfunctional alcoholic household of my childhood, for this questionable “skill.”) I am a rock, I am an island. But once in a great while, particularly when I’m saturated with shock and grief, the spigot leaks. Right down my cheeks.

    I’d already hit my saturation point after the Puerto Rico hurricane. Before we’d even begun to process the magnitude of that unfolding calamity, there was the Las Vegas massacre. The grief counseling hadn’t even begun for the survivors and one week later, the Napa Valley is an inferno. The column I’d written on Friday, Oct. 6, about the Las Vegas shootings was outdated by the time it ran in the Express the following Wednesday.

    The tragedies are coming so fast and furious, all against the backdrop of a looming nuclear World War III. How can we mentally process all this? Hurricanes? Shootings? Lunatic dictators, both foreign and domestic? We’ll think about that later because right now, we’re running for our lives through the flames.

    Who in a million years would have thought that Santa Rosa could burn to the ground? Entire neighborhoods reduced to ash in moments? ICU patients being rushed through parking lots on gurneys toward awaiting ambulances because a wall of fire was sweeping down upon hospitals? It was surreal.

    Two years ago, Middletown was destroyed by the monstrous Valley Fire, and the black, smoking, stinking aftermath was stunning. But Middletown is tiny and isolated, surrounded by acres of wild, untamed land covered in thick brush; a tiny dot in a huge nest of endless kindling, and not equipped with an ample fire department or even a nearby one, or even a nearby highway where other fire departments could respond quickly. Having spent a lot of time in that area, I can understand how Middletown was swallowed in flames.

    But Santa Rosa? SANTA ROSA?

    What the holy hell?

    I used to believe that living in town insulated us from wildfires. Here in Winters, although we’re in the heart of fire country, we have an ample fire department, and many others nearby that can rush to our rescue in moments. At worse, a roof or two might be charred, but complete destruction from fire seemed impossible. A few folks might be inconvenienced while waiting for their insurance adjusters, but that would be the extent of it. The fire in Santa Rosa changes everything.

    If it can happen there, it can happen anywhere, particularly here on the western side of Yolo County, which becomes a wind tunnel when the north wind blows. With mountains on both sides of the valley, and no tall structures or tree lines to create a buffer, the north wind hits us like a locomotive engine.

    It used to be that a windstorm mostly meant broken branches to pick up and flattened fences to repair. But every year gets hotter and drier, and even substantial rainfall during Not Fire Season isn’t much help because triple-digit summer heat bakes it into even thicker kindling. Now, whenever the wind kicks up, it feels ominous.

    I’d spent last weekend at a writers’ workshop in the Carmel Valley, sheltered from the wind by the Coastal Range. Coming home Sunday night, when we reached that long, lonely, stretch of 680 that skirts Travis Air Force Base, I noticed the car was getting buffeted about. When I got out of the car at home, a hot, angry wind was raging. Dread surged through me as I thought, “Please let there not be any sparks.”

    By the time I awoke the next morning, hellfire was engulfing the Napa Valley.

    I’m heartbroken for all those affected. And in Puerto Rico. And in Las Vegas. And, and, and. The magnitude of suffering and need is unfathomable. Where — how — do we even begin to give aid and comfort? In the boom, boom, boom of tragedy upon tragedy upon tragedy, you become shell-shocked with anxiety and horror… desensitized into a state of emotional paralysis because our minds just can’t grasp it all.

    But we don’t have the luxury of paralysis right now. There are people, pets and livestock, that all need help, and they need it now. Rescue centers are popping up, funds are being raised, items being collected. My daughter even organized a little pet food collection to take to the Solano animal shelter, and this little act offered emotional relief. Helping out, in big ways and small, allows us to cling to hope that someday, somehow, things will get better. However, given the seemingly endless parade of tragedy, I fear that this too is the new normal. Compassion, generosity and sticking together will help us cope. Do whatever you can to help, because next time, it may be you.

    Ask not for whom the fire engine blares, it blares for thee.



      • Valerie Engelman

      • October 13, 2017 at 5:46 pm
      • Reply

      So many have lost everything they own, people they love. They need our love, caring, understanding, and help. Insurance adjusters haven’t been so honest or helpful.

      • Donna Hanna

      • October 13, 2017 at 11:57 pm
      • Reply

      As always Debra, another great heartfelt article. I believe the Gods and Goddesses are extremely angry with our country, and even angrier with the swamp people destroying our country. Perhaps this is Mother Nature, she has decided to destroy it before it is destroyed from within the government. I can’t say I blame her. If I were Mother Nature I’d be pissed too. Not a drop of respect from within our government for her, and they all claim to be so Godly & Holy. If they were on the side of a higher power like they say, surely they wouldn’t be treating our country like a piece of crap, and destroying it like we have so many more planets in this world to choose from, I’d destroy it too. Just like their Godliness to me is fake and put on. Like the commercial says, “It’s Not Nice to Fool Mother Nature”.
      Love you, Girlie
      Hang tight!

      • I agree… I think Gaia perceives us as a virus, and she’s trying to cure herself.
        And… this planet will outlive us all… even after we kill it. :/

      • Terri Connett

      • October 15, 2017 at 12:42 pm
      • Reply

      So well written, Debra. I could practically smell the smoke all the way from Michigan. It is all so overwhelming! And the fact that this is one tragedy on top of another on top of a whole tragic stockpile of horrors … is, well … shell-shocked is a good word.

      • Thanks….
        We are all STUNNED out here by the massive damage and loss of life. More people died in the fires than did from the hurricane in Puerto Rico.

      • Maya Spier Stiles North

      • October 19, 2017 at 12:55 am
      • Reply

      I am in tears. It was so like that here, too, but no whole big towns burned to the ground. Just a neighborhood. And acres of sacred ground. And all over the Columbia Gorge. Our sun blazed red and ash filtered from the sky, the burned essence of lives too slow to flee. I am so overwhelmed by everything and I don’t overwhelm easily, despite how I can carry on when that last straw of the day hits. I put my head down and persevere, but I have spent days in bed, too depressed to move, fighting an immune system that has responded to my current state. I don’t have an answer either, but this helps. We have to keep talking together and, perhaps, hugging and crying until we suck in a breath, get up and get moving because all of this heinous shit is going to take all of us just to survive it. I love you so…

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