Interview and Transcription by: Marvin Hernandez, Edited by: Sophia Tsue and Cailin Notch
For this project, Sonoma State University Senior Marvin Hernandez spoke with Alina Haigler in March to discuss her experience with wildfire and evacuation from her ridgeline property in West Sonoma County. Alina’s story is just one of many experiences of increasingly frequent catastrophic wildfires in Sonoma County, California and the West. We appreciate Alina’s time and willingness to share her story.
Trigger Warning: Some material in this text may cause unintended negative emotional responses for some readers. Sensitive material within the text includes descriptions of wildfires and discussion of PTSD.
First Experiences with Fire in Sonoma County
What has your experience been like in general with these fires?
We moved here five years ago, around the time of the Lake County fire.. That got our attention because we live in a very remote, fire-prone area. Then the Tubbs Fire hit. We could watch Fountaingrove burning from the edge of the deck. It was pretty terrifying because I had never lived in fire county before so I had no idea what I was getting into. Harry still says that was the week his vision improved- suddenly he could see fire risks around the house like never before! So that really started us to get moving on our own fire safety.
The Kincade Fire was coming in from the East which is our big danger zone. We experienced our first mandatory evacuation that week. While the fire was 15 miles away, the fire authorities made it very clear that if the fire jumped 101 (like the Tubbs fire had done in 2017), the area between Windsor and our ridge would burn very quickly. We were fortunate that time because the fire lines held and forward progress was stopped. It’s hard to describe the surreal feeling as you pack up and leave your home, thinking you may not see it again.
It was 4:32 AM, Aug. 17, 2020. The predicted “dry lighting” storm woke us up and we watched with a mixture of awe, fascination and apprehension as countless lighting bolts shot around our hill. The smell of lightning-created ozone was strong, but no rain fell. The NOAA radio was on, and we started texting neighbors to find out what they were seeing. Everyone expressed the same sentiment…”this is not going to end well”. By Tuesday we knew the Meyers Grade Fire was burning, but that was a few miles from us and nearer to the coast. But by Tuesday we learned the lightning storm had started fires in many areas, and one was much closer to us than we realized. At noon the county sent out a WUI alert- I remember I was trying to eat lunch when our cell phones went off with the loud alarms. The landline was ringing with recorded messages to evacuate NOW, emails were coming in. And then seeing the smoke from the driveway… that was pretty scary. Harry loaded up the water pump and fire hose on the pickup and we started calling neighbors who were near the fire line for info. We packed up and waited it out until late that night since we kept hearing how backed up 116 was. I still have a picture on my phone a neighbor sent me of the fire coming up his ridge at Austin Creek. That was when I said “We are out of here.” As it turned out, we were among the few to evacuate the ridge. But we didn’t know how things were going to turn out and we didn’t have a bulldozer, as many who stayed did. And the issue of people out in these rural areas staying is more complicated than it seems because they were the ones who fought the fire until CalFire could get help to us. It took four days for resources to be sent to this ridge. Neighbors held the line during that time.
During Kincade, [evacuating] was no big deal. We went to Berkeley. [COVID] changed a lot of the dynamic. This time because our pod was my stepson, his wife, and the two grandkids that had been living with us earlier in the pandemic, we evacuated to their house in San Francisco. So we ended up in [there] for a couple of nights. Then we came back to Neeley Road because that side of the river hadn’t [evacuated] and we needed to be closer.
That’s the other thing. By law, you can’t be forced to evacuate. But, you can be kept away from your home. That’s why a lot of people don’t leave. We couldn’t get back in because at that point our ridge was a major staging point to keep the fire out of Guerneville and Rio Nido.
Do you feel like you had access to the necessary help or resources so you could feel prepared before or during these disasters?
I think we’ve had a really steep learning curve in this County after Tubbs. Organizations like Fire Safe Sonoma were a huge help. I tapped into them as soon as I could. We were proactively looking for [resources]. The County and [others] have done a really good job over the past couple of years. After the Camp Fire, after what happened in Paradise, I think everyone started being a little more cautious.
What resources or information would you have wanted to know in advance of all these disasters?
I think the evacuation route because we live on a one-way road. Every time we’ve left is [the question of] where do you go? When you get off the hill, what’s safe? It’s a big deal to get into a long line of traffic when you are on a really small, narrow, windy mountain road. We timed our leaving in order to avoid the crowd. You got flames at a distance and embers and ash in the air. Fire fighters talk about fire making its own weather, and even this far away from a fire you literally start feeling the eerie sensation. You just know how fast it’s coming. The people who are in more crowded areas I think really suffer when they don’t know the route out of their neighborhood. That can be overwhelming for us. I only have one road; and then it’s just when I get down there, do I go right or left? Do I go to the coast or do I go south to the city?
For your evacuations, do you think they could’ve been better? What do you think you would have done differently?
We were watching the lightning and knew fires would be started. By the time we got the WUI alert, I was ready to leave. We have a deal at our house and that is that we stay together during these events. Yeah, if I looked back on it now, I could say we could’ve stayed, but my husband respected my concerns and we left together. One thing to remember is we have family and friends all over the world, and they worry about our safety when fires are in the news. Sometimes you leave so your people aren’t worrying about you.
A key lesson we learned was the importance of communication. Post Walbridge we started a neighborhood GMRS network. Another lesson is learning who has water, bulldozers, tools and fire hoses. We make sure the long dirt roads we all live off of are passable, especially when it’s been windy. We travel with an electric chainsaw and chains in the car. You don’t want to be in a situation where you need to leave here suddenly and find a big tree blocking the road.
Preparing for a long evacuation of 2 weeks is needed, especially when it comes to medications. Take more than a few days, take at least a week’s worth of medicine and have a plan for power outages if you are on supplemental oxygen.
Was the messaging around evacuation information clear?
It’s gotten better, but it was definitely not clear in earlier fires. I had to join Twitter during Kincade because I couldn’t get any information anywhere. I have every alert app you could imagine. But it was helpful during Walbridge because a lot of my neighbors didn’t have access to the internet and didn’t know how to access those things. [I also use] SoCo Alert, I got the CAL FIRE alert. SoCo Alert is good for letting you know the area or zones of evacuation.
The County, they learned their mistakes. It’s a 180 degree turn around I think. At least in my opinion from Tubbs to Wallbridge. I think the county made a huge improvement on how they’ve got word out to people.
For example, the Tubbs Fire was a mess. It was also moving too fast. It was a bad scenario of a fast moving wildfire, people not being prepared. The county emergency office not knowing what [the other] hand was doing. I think they’ve gotten a lot better.
Fire Prevention and Preparation
We have also cleared out everything within our home’s immediate area. We did a grant with Cal Fire called the California Forest Improvement program. They helped us get around $70,000 to improve the health of our forest. We were able to hire a crew to do a massive amount of work that we can’t do by ourselves. For us fire suppression is having water on the property. We have 15,000 gallons in rain water catchment. We have a Honda generator fire pump with 300 feet of fire hose. We have a small bunker that we put in at the end of the hill if we were to be caught here unaware and we couldn’t leave, and a small Airstream camper if we had to leave for the long term.
Then [there’s] the hardening of the house itself. It’s a 30 year old house, so it was built before the current codes were in place. Fire Safe Sonoma helped a great deal by having Stuart Mitchell come out to do a home assessment. We learned a lot from him and were able to implement many of his suggestions before Walbridge. When the firefighters were here during the Walbridge, they were very reassuring and told us we had a place they could successfully defend if the fire got closer.
After the Fires
I think I have a little bit of PTSD from the Pulse Point alarm. I think all of us in the County hate that sound now. We have some friends of ours who are moving out of Sonoma County. They just sold their house because they couldn’t take the anxiety of living in a fire prone area anymore. But we also have friends who lost their house during Walbridge and chose to rebuild. It’s really interesting to me how psychology plays into it, who decides to stay and who decides to go. We had a really long heart-to-heart talk about what we should do. At this point, we feel we’re as prepared as we can be and we will live here until we can’t because we love where we live.
Fire season is a traumatic time. I don’t know that you could ever be so prepared that it doesn’t cause some anxiety. You spend all off-season preparing for fire season. It’s like a subclinical infection. It’s not an overt infection, the person doesn’t have a raging fever but they have something that’s just below the surface and ready to erupt almost at any time. That’s the feeling I’ve gotten about our area now. We’re just always at a tipping point. We have our go bags packed in the front entryway or in a box top of the car.
I’m not worried about “will I survive a wildfire here?” because I know we can head into the bunker. Our biggest concern is some people who have dangerous looking stuff down below us. If a fire starts from their poorly done electrical wiring,we wouldn’t have time to get off the hill. So we may be better off staying here, sheltering in place.
Building a Community During Times of Crisis
Have you sought out any sort of support since the fire? Are you aware of any support groups?
I feel we have created a support group within the neighborhood. We had a very helpful visit from Marshall Turbeville about a month after the fire. He gave us a thorough history of the fire and the decision making process by CalFire. That experience, and being able to talk to each other, hearing the stories of the ones who lost their house, ones who stayed, those that left, that was really important. I think if you talked to anyone who survived any of the fires they’d tell you the same thing. There’s a carmaradie of “we lived through this together” . I imagine it’s much darker for the communities where people lost lives.”
It’s inevitable that we’ll have more fires. It’s great to have signs that thank our firefighters. But all need to help reduce wildfire risk. If we each take care of our own property as much as we can and help our neighbors, then we’re actually helping the firefighters. We need to provide the firefighter with financial support, and that may mean we all pay some more in taxes.
Being a first responder can be traumatic. There’s an increased number of firefighters who are committing suicide. Firefighters have a reduced life expectancy and chronic illness caused by the toxic fumes they breathe fighting fires. We have got to begin to see the needs of the whole community and not just what’s best for each of us as individuals.