Five Years Later: the Tubbs and Nuns Fires

This week marks the fifth anniversary of the Tubbs and Nuns fires here in Sonoma County (and Napa and Mendocino Counties, too). Such an anniversary wouldn’t be especially relevant to our audience beyond the fact that at the time I believe I missed recording one episode of The Paceline, if not two, due to being evacuated, but, and I’m sorry that this is kind of a long sentence for a podcast, but, Red Kite Prayer readers and Paceline listeners stepped up when I put out a call for pre-worn clothing. 

To go back and recap for everyone who didn’t have the misfortune to live through this: On October 8th, 2017, Diablos began blowing out of the east. It’s generally reported that the winds began blowing that night, but they’d been blowing all day. That night, some of the high passes in the Mayacamas which divide Sonoma County and Napa County recorded wind speeds in excess of 100 mph. The Tubbs fire began just outside Calistoga and was immediately blown west into Sonoma County and the Nuns fire began some hours later up in the Mayacamas, just south of Santa Rosa. 

I’ve learned to limit just how much I go back and review from that time. Only recently did I begin to appreciate that what I experienced constitutes trauma and I’ve got PTSD  where the smell of campfires is concerned. I’m not going to go into how many deaths there were or the billions in losses we suffered. I’ll say this: Santa Rosa lost 5 percent of our residential housing. At the time only 2 percent of our residential housing was available to rent or buy, so relocation got interesting very quickly. 

The first burned for something like nine days; I was evacuated for almost two weeks. 

What I learned in the weeks that followed was that a number of my friends—all cyclists—had lost their homes and most or all of their cycling gear. Most never had a chance to leave with even one bike. When the first checks came in from the insurance companies, most of the riders I knew went out and bought one bike, one helmet, one pair of shoes and one pair of bibs and a jersey. That was it. Of course, you can’t get out daily with just one kit, so I asked readers and listeners to send used clothing to me. 

What people sent was incredible. There were shorts, bibs, tights because it was fall, short sleeve jerseys, long-sleeve jerseys, windbreakers, jackets, arm leg and knee warmers, helmets, socks, cycling caps, base layers, and even toys because some folks figured that riders have kids too. I was sent so much stuff that I had to use the garage bay next to mine to store it all. There were more than 20 bins of clothing organized by type of piece and size. Also, an eternal thank you to Andrea Wells, who helped me organize this stuff. We began as friends and would go on to date for more than a year after that. 

What I got myself into is the real source of the trauma I suffered. There’s a thing that I didn’t know about where if you’re a competent adult who pays their bills on time and you suffer a big loss, the only quarter you’re really comfortable getting help from is your insurance company. Getting help from family is a bit of a humiliation. Getting help from friends is humbling of an order that is hard to describe. In order for riders to accept the clothing readers and listeners sent, each person I invited over—and there were more than 50—needed to tell me their story of getting out. The act was somewhat cathartic for them. It made the experience more real, and it helped justify in their minds that they really did merit help. 

Here’s how much people didn’t like receiving assistance: I had people take maybe two pairs of bibs and a couple of jerseys, maybe a pair of gloves and then say they wanted to leave stuff for “other people.” I had to say, repeatedly, “Dude, you are the other people.” (I say “dude” to men and women, both.)

I often say of that time that after meeting with someone, getting them clothes that fit, listening to their story, validating the horror of it—I had people describe to me the sound of hot water heaters exploding and car gas tanks exploding—and then allowing for tears and hugs, when I walked upstairs from my garage, the only question on my mind was whether I was having beer or wine. 

I’ve checked in with some of the people from that time and am in fairly regular contact with others. Five years later, some have moved away; some of them have left the state for Idaho, Kentucky, Tennessee and Texas. Some have yet to rebuild. Some bought homes in a different part of town. A number of people simply don’t want to talk about what happened, and I can’t blame them. 

There was quite a bit of clothing left over and when the Kincaid fire happened in 2019, I was able to pass some of the leftovers to friends who lost homes then. Also, a big shoutout to Pearl Izumi and Andrew Hammond who sent me photo samples to give out. The folks at Industry Nine also sent us stuff, including some beer to me. I went on to sell a bunch of it (clothing, not beer) and the proceeds went to a NICA composite team here in Sonoma County known as the A Team. A couple of people event sent bikes and for reasons of sizing, those went to NICA as well.

Thank you to everyone who sent … everything.

Join the conversation
  1. schlem says

    I want to reference the “Look for the helpers” quote by Mr. Fred Rogers but that has been rendered kinda trite by tragedy memes. Which is too bad. It’s a lovely sentiment. But, helping people in need is a manifestation of The Divine. I love knowing that there are people, quietly abiding, who step up, barge in when shit goes sideways, and solve real problems for real people in real trouble. I appreciate that it was a difficult episode and you still experience the stress of the event. Thanks for sharing.

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