Out of the Ashes
by Chris Rhodes
I woke up to the blaring of a car horn. My neighbor was alerting my wife Liz and me that a major wildfire was just over the crest of the hill we live on. We fled our house at 1:45 in the early morning of October 9, 2017 in two of our cars. All we left with were the clothes we were wearing, our computer, and a few important papers. That was all we had time to collect.
As we fled, we experienced first-hand the power of wildfire driven by high winds. We passed fields that had flames burning five to six feet high along side the freeway. Minutes later, those flames would leap over a major six-lane highway and burn thousands of homes in a large subdivision in the middle of our city, Santa Rosa, CA.It was three days later before I could get back into our property to witness the devastation the fire had wrought. I am a carpenter and general contractor and I had designed and built our house 27 years earlier. There was almost nothing left. This was the house where we had raised our two daughters. It was the only home they remembered. All of the family photos and mementos were gone. It was almost as if two and a half decades of our lives were erased. The only thing that remained was some pools of melted aluminum and the hulking metal frames of some of the power tools I had in my garage woodworking shop. The fire had been so hot that the glass in the windows melted and formed artistic rivers.
The big majestic oak trees on the property were charred. The redwoods we had planted 25 years earlier had only a blackened stick of a tree trunk remaining. Even the lawn had been scorched down to the soil. It was devastating to see all that we had worked so hard to build, reduced to rubble.
Now, a year and a half later, it is interesting to track not only our recovery but that of the land and trees as well. The house is being reborn and is well under construction. It is a new and improved version of the old house and it will be more fire and earthquake resistant. It will have solar panels on the roof and the landscaping will be more drought tolerant. I first built the house when my wife and I were in our early 30’s. Now that we are closing to 60, we redesigned the house to age in.
The new house is all framed and water tight, the windows are installed and the new roof shingles are on. The drywall is being installed this week. But it took some time to get to this point. A lot of paperwork had to be read, and forms had to be filled out and filed with the insurance company, FEMA, the Red Cross, the architects and engineers, our mortgage company, and finally the building department.
Santa Rosa and Sonoma County have seen that same rebirth as we have. Homes destroyed by the fire are being rebuilt in large numbers. Many of the displaced families are moving back. Old neighbors are rekindling deep-rooted friendships. Sonoma County is known for its wine and the vineyards. They are as beautiful as ever in their spring bloom.
Nature’s recovery has taken its own path as well.
Last spring, a majority of our beautiful oaks bloomed just in time for Easter. That was a very hopeful sign. A few of the oaks died in the fire but amazingly, most survived. I am anxious to see how they respond this spring. The madrone, olive, and manzanita trees didn’t fare as well. But even those that were burned to the ground have sprouted new life growing out of their old tree trunks. I am not sure what they will look like in years to come, but it is fascinating to see something that appeared so dead spring to new life. Disappointingly, the poison oak that I had worked so hard to control over the years has started its recovery as well. Rebirth is happening everywhere you look.
As I look back on this past year and a half, I am reminded of how precious life is. I never was one to take life for granted, but the fire has given me a completely new understanding of what is truly important. We lost virtually everything we spent a lifetime acquiring, and yet the most important things in life remain: our faith in God, our church community, our love of our family and friends, and our ability to share our time and talents with those that need it far more than we do.
I have received a strong lesson from nature as well. It has taught me that even when things look bleak, when recovery seems most unlikely, new life sprouts again. Recovery takes time and even when recovery occurs, it looks and feels different. Life may never be the same, but if I, as a son of God, live in the moment, am thankful for every day of life I have, and serve those who need it the most, life can be very good. In all of this uncertainty, I have found the greatest satisfaction in helping others. Even though I didn’t think I had very much, I quickly realized that I had more than enough.
Chris Rhodes is Executive Director of Westminster Woods in Occidental, CA.