Remembering Guardians in the Land of Fire
By Anne O’Brien, Glen Ellen
October 9, 2017 – 3:30 a.m.
Loud banging on my front door startled me from sleep. Turning on lights, I rushed from the bedroom.
“Coming, COMING! Who is it? Who is it?” I yelled. No answer.
I went to the window. No one was at the door, but headlights were backing up through fog; then careening down my rural Glen Ellen road. This alarm raiser was the first Guardian to appear. I opened the door, not to fog, but to overwhelming choking smoke and strong hot wind. I called 9-1-1.
“Ma’am there are fires all over. People are being evacuated. You’re OK where you are for now.”
“For now,” hung in my brain.
How long is for now?
I gathered passports, computers, heirlooms and photos, clothes, just in case. A normally obsessive NPR listener, why I didn’t turn on the radio, I cannot say. I made the bed. Seems ridiculous now, making the bed. I walked to the road. One hundred yards uphill were a fire truck and sheriff’s vehicle flashing red lights, with their occupants standing alongside. Clearly there was a problem, but the men were calm, not rushing around. I didn’t see fire. Yet, clearly the threat was closer than a remote 911 operator would know. I ferried things to my car taking big gulps of air inside and trying, unsuccessfully, to not breathe while outside.
Then the house went pitch black. With the light gone inside, the light outside was revealed. Through my high westward facing windows, I saw flames burning down Tom and Jen’s home up the hill, four houses away.
I had set down my keys and phone somewhere, the two things I needed most. I felt panic creeping. Mercifully, an emergency flashlight plugged into the wall flickered alive by its battery. I had returned to Glen Ellen after a four-year absence just five months earlier. During those years, Gayle and Michael had rented my home. This flashlight had been purposefully left for me by my thoughtful tenants. The second Guardian intervention. This sole source of illumination allowed me to find the keys and phone and flee.
At Arnold Drive, I had two choices: north or south. I hesitated. Another Guardian appeared driving a battered Toyota, heading south. He shouted at me to head south; north was all ablaze.
The valley is a sleepy place; at four in the morning the streets should’ve been empty, but south of Glen Ellen, headlights were everywhere. Finally, I switched on the radio.
“Highway 37 is closed in both directions,” the announcer stated.
Highway 37 was 20 minutes away and my route to my Bay Area flat. I couldn’t head the other way, so I continued past the SDC, Hanna Boys Center, and Boyes Hot Springs. By Temelec, I was nearly alone on the road, no one in front of me and headlights behind, merely small orbs of brightness. I guessed everyone else, given the nearing road closure, had made other decisions.
The radio reported firestorms in Santa Rosa, Calistoga, and then, “The fire is spreading through Glen Ellen; everyone in Glen Ellen is to leave immediately.”
My entire town was being evacuated. Then nothing else about Glen Ellen.
As I neared Highway 37 the radio announced, “Eastbound 37 has just been opened by the highway patrol. Only Eastbound is open, westbound remains closed.”
Another seeming intercession by Guardian spirits. I was the first vehicle through, no one in front of me, and only a few cars distantly behind me. I had a visceral sensation of being enveloped in a surreal bubble of safety. I travelled unimpeded to the East Bay, fearing the worst for my home, but I was safe and had a place to stay. Soon I would learn many were not so fortunate.
10:06 a.m., October 9. Text received:
Anne are you OK? I am mobilizing a crew and heading towards Glen Ellen.
A text from my ex-husband with whom I had not been in contact for several years after a painful divorce. I told him I was safe in Berkeley.
11:00 a.m. same texter:
Your house is fine. We’re here right now. There are bad winds picking up fires everywhere.
Fire is coming this way but they have a bulldozer line around so we should be fine.
I’m leaving a guy at your house to water things down. Stay where you are.
7:15 p.m. same texter:
Just arriving home. I drove by your house one last time and everything was fine.
Sometimes Guardians manifest in the most unlikely persons, not only delivering assistance but smoothing very jagged places in the heart.
More Guardians presented themselves.
A dear friend appeared the next morning, driving me back during that brief moment when we were allowed in to check on things.
Then, a mandatory evacuation remained for 15 days. Family and friends enveloped me in support for those weeks of uncertainty of the fate of Glen Ellen.
Nicole, a neighbor who stayed, checked on my home, sending video to show all was well. She fed first responders and looked after neighborhood farm animals and pets.
Heather, a yoga friend in Berkeley, emailed: I’m giving you free classes at my studio. Come when you can. I took refuge in those classes, a time free of thinking about fire, uncertainty, devastation.
The moment evacuation was lifted, Molly dropped everything, drove for hours with her crew, then worked tirelessly to clean, clear debris, ash, embers, and leaves.
Brian, a local contractor, appeared from nowhere, when a friend told him a damaged heating duct prevented my use of the fan to clear smoke. He fixed it immediately without charge.
And so many more.
I hold boundless gratitude for all the Guardians known and unknown, seen and unseen, who helped me, my Glen Ellen community, the entire Valley. Your kindness is treasured. Thank you all who continue to support and assist us in our little hamlet. #GlenEllenStrong