North Bay Fires: Commonweal Voices

fire north bay sun

Dear Friends,

The confluence of catastrophes that have been circling the globe has landed in Northern California with disastrous fire losses in Sonoma, Napa, and Mendocino Counties.

Commonweal has many friends, Cancer Help Program alumni, staff, and board members in the Fire Zone. The stories of those who have lost homes, been evacuated, or moved out themselves because they could not breathe or saw the wisdom of leaving are flowing toward us like an incoming tide. Commonweal is just south of the Fire Zone, so we have not been directly affected yet.

New School Coordinator and Commonweal Communications Manager Kyra Epstein is organizing our resources on FaceBook and our website to gather stories, resources, and ideas of how all of us can help. We also have placed a NorCal Fire Fund option on the Commonweal donation page. We’ll give 100% of donations to fire victims and their communities, guided by the local knowledge of our board, staff, and friends. There are many good places to donate. We just want to offer a place for people who trust our approach to healing work.

Here’s Kyra:

Monday morning at 7am, I woke up in my Sonoma County home when my neighbor tapped on my door. “Pack a bag,” she said. Cable, Internet, and phones were down, and had been since late the night before, though I hadn’t known it. Something had happened. The sun was blood red and the sky was glowing. Ash was sifting down and collecting on surfaces. The air smelled like campfire.

I drove to the nearest town with cell phone service and checked the news. The North Bay fires had begun the night before, forcing evacuations, burning homes and businesses, and taking down cable, cell phone, and electricity access to many. In our little village of Forestville, a gateway from the fire zone to the coast, people were lined up 20-30 cars at the gas station, which quickly ran out of gas. As the news rolled out, and stunned, exhausted refugees checked in, the Bay Area–and then the rest of the country–watched the situation go from bad to worse.

I am one of the lucky ones. My house is still standing.

Though Commonweal is located on the coast of Marin County–south and west of the fires–many staff, board, and community members live and are in Sonoma County right now; many are affected by the fires. And the tragedy of what is lost and what is still happening throughout the North Bay is staggering us all. But in the midst of it, people are coming together, neighbors are helping each other, and communities are bringing physical and emotional support.

Facebook is playing a large role in sharing these stories. While news stations, text update services, and many other good sources are sharing the devastating facts of what is happening, a discriminating Facebook viewer can see individual voices emerging from their walls. These voices tell stories of compassion, community, and courage. Compassion for our North Bay neighbors and friends, but also a sobering new kind of empathy for all those suffering from natural disasters around the world.

The New School has been a clearinghouse and home for these kinds of stories for 10 years. Commonweal has been a place for exploring beauty and impermanence in the midst of grief, fear, and healing for 40 years. Like everyone here, we want to help. We feel called to share some of these North-Bay-Fire stories, as well as calls for help, with and from our community as they evolve, hoping that they can be a source of strength, inspiration, and aid. You’ll find some of these stories by clicking the link to Michael’s blog, and in the video below.

The New School Facebook page will continue posting these voices and stories as they emerge. We hope you’ll add your voice as well and tell us your story or let us know how we or others can help. As Michael says, “Let’s face it together.”

Warm best,
Kyra Epstein, New School Program Coordinator

2017 North Bay Fires: Commonweal Voices

Oct 9, 7:51p
Update for loved ones. We have been evacuated because of the fires. We are holding space at the synagogue with other families evacuated. The synagogue should remain safe, but your prayers would not be misplaced. Ana B’koach anyone?
—Irwin Keller, TNS-Sonoma Host (Facebook)

Oct 9, 8:25a
We are at the synagogue, ready to leave at a moment’s notice with family, cats and torah. Sonoma State has been evacuated, the northern neighborhoods of Rohnert Park as well. We have no idea what is happening on the mountain and our land. Trying to practice non-attachment.

The air is thick with smoke, and the light is ominous… The fires are raging all over Sonoma County. We are OK. Please feel free to come by the synagogue if you need a place to go: 85 La Plaza in Cotati.

We’ll keep you posted.
—Oren Slozberg, Commonweal Executive Director (Facebook)

Oct 9, 12:51p
You know how a room gets when someone tries to light a wood-burning stove and doesn’t know what they’re doing, and the house gets full of smoke? That is what this town is like right now. The light is tainted by a deep orange hue. The fire station is quiet, even the streets emptied out. All we can do now is wait.

We learned that one of our neighbors stayed up on the mountain. And as for now, there are no flames in the immediate vicinity of our road. Now we can just hope that the winds stay down. Now I’ve been awake for 36 hours straight, haven’t done that since 1982. How long can you run on Adrenaline? I’ll go rest, nothing to do as nature does as it does.

Thank you for all the offers for places to stay. We are going to stay at Ner Shalom for now, as the alerts here have been downgraded and there are over 25 people here.

I’ll post any news if they come up. If anybody knows people that need a place to go they are invited here. 85 La Playa in Cotati. There is plenty of food, games, and corners to rest.
—Oren Slozberg, Commonweal Executive Director (Facebook)

Oct 9, 6:09p
The “Chorus of Evacuees,” a video posted by New School-Sonoma Host Irwin Keller with his fellow displaced congregants.
Irwin Keller - Facebook video
—Irwin Keller, TNS-Sonoma Host (Facebook)

Oct 10, 8:38a
The skies are still a deep gray, and the air is still, and has more texture than air should have. The Fire Department asked that we not sleep at home, not to mention its not that hospitable without water, electricity or connectivity. So our family stayed at the synagogue and with friends. There is a sense of urgency, but all we can do is wait. So we’re waiting.

There is an ice breaker that asks people to share what they would take in case of a fire, as a way to explore one’s values. It am starting to think that physical things lose value when fire is near, even objects infused with history and memories. Yesterday, filling the car with albums and heirlooms felt more like an obligation than a desire to preserve. Maybe non-attachement is actually a little easier when forced to make such choices.

As far as the details. Our home on Sonoma Mountain is adjacent to the Nuns Fire which is burning in Southeast Santa Rosa, mostly in the the Oakmount and Kenwood communities. The fire is 0% contained. The road at the bottom of our mountain is closed (for those who have visited us, Pressely/Roberts are closed at the beginning of Lichau). The fire itself is about 1.5 miles away and moving north away from us. Fortunately, there is almost no winds, so the movement is slow. There are concerns that the winds might pick up tonight so we will probably not be sleeping at home tonight.

We are grateful for the outpouring of offers to house, to help and to pray. Knowing that there is a community to fall back on is reassuring. We are blessed to know that we can be of service and also be supported.

I need to remember to breathe, though not too deeply….
—Oren Slozberg, Commonweal Executive Director (Facebook)

Oct 10, 8:47a
A quick update to all of you who have been wondering how we are. The last couple of days have been surreal and terrifying. We are safe for the time being and as long as the winds remain calm, we should be okay. The layer of grief that is settling like ash on this community, is staggering. Homes, loved ones, memories, those objects that hold a feeling of the sacred…GONE. Thank you all for your prayers and love. It is what remains.
—Francis Weller, Commonweal Cancer Help Program Psychotherapist (Facebook)

Oct 10, 11:31a
Fire got you down? Looking for something hot, wet and sexy to pass the time? It’s called dish duty at your local hospital or shelter. It’s what they need all day.
—Amber Faur, Commonweal Visual Thinking Strategies (Facebook)

Oct 11, 11:26a
Starting the day with a quick update, since I won’t be able to answer all your kind messages. The fires continue. Our house made it through another night, but the flames are close, and it all depends [literally!] on which way the wind is blowing. Oren and I are staying at the home of our friend Leiah. I got my first shower in 72 hours this morning, and it felt like a spa day.

Thank you all for your continued prayers. Many people have asked how they can help. Really right now it’s about housing and clothes. There will be more needs later.

In this moment, many congregants are displaced. I am currently actively seeking a place for a family of four, including 2 adult disabled children, any length of time, starting tonight. It must be wheelchair accessible. If you might be able to do this tremendous mitzvah, private message me. It’s important. Thank you!

Oh –– and last thing –– happy [government-sanctioned] anniversary today to my husband, Oren. So blessed to have you here next to me today.
—Irwin Keller, TNS-Sonoma Host (Facebook)

Oct 11, 2:45p
I am thankful for community and family today. I evacuated my Glen Ellen home at 2:30 a.m. Monday when a neighbor knocked on my door until I answered in person. The wind was wild and smoke was already heavy in the air. I went directly to a close friend’s in Sonoma. Within hours the power went off and by dawn it was clear that the best move was to head south to my daughter’s in the east bay to stay.

On Tuesday morning we decided to head back to see if the house was OK and look for my cat that was left behind. At the coffee shop in Berkeley we ran into Maite Iturri, Principal of El Verano Elementary School, also staying with her son in Berkeley. A miracle. We asked what can we do, and she suggested we bring supplies to her school which was open as a distribution center for donations for families in the Springs neighborhood north of the town of Sonoma.

We went to Target and Ace Hardware for masks, water, diapers, etc. and drove to Sonoma and dropped them off.

Around noon we were allowed into Glen Ellen to see that my house was standing. Fire reached within 50 feet of our homes. A ditch had been dug behind our houses as a fire stop and thankfully it worked. I am still not clear who dug the ditch but clearly it saved “downtown”, the post office, the Glen Ellen Market and the restaurants.

From all I have heard, people are getting in touch and making sure everyone has a safe place to stay. We are all waiting for the weather to be more favorable and firefighters able to control the fire. Lots of prayers.
—Robyn Muscardini, trainer in Commonweal’s Visual Thinking Strategies Program (email)

Oct 11, 3:50p
Dogs. Who can take dogs? Who doesn’t love dogs? Especially in a crisis! A Ner Shalom family will likely not be able to find housing unless someone can take their dogs temporarily. Any length of time buys us time to find further solutions. If you can take them, say so below.
—Irwin Keller, TNS-Sonoma Host (Facebook)

Oct 11, 5:26p
Deep breath.

We were just informed that there they are preparing to evacuate the retirement communities in Rohnert Park as they are afraid that the wind will push the fire back here. We are loading our cars so we are ready to leave the synagogue if we have to. In that case we will be coming to Bolinas.

Katherine has left Sonoma as they gave warning to the town of Sonoma to be ready for evacuation; they are going to San Rafael.

I’ll keep you posted.
—Oren Slozberg, Commonweal Executive Director (Facebook)