Shawn Hubler

Is living in a disaster zone now part of the California package? Wildfires show our risk

“This is kind of the new normal.” – Gov. Jerry Brown, shortly before Christmas, as the smoke cleared in Northern California, and Southern California burned.


Jean Lindsay smelled the new normal before she realized it was upon her. It was early in October, around 2 a.m.

Half asleep, with her window fan blowing, the 75-year-old retired secretary caught a whiff of smoke from outside her Santa Rosa bedroom. She rose from her pillow and was pulling the fan out when her son called.

“He said, ‘There’s a fire, it’s jumped the freeway, prepare to evacuate,” she remembered. “I had two grandsons here in their 20s. I had to get them up and get the dog.”

Calmly – she was struck by her calm – she threw on her sweats, slipped on her shoes, grabbed a little flashlight from her bedside table. Woke up the grandsons. Grabbed Misha, her miniature schnauzer, and some extra dog food.

Put the dog in the kennel, put the grandsons in their own vehicles, slid into her Hyundai, pulled out of her driveway. Only then did she realize that, though no authorities had notified her and no neighbors had come knocking, a stampede was underway and the whole neighborhood, Coffey Park, was trying to get out and gridlocked.

The crawl through the black smoke and 60 mph flying embers seemed to take forever. More than once, she confessed, she thought she might die there.

“The next day, my boys came and looked,” she said, standing outside the wisteria covered bungalow on Randon Way where she had lived, disaster-free, for nearly three decades.

Her house was, miraculously, still standing. Most of the rest of the neighborhood was – still is – gone.

Now, the new normal confronts Jean Lindsay every time she steps out onto her front porch, which overlooks a moonscape. The retirees across the street have disappeared, nothing left of their little blue cottage but an American flag on a pole.

Most of the block is gone, and most of the next block and the next, the lots razed, the homes blown to vapors. Gone, too, are whole battalions of laborers who could help them rebuild, scattered themselves by the fire and the now-worse-than-ever shortage of housing in Sonoma County.

The story is the same all over the state, in this, the most destructive wildfire year in the history of California. Some 15,000 structures have been damaged or destroyed this year, and more than 45 lives lost.

More than a dozen major wildfires, including the immense Thomas Fire, have scarred great chunks of the state since the wine country fires torched Lindsay’s suburb : Mendocino, Orange, Yuba, San Diego, Los Angeles, Ventura, Santa Barbara counties and so on and so on. In December alone, the flames have consumed more acreage than the entirety of San Mateo County, driven by a warming climate long past what used to be the end of the fire season.

If risk is part of the California package, we are now – to paraphrase the great Wallace Stegner line – California, only more so. The potential for record-setting disaster now comes with the view, even in previously safe places.

It is a matter of degree. “Like a Hiroshima or something,” Lindsay said, gesturing around her on a recent Friday from her side lawn, where I encountered her with a canister of weed killer, getting a jump on her yard work.

Aside from the utility crews and machine operators beeping and rumbling through the wreckage, she appeared to be the only living soul at home in the subdivision. A few homes remained intact, here and there, but mostly the landscape was a big blank strewn with burned out appliances and car husks.

Blackened trees flaked in the wind and blackened swings creaked on blackened swing sets. On one neighbor’s cleared lot, the owners had put up a Christmas tree with a gold star atop it.

Another was bare but for a For Sale sign.

“That house was for sale before the fire, and they weren’t able to sell it,” said Lindsay, sadly. “Now it looks to me as if they’ve just thrown in the towel.”

Now, she says, her neighborhood is in that grueling second phase of natural disaster: The shock, the grief, the mop-up, the insurance adjusters. The wrenching decisions about whether and where to rebuild, and how much, and whether to hold or fold, given the gamble.

“Now no matter where you go, or who you run into, everyone has a story,” said Lindsay. “‘How are you doing?’ ‘Do you have a house or don’t you have a house?’ All the people who work, the shops, the gardeners, the housekeepers, they’re all affected. I had one chiropractor tell me he had 60 people who lost their homes.”

Lindsay has a story, too: Unfamiliar with the house where they stayed until the evacuation was lifted, her dog Misha slipped and was injured; the elderly pet had to be put down, “so I have a grief going.”

Still, she said, blinking back the loss, she counts her blessings: “I try not to feel survivor guilt. I keep the grateful thoughts.”

There are parts of her daily walk that don’t smell like smoke now. People she hasn’t chatted with in years stop her to exchange updates. A songbird twittered from a charred tree: “There are still some birds around,” she said, smiling.

The yellow sun shone. If you blocked out the disaster area around her, she was just a nice woman in a gardening hat, doing yard work. In a normal California. Kind of.

Shawn Hubler: 916-321-1646, @ShawnHubler

Related stories from Sacramento Bee