Wild geese came circling in as usual last evening for their dip in the Petaluma Community Center’s lake … but through a pall of smoke. They didn’t land because scores of cars and hundreds of displaced  people filled the surrounding parking lot and greensward, and many tents had been erected on the grass. Thirty-six portable potties stood like sentries along the parking lot’s south perimeter.

Many people wandering there appeared stunned, but also cordial. “That guy shared some dog food for Mitzi, and I don’t even know his name,” reported a senior citizen. Barriers of race, class and political persuasion seem to have been erased among evacuees. Many are Latinos, for example, and they share the immediate sense of community. An older woman calls, “I’ve got some spare pancakes, anyone!” Young kids of varied colors are frolicking on the park’s playground.

We went to bed last night wondering where the wind would turn. This morning we drove to a doctor’s appointment, only to be told the doctor had been evacuated last night and wasn’t yet in.

Meanwhile, the closest finger of fire to us remains about two miles north, apparently stalled by a favorable wind. Just in case, Jan and I have made arrangements with our younger daughter and her husband to relocate at their rural digs -- with the rest of the tribe -- in case of our evacuation.

Yesterday was spent trying to make certain burnt-out colleagues from Sonoma State University had escaped and had found lodging amidst persistent harrowing stories: “Chuck and Katy’s house is gone; he built that from scratch.” “I think John & Ann got the last B&B in town; they’re okay." “JJ can see the flames from her house. She’s packed and ready!”

Rumors are rife, too: “Arsonists are starting fires right up on Presley Road! Jim saw them.” (“The “arsonists” are Cal Fire personnel lighting back-fires.) “They’re sending all the firefighters to rich peoples’ neighborhoods.” (Upscale Fountain Grove was decimated, as was working-class Coffey Park. This is an equal–opportunity disaster.) “The university is just gone! Completely gone!” (It’s not.)

One rumor turns out to be true. We seniors really should wear smoke masks, but they are hard to find. A clerk at Yardbirds, a home improvement store, tells Jan, “We can’t keep them on the shelves.” Five stores later, we finally find a few … but they are being rationed. One grandson is writing his name in the ash that covers our car.

Family friends from far and wide have contacted us, offering lodging or virtually anything else. We’re doing the same thing for pals we know who live in the fire zone. It’s not much, but it’s something we can do affirmative in the face of disaster. As though to remind us of our own good fortune, the radio announces that nearly 500 people are unaccounted for. We can only pray for them and increase our donation to the Red Cross.

Novelist and historian Gerald W. Haslam, a Garces Memorial High School graduate born in Bakersfield in 1937, is the recipient of a multitude of writing awards. The views expressed here are his own.

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