What It's Like to Lose Your House in a Wildfire

Image via Ryan Koven.

Lest you forgot amid the sea of other bad news, much of the state of California is still burning to crisp in a number of devastating wildfires showing no signs of slowing down.

In Northern California, firefighters are struggling to contain 16 separate blazes which together have killed at least 26 people and destroyed an estimated 170,000 acres of land. According to the Los Angeles Times, 30 air tankers, 75 helicopters and 550 engines carrying several thousand firefighters have worked to combat the inferno, their jobs made ever more difficult on account of the dry winds stoking the flames. Across the state, around 50,000 people have evacuated their homes and sought refuge in shelters and hotels.


“We’ve had big fires in the past,” Governor Jerry Brown said during a briefing with state and federal officials. “This is one of the biggest.”

A close friend of mine is one such evacuee. He happened to be visiting his parents in Santa Rosa in Sonoma County when firefighters pounded on his door at 2 a.m. on Monday, screaming that everyone needed to get out, now. Ryan grabbed his laptop and his still-mostly packed bag of clothes, and he and his family loaded frantically into the car, pulling out of the driveway as the fire tore through the open grasses that surrounded his neighborhood. Looking back through the rearview window as the flames closed in on his house, Ryan said he was first awed by the sheer size of the thing, which lit up the sky like a sunrise. “My first thought was, that fire is fuckin’ awesome,” he told me Thursday. It wasn’t until later that it fully occurred to him that the enormous flames devouring the street were going to consume his house, too.

Before. (Via Google street view)
After. (Image via Ryan Koven)

After some initial confusion, Ryan and his family arrived at a nearby community center repurposed as an evacuation shelter. The auditorium had been converted into a sleeping area, and more and more people kept arriving as the morning stretched on. Several buses filled with occupants from area nursing homes arrived, having literally driven through the fire to get there. “It was a madhouse,” Ryan said.

But the madness was short-lived, giving way in the ensuing hours to a surprising level of order. Ryan is leaving Finley Community Center today, and said he experienced none of the traumas that sometimes accompany life in emergency shelters. Help has poured in from many of the resource-rich counties surrounding Sonoma, a luxury that many—like the tens of thousands seeking refuge in Puerto Rico and the Carribbean following the natural disasters there—do not have.


An abundance of food was donated by nearby restaurants, and the Salvation Army brought truckloads of clothes and books for inhabitants to peruse. Trailers with showers arrived on Tuesday, though few people opted to use them, perhaps because the water only runs cold.

Several major insurance companies have set up tents so that people can begin the long process of filing their claims, though most haven’t thought that far ahead yet. Red Cross volunteers have showed up in droves, to the point that authorities had to start turning them away. This being Northern California, lots of people have procured guitars.


Very few people have any idea what’s become of their homes, since roads are still largely closed as the fires continue to ravage the area. Ryan decided to walk the two miles back to his on foot, and found that his house—and entire neighborhood—had been burned to the ground, his once leafy street now an apocalyptic scene of smoldering rubble. Random items remain charred but intact, like wine bottles, and, strangely, washers and dryers seem to have withstood the blaze, he said.

Even three days later, Ryan has not fully absorbed the shock of what having lost his family home will mean. Artifacts from his childhood, old school papers, paintings, notebooks and everyday detritus that collected for the 26 years that his family lived in their Santa Rosa home are now gone. Many of the things lost will never be missed, but Ryan knows that eventually the day will come when he’ll think to look for some forgotten photo, and remember that he can’t.


“It won’t be one realization, but a thousand little ones,” he said.

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