After Michael W. Harkins and his wife lost everything in a wildfire, the generosity of strangers and friends helped them come back.

By Michael W. Harkins
August 21, 2019
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NINETEEN YEARS we’d driven, jogged, and walked through our Santa Rosa, California, neighborhood, its people, houses, landscaping, and street signs as familiar as our reflections in a mirror. So as I looked at it on an October morning in 2017, my brain fought what I saw: This is not right, can’t be right. There is nothing to see here except scorched earth; where is everything? Stop screwing around and let’s go home…

The unimaginable surrounded us. Blackened trees and chimneys, some collapsed, others like tall, brick tombstones, rose out of an ugly landscape. Metal garage doors draped across incinerated cars. Contorted refrigerators and water heaters stood among wide plots of ash.

We gathered with stunned neighbors filtering back into the neighborhood. All of us had evacuated safely. I had seen the house die before my eyes. Elizabeth, my wife, experienced the more brutal loss, having driven away from our house and then returned to…nothing.

For the moment all we could do was stare and cry together.

I’d taken off my wedding ring the day before to do some work, left it on the kitchen counter. We’d never find it, though neighbors whose homes across the street had survived spent hours helping to look for it. Elizabeth lost her birthday necklace, saddle, and the cherished wall hanging of a horse in full stride. Gone were my earliest, typewritten manuscripts, illustration portfolio, our books, bills, jewelry, external hard drives, favorite shoes, antique bedroom furniture, birth certificates, and passports.

A mere eight hours before, the evening news had reported on a wildfire moving toward us, only a few miles away. Then the power went out. I checked outside—no fires around us yet, but a pervasive smell of smoke; warm, unrelenting wind; an eerie, glowing orange sky; and a slow, continuous procession of cars on our main thoroughfare.

Between the heavy evacuation traffic and growing uncertainty, we felt it was time to go. I assured Elizabeth I’d leave when I knew that neighbors Maria and Dane were on the road. We kissed goodbye and she backed out of the driveway. A minute later she texted, “Fire at the edge of the neighborhood!” Amid a jet stream of embers, she had pulled over and waited for our friends Jennifer and Matt as they loaded up clothes, dogs, and pet chickens. Then they followed her to her office a few miles away.

Dane and Maria got out OK. The neighborhood emptied, Elizabeth texted, wondering why I hadn’t left yet, and I responded, “Still safe.” I could see the fire’s spread a block or two away, but I felt if I could keep the increasing number of small fires around us from spreading, our street might be all right. I ran continuously, one end of the street to the other (stomp small fires), deck to fence (douse with paltry water pressure garden hose). Repeat. Quicker.

At some point I couldn’t stop running long enough to text anymore.

THE FIRE CAME IN THE MORNING, taking Tim’s, Tony’s, briefly skipping over ours to Maria’s. Embers burned through the back of my shirt as 40-foot flames rose on both sides of our house. The walls blistered, wispy smoke appeared, and moments later superheated air ignited everything.

I captured a picture before I drove away, a deathbed portrait of our home and all it represented, then texted the saddest string of words to the most important person in my life: “I’m sorry, I couldn’t save the house.”

It had been hours since Elizabeth had heard from me. My message reassured her and crushed her, and for a full minute she struggled to breathe, trembling uncontrollably, thoughts swinging wildly from relief that I wasn’t hurt, or dead, to the overwhelming reality that we’d lost our home.

I pulled into her office parking lot. She was waiting outside. We held each other, and held, and held. We were the displaced survivors you see on the news, two among thousands, whose worldly possessions consisted of whatever was in the car as we fled what was, at the time, the worst wildfire in California history.

NEWS REPORTED ON ANOTHER FIRE 10 miles west, near our friends Priscilla and Tom, and where Priscilla boards Elizabeth’s retired horse, Greycie. Elizabeth reached out, asked Priscilla if everyone was safe. The report was erroneous, but Priscilla hadn’t yet heard about Santa Rosa.

Elizabeth said, “Our house is gone.”

Priscilla responded, “Come here.”

We arrived to Priscilla’s open arms, emotionally wrecked but in an enviable position, with food, a bathroom, and a bed. We quickly had the basic comforts that thousands were without at this worst moment of their lives.

Later, in “our” room, we agreed that recovering from this would be a long-distance run, not a sprint. When (not if) one of us reached the can’t-take-this precipice, the other had to be the pillar of “we’ll get through this.”

We woke in the morning as if we had merely blinked and today was still yesterday. We thought of all the families striving for normalcy in packed emergency shelters, and of those like us, with friends but without the personal spaces that just yesterday contained everyone’s personal everything. We saw each other everywhere, we survivors, in cars packed with clothes, and in stores, where cashiers began to recognize “the look,” asking gently, “Did you lose your house in the fire?” When we said yes, they said, “I’m so sorry,” and meant it.

THREE DAYS AFTER THE FIRE, Priscilla called Mike and Denise, her neighbors who had a furnished guesthouse. She asked if they’d be willing to discuss renting to us, and Denise said, “We’ve been thinking we have to do that for someone. Come over.”

We got to know each other as best we could in this oddest of situations, at their table and looking out a window toward Santa Rosa, 10 miles beyond the rolling green hills, trees, and distant vineyards surrounding their house. We had things in common: spirituality, healthy lifestyles, music appreciation.

We had broken hearts. They had big hearts. There were small connections. They “knew” Greycie, Elizabeth’s horse, because they had seen her for years in her pasture across the driveway. Elizabeth had visited Greycie on weekends, always noting the house with the cute guesthouse beside it. We came to easy agreement on rent, and even managed a joke about moving in with our two shopping bags of clothes, chosen from the dozens Priscilla offered us.

Denise asked, “Just give us a day to do a few things, OK?”

We were blessed with shelter provided by people who had known us less than 24 hours. We realized much later, based on the new pots and pans (the box still in the garage) and other appliances, that Denise used the extra day to bring in things everyone has and uses every day, unless your house has burned down.

Our days were a brew of numbness, grief, and required tasks—buying clothes, contacting family, friends, and our insurance agent, going to the FEMA disaster assistance center. We went to our house (we couldn’t not call it that) when we could and sifted through the ashes, sad miners seeking the smallest nuggets of our past lives.

We returned each day to solitude and healing. But it began to feel…wrong. We were houseless but not homeless, safe, warm, and recovering under blue skies and atop beautiful hills. A therapist provided a gentle, correcting perspective: “Don’t diminish what happened to you.”

DISASTER DID NOT STOP THE WORLD from turning. My birthday came and went. Then Thanksgiving. Christmas. If not for family, old friends, new friends, the counsel of therapy, and the kindness of our city, we could not have left the fire behind. Fire-survivor funds were created virtually overnight. Gift cards came to us from close and distant relatives. Elizabeth’s family surprised us with a full shoebox of photos, collected to replace some of what we had lost.

We struggled to balance the comfort of our peaceful but isolating healing place with the need to stay socially connected. Mike and Denise could feel this, gently pulled us into their social circle, and that circle embraced us. Priscilla and Tom became family—come for dinner; let’s watch the game and just hang out.

“Come here,” they said.

We slowly reconnected, inviting friends to see us. Several neighbors found temporary housing only a few minutes away, and we met for dinners, talked about rebuilding, and over the next few months came to know each other better than we had in the previous two decades.

WE ARE ALL STILL HEALING. In 2018, as the one-year remembrance of our disaster passed, wildfires burned in Southern California, and another wiped out the entire Northern California town of Paradise. Even now, images from any disaster still evoke our own scorched memories, at a depth only understood by those who are members of a club no one wants to belong to.

We now live with what someone called the new abnormal. The why and how always matter in a disaster’s aftermath, but they are the abstract in our own recovery. Our emotional and physical scars will always connect us to that night, but, more importantly, they now represent the story of how we healed, and each chapter begins with the same two, powerful words: Come here.

Michael W. Harkins is the author of Move to Fire ($14; amazon.com), a true story about a boy tragically injured by a defective handgun. He and Elizabeth are rebuilding their home in Santa Rosa and will move in later this year.

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