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The Furious Fire

Voices from the Future | KerryAnn Laufer

The Furious Fire

The Event: The Kincade Fire sparked in late October 2019. It spread from a power plant area in northern Sonoma County, California, to homes and businesses in other parts of Sonoma, mainly to the towns of Windsor and Healdsburg, and to the northeast part of Santa Rosa. It burned 77,758 acres of land and destroyed 374 buildings. The fire prompted the largest mass evacuation — 200,000 people — in county history.

The alert to evacuate came around 10:30 a.m. KerryAnn Laufer didn’t have long. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh, I’ve got five and half hours,’” says the locally known textile and pottery artist. She made some tough choices: two suitcases; some documents; her two, 40-year-old Amazon parrots; and her 14-year-old cat. “I wish now, that I took some pictures, too.”

As she left her house in Healdsburg to drive 15 miles to a friend’s house in Santa Rosa, the fires were still quite far — about 20 miles away— and the winds hadn’t picked up yet. The sky was bright blue and clear, and there was no fire or smoke in sight. Laufer dropped off her parrots and her cat at a veterinary hospital on the way.

Laufer felt relatively calm on her drive. After all, this was the third time that she’d had to run to safety from a local wildfire.

“It looked like a beautiful day, and everybody was leaving in such a calm and orderly way,“ Laufer says. “The emergency personnel were so ahead of everything. Everybody was prepared to follow the fire precautions. Our community experienced the Tubbs Fire only two years ago.”

After six days away and after the fire was fully tamed, Laufer still didn’t know what happened to her house. She tried to pay a visit — some days even twice — but National Guard troops cut Laufer’s trips off a mile from her house. Meanwhile, news reports said over 300 structures had been lost.

“I was really worried, but I had lots of respect for the guards. They were keeping us safe,” Laufer says. “ That Thursday, I came by a second time. A National Guardsman recognized me and felt sorry for me. He instructed two sheriffs to escort me to my house, and finally I was able to find out what happened.”

A moment later, as Laufer drove up with the sheriffs by her side, her heart stopped. The only thing standing on Laufer’s property was her fireplace. At that moment, her world went silent.

“The fire had jumped, so some houses on my street burned and some didn’t,” Laufer says. “A couple of duplexes across the road suffered severe smoke damage, but the house across from me did burn. My shed was saved, so were all my oak trees, but everything else was gone – all my art work and all the tools burned in the garage, which I had turned into an art studio.“

Now, Laufer stays in a temporary apartment about 10 miles from her property, where once stood her beloved two-story house, which held 19 years’ worth of memories, as well as her life’s work.

“I was looking for a place to rent,” she says. “I found a landlady who wanted to help somebody who had been affected by the fire. There was no application, and she wanted to make renting easy for me. I did have to put a deposit down. I am very privileged and fortunate to have a good insurance and that helps a lot. I wish I had just taken more artwork with me. The only thing I have now is a quilt that I made for my mother who has since passed.”

Mother Nature has caused even more unease for Laufer lately. It’s the rainy season, and that’s caused Laufer to worry about devastating mudslides around her property.

“I have my normal sleep, but I have lots of anxiety right now,” she says. “I feel like I haven’t even had time to wrap my head around what happened, and I’m concerned that, if it rains, my property will get worse before it gets better. I had a wooden wall around my property, and it burned. Today, I thought to sew new curtains for my apartment, but then I realized I don’t have my sewing machine. Neither do I have fabric. Oh, I had beautiful fabrics in my studio.”

Laufer says that whenever she starts to fall into a painful sadness over the lost objects, like her valuable antique European pottery collection or her jewelry, she shifts her thinking.

“I ‘m 62-years old and I reconcile my own participation in this consumer culture that we all are in,” she says. “In the past, I was also a victim of burglaries, so over the years I’ve worked on spiritually not being so attached to my things. I seem to have a better reaction to losing my things than lot of other fire survivors. What I am really grieving is being able to go home and be in my space. I’m not really grieving my stuff. I also suffer from too much information. It is a lot to deal with emotionally: insurance, taxes, replacing documents.”

Moreover, Laufer is also unsure if she will stay in the area or move away. “I don’t know if I am going to rebuild. I am in this in-between situation,” she says. “Something has definitely shifted in me, the way I look at things. I became vegan five years ago, especially to make a personal impact on planet by changing my consumer habits. I’ve marched and become an advocate, but being vegan doesn’t save my ass when fires come through. I need to really look at where I am in my life and look at the situation California is in and the world is in. And I cannot look at it just as my problem. I am one of the people affected by it, but it is not just my problem. We need more immediate action and to stop kidding ourselves that everything is good. Because it isn’t. The Federal government is blaming California, and we have all this toxic rhetoric going on. We all are on the leading edge of becoming climate refugees. I wish I knew what to do, but I don’t because I am still traumatized by all the changes in my life.”

— Kirsi-M. Hayrinen-Beschloss