My Exodus From the Northern California Fires

Photograph Source: Glenn Beltz – CC BY 2.0

At 5:05 p.m. on Saturday October 26, 2019, I got into my car in Santa Rosa, California and I set out for San Francisco, which is usually an hour away. This time it took about two hours to make the journey. The traffic was heavy getting out of Sonoma County and then getting through Marin and across the Golden Gate Bridge. I was part of the Exodus. I am now a fugitive from the fires that have ravaged large swaths of my part of the world, burned tens of thousands of acres, destroyed dozens of homes and buildings and forced tens of thousands of people to flee.

This is history in the making. It is history made by the forces of nature, especially the winds that were expected to reach 75 mph at the higher elevations. It is also history made by human beings, who have built towns and homes where they ought not to have been built, at least not in close proximity to one another, and history made by PG&E, the giant utility, that has put greed above safety, as Governor Gavin Newsom and others have pointed out.

PG&E might have buried electrical wires, but that would have cost billions and would have cut into profits. PG&E officials have said that they had no choice but to cut power to over a million people in California. San Francisco is the only county in the whole San Francisco Bay Area that has power. At the same time, law enforcement officials in Sonoma County had no choice, they said, but to order tens of thousands of people to evacuate their homes and businesses.

I had no forced evaluation. My evacuation was voluntary. There was extreme fire danger—“a red alert”—and it seemed wise to pack up, leave the area and travel to San Francisco. Thousands of other people had the same or very similar ideas. They clogged the 101 and the Golden Gate Bridge. We have been through this scenario before. We know the drill. We will probably be through it again. Fire has been a part of our world for thousands of years. It’s part of our ecology, and like climate change it is not going to go away.

Many others aren’t as fortunate as I am. They don’t have family in San Francisco ready and willing to take them in. Vineyard workers picking grapes have done their best to keep a few steps ahead of the flames and the smoke that have blotted out the sun and made the air unfit to breath. Hotels and motels without power have had to shut down and not accept paying customers. It’s expected that my house and the surrounding area won’t have power for the next 48 hours, at a minimum.

People will have a difficult time getting through the next few days. They won’t have ice to prevent food from spoiling, water to drink, and for basic needs. There is no ice, no bottle water for sale, no batteries and no flashlights in hardware stores. You’d think that a state that has the sixth largest economy in the world, and that’s home to Facebook, Amazon and more would be able to figure out how to provide power safely to its citizens.

There will be a fall-out from the latest power shut off and the evacuations. Maybe people here, like protesters in places like Chile, will be angry enough and afraid enough to demand that their elected officials do something now before it’s too late to do anything. I’m not praying and I’m not hoping. I’ll be doing my best to rally my friends and neighbors.

It’s time to get power into our own hands.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.