Reflections on the Fires

Posted by on Oct 15, 2017 in Blog | 3 comments

A week ago Friday, I participated as a spiritual care provider in a “critical incident stress debriefing” because one of our Kaiser Santa Rosa staff had been at the concert in Las Vegas that turned into the largest mass shooting in our history. The staff member, her family, and her unit colleagues clearly needed the debriefing. It felt like a huge honor to be involved in helping their healing process.
Now it feels like months ago. Time itself has changed.
Monday morning arrived with news of the fires, and news that Kaiser Santa Rosa, where I serve as chaplain, had evacuated 170 patients, many of whom I had visited the two days before. Spring Lake Village, where I serve as rabbi—and have served for 6 of the last 8 years, also evacuated—many to the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, and eventually, as of Wednesday morning, 55 landed at St. Paul’s Towers, where I also work as chaplain.
The idea of people in their 80s and 90s spending two nights in a shelter—is overwhelming, although some of their stories will keep us laughing for years. The idea of patients in a hospital evacuating with the flames licking at their heels, as some were loaded into ambulances, some into staff cars, some into buses is likewise overwhelming… it discombobulated some of them so that a week later they are still confused. One patient told me today he had come from Eureka to San Rafael. Another spoke of nightly nightmares and was still clearly confused, some of it due to her cancer and some to being transported in the early morning hours from one hospital to another. Another spoke of being on an emotional roller coaster, and even when he was moving up the slope he was always “just one sentence away from tears” if someone would ask the right question, squeeze his hand just so.
But most needed to be heard, to tell their story, whether it was to complain or to praise or to cry or to laugh. Everyone has a story.
Most keep chanting “stuff is just stuff.” They know that we are in for a long haul, and they are grateful for what they still have. But many don’t know where they will go: homes gone, board and care homes destroyed, skilled nursing facilities uninhabitable. One person was told the closest skilled nursing facility accepting patients is in Pacifica, three counties over from Sonoma.
Many Kaiser Santa Rosa staff are currently working in San Rafael, because that’s where our patients are. San Rafael’s usual census ranges from 50-80 people. Today it held 135 souls. Most of these were our members from Santa Rosa. We think it helps them to see the doctors, nurses and social workers they are used to. And it was really good for staff to see each other as well. We understand that more than 100 of us have lost our homes, and not everyone knows yet. Lots of hugs, lots of commiserating, lots of listening, lots of spiritual care.
For the past few days, we have planned for the reopening of the Medical Office Buildings on the campus with the hospital. The spiritual care team will be on hand to bless staff, to be available to listen, to set up hugging stations. We prepared for Saturday morning, but the Fire Department could not give a final okay between the winds were too variable. Then another approval was withheld for today. We are hopeful that tomorrow, we will be able to welcome staff, and then members back, even if the opening of the hospital is still not ready. They likely need spiritual, emotional and physical care—it has never been more clear how connected all of these are. We will certainly be holding more critical incident stress debriefs throughout the Kaiser system and the county in general.
One woman, whose house is safe, told me that she felt blessed. When I responded that I had concerns with that formulation because I fear that it means that those who lost their homes are cursed. She thought for a moment and noted that this feeling of blessing is one she carries for herself. To her, it does not imply anything about anyone else’s status.
At St. Paul’s, and the entire Episcopal Senior Communities of which Spring Lake Village and St. Paul’s Towers are a part, residents and staff have welcomed the evacuees into their apartments, into their lives, into their community, and neighboring congregations have been dropping off donations of food and clothing to help them out. People I’ve known for years are facing this challenge with fortitude and humor. But you can see their fragility, their desire to get home.
The other side of this story is all the heroes and heroines, all the donations—so many we have been told to stop; so many volunteers, we have been told to stop. Firefighters from all over the world. Congregations coming through with meals and day camps and therapists for the kids who have been evacuated or have lost their homes. (Shout out to Congregation Shomrei Torah for its amazing work, and to Jewish Family and Children’s Services and IsraAID for their support and all the other congregations supporting them with food.) Mental health providers recognizing their vital role. Spiritual care providers listening. Restaurants offering free meals to first responders and evacuees, others sharing their profits with evacuees. The Stark Restaurants, which own our favorite local ones, one of which burned down—Willi’s Wine Bar, is among the group offering those free meals, at their remaining spots. Hotels are offering space for people with animals and with disabilities. The venue the wedding I officiated on Friday was offering their location for shelter, while the caterer for their rehearsal dinner was serving evacuees instead. Their wedding planner, having lost her own home, found a new location in a hurry, and the wedding carried on elsewhere.
People made sure their neighbors got out too. One patient, with a recent knee replacement, was rousted by her neighbor and taken to safety, while another friend helped her replace her medications, while another offered her shelter away from the smoke, until all the movement messed with the knee replacement and she had to return to the hospital. So many people helping. Another person noted that all of her street was safe, partly because she spent time waking people up rather than grabbing the last few mementos.
This is how we know we will be fine in the end, and if we are not yet fine, it is not the end. We have found the power of community, working with NGOs, working with the state and federal governments to bring all hands on deck. The Together We Will Stand Indivisible Facebook page has turned from political action to community support. We alert each other to opportunities for helping. (I think my favorite post was asking us to stay off the freeway on Friday because 3,500 National Guards were coming up to help and we needed to let them get on with their work.)
We are blessed to live in such a community. A community that has been built with love. And will stand with love. And will rise with love.
And potential places to make donation: 
The Redwood Credit Union is collecting money to support folks who lost their homes throughout the county. Redwood Credit Union Fire Relief Fund
UndocuFund will help the undocumented folks who lost their homes or livelihood in the fires.
Community Foundation of Sonoma County launched a Resilience Fund
The City of Santa Rosa set up a YouCaring page to assist Tubbs Fire Victims.
Sonoma County Animal Services will accept donations of food and other supplies for animals at 1247 Century Ct. in Santa Rosa. They have set up a 24/7 phone line for information and donations at 707-565-4648. You can also donate here.
Peet’s customers can make digital or cash donations for its North Bay Fire Relief Campaign through Oct. 22 at any of its coffee bars around the country.
The Redwood Empire Food Bank said it delivered the equivalent of 110,000 meals to Sonoma County evacuation centers, as of Tuesday evening. You can make a financial donation here.
Give Lively’s wildfire relief page, which offers ways to donate to several community organizations, lets you send money now or schedule the gift for later.


  1. Meredith, thanks a million for your words which are so meaningful to me. I’m glad to know that Kaiser patients are in San Rafael as I had no idea. I can just imagine how people are appreciating all your caring. Do take good care of yourself. I hope we can go home soon. With love, adele

    • Thanks, Adele. Love to you. Hope to see you soon!

  2. Meredith, I just wrote to you but it didn’t work, Your letter is so meaningful to me and I can imagine how much you are listening to others and helping people to accept wha has happened/. So much tragedy and loss. I hope we can go home soon. Please take care of yourself while you are helping so many others. Love and hugs, adele

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