Summer term was winding down. With under a month to go, students were finding their stride, choosing their areas of focus, taking on responsibility at the farm, and reaching out to potential employers. The weekend was coming to an end, and students who had gone away for the weekend were filtering back in Sunday night, with plans for a two day on-farm welding class on Monday and Tuesday.
I spent the night 20 minutes away in Potter Valley, and went to sleep to the sound of wind raging over the yurt’s roof. CJ, Practicum student out of Boston, drove back from San Francisco after midnight and watched the sky brighten with a distinct glow, until she saw the visible flames a few short miles from the farm.
One of the wettest winters on record resulted in thick brush and dense grass. Our characteristic 5 months without rain dried out this fuel to a crisp. The winds that came barrelling through on October 8th carried sparks at alarming rates through valleys and hills, dotted with homes, farms, and lives.
CJ alerted the 9 other students at the School, as the rest of the ranch began evacuating North. They grabbed belongings and tried to snatch the cats. Students had very little in the way of stuff, given that they each inhabited 120 square feet while at the School. The phones and laptops that they grabbed would soon become obsolete, as the power, cell towers, and internet went out. They ran into me on their way out and I transferred my dog into their escape vehicle, as I heading in to report to our volunteer fire department. Eliot, once a Practicum student now a Capstone student and member of our volunteer fire department, remembers the night:
“It was alarming seeing everyone freaking out, a wall of fire, ash floating everywhere. It felt surreal.”
Over the next week, hundreds of homes were lost and hundreds more lives were displaced. The fire consumed over 30,000 acres when all was said and done. The Practicum and Capstone students came from across the country to attend the School of Adaptive Agriculture, and they witnessed a community that was utterly shaken by natural disaster. Their experience and response proves all the more how important the local movement and community resiliency is.
The first evacuation center was the White Deer Lodge, an old hotel that no longer operates on the ranch. Many congregated there in the early hours of Monday morning, until the glow of the fire came closer and the decision was made to evacuate again. This time the group sought refuge at Green Uprising Farm in Willits. A third evacuation warning sent them even further North until they settled in for a night at the Little Lake Grange. All the while, communication lines were cut and students had to think smart and communicate clearly on very little sleep. By Wednesday, most had come back to the Ranch to take part in a week of food preparation and donation distribution for the hundred plus displaced people who were without water or power at the Ranch and beyond. We were fortunate to have a generator running the Community dining hall, with walk in freezer and cooler to keep our hard earned stores of meat, vegetables, and fruits saved through the season. That generator, plus our intrepid internet provider who kept the tower powered up, allowed us to maintain contact with the outside world with a wifi signal while cell service and power was out all around us.
Our community harvested from the garden, shuffled hundreds of pounds of fresh and frozen meat around and cooked up some delicious meals for hundreds of people over 6 days. We met people who have lived on the ranch as neighbors for years but never said hello to, we bumped into each other as scores of volunteers clambered into the kitchen to do dishes, and we recognized the many utilities and resources we take for granted.
I spent a week on the fire line with 4 other volunteer fire fighters of the Ridgewood Ranch fire crew. We spent countless hours on high alert, putting thousands of gallons of water down on the front line and jumping from spot to spot trying to stay ahead of the movement, guessing where the highest risk of spilling over was. We came back each day for a lunch that was a true representation of the importance of a close knit community.
Students may have missed a week of classes and field work, but we all walked away from that week with a deeper, more intrinsically known sense of connection to the whole. We were fortunate, but we were also prepared with back ups, preserved foods, and equipment.
The sense of mourning after the smoke cleared came in large part from the horrific losses all around us. Loss of lives, homes, and property are all very real and tangible. The harder to define loss that came crashing down in the weeks after the fire was the loss of purpose, clear objectives, a real threat to battle. Maybe it was just the adrenaline crash, but I felt a crushing sadness when this moment was over and we went back to regular life, with objectives that are years long and threats that are invisible. The threat of climate change or of aging farmers is real but without radiant heat and walls of flame moving towards us it is hard to mobilize the masses. But the community that we fought for is still here, and every day we still fight for resiliency, life, and growth. The sense of urgency and community connection are feelings I don’t want to let go of, and I intend to hold on to that memory as inspiration for moving forward.