The 2017 Fires: Reflecting and Preparing

Checklist of Disaster PreparednessIn October of this past fall, swaths of Napa and Sonoma Counties were burned. Like so many, Dancers’ Group staff smelled the smoke from our office in San Francisco, more than 60 miles away. Thankfully, none of us experienced direct personal loss, but we struggled to grapple with news, and reports from loved ones and colleagues suffering.

As the fires raged, Dancers’ Group shared resources via email and social media, while also trying to be sensitive to something we heard from our colleagues at Dance Source Houston – their local dance service organization – in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey: information is everywhere, and putting out additional or repeated content can quickly add to overwhelming those recovering from a disaster.

We reached out to several dance artists who live/work in or near the affected areas, inviting them to reflect on some of their experiences from the fires. Two graciously shared their thoughts along with basic emergency preparedness plans, and we’ve shared some information here on the [right …update once in the issue].

How did the fires impact you?

Tanya Bello, the artistic director of Project. B., a ballet and modern dance-based company.  
The fires came very close but we didn’t lose our home and we had family to help us during the evacuations [in Santa Rosa]. Your life gets turned upside down but my husband and I kept reminding each other that our family is safe so you push forward. We had to find normalcy for our four year old son but seeing the community as a whole lose a lot is very emotionally draining. We tried to volunteer and organize donations as much as we could, trying to balance family life and work, along with being evacuated.

However, we continue to worry about our quality of living. Air quality, toxicity levels, water quality, etc. Do we stay, do we have other options? What happens when construction begins?  How does this affect us then?

As I mentioned, we were one of the lucky ones. A lot of our neighbors lost everything and some had to leave the area because insurance placed them in hotels 1.5- 2 hours away from their home and work, which means that their children had, or will have to, switch schools. Although many are very positive as they deal with all of the upcoming hurdles, there’s a lot of applications, filing claims, understanding how to rebuild, understanding what help is available, how to get help, and how to filter what is legitimate and what is not, etc. You feel very vulnerable.

Charya Burt, master teacher, dancer, and choreographer in traditional Cambodian dance: Fortunately, my home [in Windsor], my husband and my cat are all safe. My mom and my sister who watched the fires burn a short distance from their home in Santa Rosa are safe. Unfortunately, some of our friends and several other people we know well had their homes burned to ashes. I can’t imagine what they are going through. It is simply indescribable.

My husband and I were on alert to evacuate, as we were less than a mile away from the mandatory evacuation zone for the entire week the fires were out of control. Our friends from just a few miles away had minutes to evacuate and spent the week in our garage/dance studio not knowing, for several days, if their home was still standing. Everyday we followed Cal Fire updates, receiving texts from the Sonoma Sheriff’s Department so that we knew what was going on each and every moment. During the week of the fires, I had no time to think about work or my dancing except for determining what costumes/jewelry/headdresses could fit in the back of our car if we were forced to evacuate. All I was focused on was the safety of my husband, our cat, our home, and myself.

October 9, will forever mark this horrific disaster. The fires felt apocalyptic. As a child, I grew up during the Cambodian genocide and then moved around from place to place not having my place I called home. The closest thing to a home I had was the bed I slept on during weekdays when I boarded at the School of Fine Arts. When I immigrated to the United States in early 1993 I finally had my own home. Through all the ups and downs of my life, I thought I was finally safe and protected here in California. All of sudden, that insecurity, the uncertainty, and that feeling of having to constantly be on the look-out, all came back – all at once. I was thrown back to all my old memories of how life can sometimes be unforgivingly cruel. But it also reminded me how important it is to appreciate each and every moment of life on earth.    

Did you feel prepared? If yes, how so? If no, what have you learned for next time?

Tanya: Two weeks prior, my husband and I felt urgency in preparing an earthquake kit which also includes copies of all our important papers, policy numbers, etc. But we were really not that prepared. We have insurance [for our home] but never looked at the policy until after the event. We never took the time to understand what our policy covered and whether or not it could even cover rebuilding our home.

We never took photos of our belongings and the house prior to the fires nor do we have an inventory of things we own. And even when we snuck into our home during the mandatory evacuations to take photos, there were a lot of things I forgot about. As far as Project. B., I need an inventory list and photos of costumes, sets, etc. that are in my garage.

We had time to evacuate and we were able to take a lot of important items with us. This was not the case for many even, if they had a disaster kit. Compiling this information and having it in a safety deposit box in a bank or other institution is our next move.

Our car only had 1/4 tank of gas. All the gas stations were closed during the evacuation. We were lucky to find one before we went on empty. (It took 5.5 hours to get from Sonoma County to Marin County) We were also worried that we didn’t have cash on us.

Charya: We were lucky. Unlike our friends who came to stay with [us] who had only minutes to leave their house because the fires were chasing through their neighborhood, we had time to pack and prepare ourselves mentally for a possible evacuation. Our friends came only with the clothes on their backs and a wallet and a purse. They didn’t even have time to grab their medications. By seeing what they went through, we learned that we have to be more prepared in the event of any disaster. It didn’t hit me until mid-day on Monday that the winds could change and we might have to be evacuated as well. I started to pack all my dance costumes, jewelry, headdress, props, and other valuable items that were irreplaceable. I was so worried about my costumes that it took me until the next day to pack my everyday clothes.

Did any part of the experience impact your dance-making practice, or shift your perspective?

Charya: By going through this intense emotional rollercoaster, I realized how important it is for me to start paying more attention to environmental issues that impact our planet. Maybe in my next dance piece I will explore issues related to how important it is to protect our environment.

I now know exactly where all my irreplaceable dance and personal items are located so I can quickly grab them in the event I need to evacuate. Going through the process of determining what to take and what I might need to leave behind was very eye-opening. It also reminded me that anything can happen. You just never know…

Tanya: Taking away anything unnecessary. Moving forward but not forgetting. Helping the community the best way you know how. When feeling vulnerable, learning to breathe and focus.  –- both in dance and in life.

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In Dance is grateful to Charya and Tanya for taking time to share their experiences. Their reflections provide a brief insight into how they navigated this disaster, and there are many more stories from those impacted by last year’s fires around the Bay Area and other disasters. Our deepest wishes for a speedy recovery here, nationwide, and worldwide.

PUBLISHED January 1, 2018

POSTED IN In Dance

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