I am a proud member of the community in Sonoma Valley. It has always been the place I call “home,” whether or not I was living in town. I do not remember a day more terrifying than October 9, 2017. Why? Read on.
Sometime during the night of Sunday, October 8, fires started exploding in the towns surrounding the Valley of the Moon, but we didn’t know. Monday morning was a holiday and not our usual routine. I awoke to my boyfriend looking at his phone and yelling, “Oh my God. What’s happening?!” Knee-jerk reaction, I grabbed my cell as well.
I had 15 missed calls, several voicemails, and dozens of text messages asking if I was okay. None of them gave any reference. Kevin quickly turned on the news but my first instinct was to run outside. Neighbors were all in their driveways. The smoke was thick and the sun appeared to be just a reddish-orange dot in the sky. I quickly sent a Tweet of it to my favorite weatherman, KTVU’s Steve Paulson.
I then rushed in to see what was happening on the news, but we had trouble putting the pieces together. A phone call from Kevin’s dad came through telling us he was safely evacuated during the night from his Santa Rosa home. I called my mom just to briefly let her know that I was, in fact, okay, but didn’t want to talk until I figured out what was happening.
Moments later, my picture was on the news during the weather report. “Back to you, Gasia and Mike.” Whatever the disaster, it was big enough that they were going to remain on the air for the remainder of the day. I felt comfort in that, but really all of their focus was on Santa Rosa and Napa. Further, it was mostly news of what was already lost. A firestorm had hit Northern California. What was to become of Sonoma?
While we left the news on, probably for the next 48 hours straight, we turned to Facebook to get the real scoop. Disaster was hitting and it was growing at a fantastic rate. It seemed fire was circling our valley, yet no one on TV was talking about that.
On Facebook, it was obvious the fear was growing amongst our community members. We took it upon ourselves to go out and find the news we were lacking. Anyone could see that the air was thick with smoke, but where was it coming from and how fast? And if it had hit in the middle of the night, would we have known?
This is where my existing love of Facebook grew. For a solid week, I was glued to the site, sharing every bit of information I could find and verify. A live press conference via KTVU told us of Nixle, and we immediately put it to use texting our zip code to receive the real-time stream of text alerts from the Sheriff. Evacuations were announced, and pending evacuations followed. This, however, was not as fast as my Facebook feed!
The Sonoma County Sheriff, Rob Giordano, had a daily live-streamed press conference on social media. We used the Facebook live feature ourselves, going out the first two days to report what we were seeing as far as active fires, smoke, loss, and roadblocks.
A group page was quickly formed by two citizens, Erin Hill Freschi and Kate Molesworth, called Sonoma Valley Fire Updates 2017. They worked feverishly to make sure the people using the group were locals or directly tied to one. While they said they wouldn’t monitor for misinformation, I saw them quite frequently jumping in to correct posts or get people to site their source.
All emergency shelters and kitchens simply needed to make a post anywhere on Facebook and their needs were immediately filled. Sonomans are so generous, we gave too much but were constantly reassured that the need would continue into the near future. We continue to keep our eyes open for posts of families in need.
People all over California were sending me offers of spare rooms and beds available to anyone I referred their way. I was able to see at a glance who was in need of assistance and point them to the right resources simply by checking “most recent” in my Facebook feed.
As we were evacuating, we set up a private family group, including one family member outside of the area to monitor, so that all phone numbers were in a convenient location. We all checked in with where we currently were located, when we were on the move, and finally a safe check-in at a new location.
Being almost an hour away with the smoke following us, it was hard to ever have a true feeling of safety. Yet, I always had Facebook. In this event, it was more reliable to me than the news or radio.
Neighbors kept in contact. Looting attempts were thwarted. Suspicious activities were stopped. Air quality was shared. Masks were provided. Comfort was given. Sonoma was #SonomaStrong.
Now, just about two weeks after the initial flare up, Facebook communities are still popping up to create resources for all of the Sonoma Valley residents affected by the fires. Whether it’s a page with rentals, fire relief funds worth contributing to, or a pop-up “free store” in the making, we are using our connections to build a strong network of support moving forward.
I thank the creators of Facebook for making all of this possible. While there are many first responders, firefighters, law enforcement, volunteers, etc. that deserve and have my thanks, I thought one thank you should be directed your way as well. Thank you for keeping me sane in a crisis and more importantly, for keeping our community united together even as we evacuated in many direction as individuals. It’s time to begin the healing and that continues on Facebook.