“But as when the bird of wonder dies, the maiden phoenix,
Her ashes new create another heir
As great in admiration as herself.” – William Shakespeare, “Henry VIII”
The totality of fire is much. To burn is to incinerate, to consume, to transform forever.
To destroy by fire is to irrevocably change.
The 2017 North Bay fires mark their year anniversary this month. And throughout this year of recovery, many an allusion has been used to that of the mythical phoenix, that ancient bird whose 500-year lifespan would climax in a breathtaking death throe of combustion; its body claimed by flames, only for a new phoenix to rise from its ashes, a symbol of rebirth, renewal and revision.
In the wake of Sonoma County’s 200,000 acres scorched, 6,200 homes leveled, and 24 dead, such references to legendary symbols of hope and triumph last year in the face of such immediate destruction were understandable, comforting and vital. But whether they are real, whether some form of new, wiser Sonoma will emerge remains to be seen. Make no mistake, the Sonoma Valley will rebuild. And rest assured, the Sonoma Valley will remember.
But will the Sonoma Valley change?
Or, like the phoenix, will it simply be a newer version of the same old bird?
As the Sonoma Valley this week commemorates our planet’s one-full revolution around the sun since residents woke the shattering dawn of Oct. 9, 2017 to the news that much of the county was afire, we hope that, among our reflections, is a vetting of what we have learned.
From first responders and Sonoma County Emergency Services to city leaders and the average resident – what do we know now that we didn’t know then? And will we use the past as a tool to help mitigate the heartache of the next inevitable consummation?
On Sunday, dozens gathered in front of City Hall to mark the year-anniversary of the fires with stories and poems about that first night of fear and flames, plus worthy regards for the first responders and volunteers who gave so much to so many for so little in return.
Schell-Vista Fire Chief Ray Mulas put it simply that night: “I’ve never been as proud of this Valley as I am today.”
During a moment of silence, in which the City Hall bell chimed 44 times in honor of the 44 who died, all told, in the Northern California fires last October, a boy of about 9 chased a soccer ball onto the horseshoe lawn, inadvertently trespassing upon the solitude as the bell chimed 30. Realizing he’d interrupted something somber and momentous, but unsure of exactly what, he stumbled to a halt, took off his baseball cap and placed it over his heart. A few seconds later, he put on his cap, grabbed his ball and ran away; the bell stilled, and life went on.
The learning curve is going to look something like that for many of us in the times ahead.
The phoenix is dead. Long live the phoenix.
Email Jason at firstname.lastname@example.org.