By Noreen Evans
I’m a survivor of the 2017 wildfires in Santa Rosa, CA.
My home was less than a mile from the fire and my office was in the middle of the burn zone. Throughout the night I was awakened by the high winds and heard popping all over the hills above my house. Now we know propane tanks were exploding. My car alarm went off and my dogs paced the house in terror.
What I didn’t hear were sirens. No alarms were sounded, no electronic alerts were sent. I went outside several times, searching for information, but my neighbors didn’t know anything either.
Finally, my daughter called from her in-laws’ home in Germany. “Mom, it’s all over the news in Germany. Get out now!” I grabbed my dogs and fled to my son’s house several miles away.
Our town was nearly surrounded by fires, to the north, east, and south. It was as if the gates of hell had opened around us.
At the time I didn’t know it, but future clients were grabbing everything they could and running for their lives. My law firm partner, Deirdre Kingsbury, was evacuated in the middle of the night with her elderly mother. Some people, caught in swirling embers, were convinced they were going to die and said goodbye to loved ones. Many lost pets and some lost brothers, sisters, spouses, and parents. Young caretakers were fighting to evacuate elderly, confused and sometimes bedridden patients. Even hospitals were evacuating.
The fires smoldered for more than 10 days. Signs popped up everywhere, “Sonoma Strong,” “Thank you first responders.”
Our community reeled. We buried our dead, mourned our collective loss of safety, and honored our emergency workers. “Resilience” became our new buzzword.
Following the fires, I joined a team of lawyers representing survivors in litigation against PG&E, whose antiquated, poorly maintained infrastructure caused the fires. We interviewed thousands of survivors. At times I felt like part lawyer and part therapist, trying to help people get past their immediate trauma to understand that better days lay ahead for them.
Six years on, our clients have recovered most of their losses and our community has rebuilt, newer and stronger.
Now I am a member of yet another legal team, representing residents of Maui against yet another energy company whose antiquated, poorly maintained infrastructure caused yet another wildfire, killing scores of people, hundreds of animals, displacing thousands of residents, and devastating local businesses and artists.
The horrific cycle continues.
We who survived the Northern California wildfires understand what the good people of Maui are going through. Grieving, finding housing, recovering income, and restoring a sense of safety are immediate needs.
Holding Hawaiian Electric and others accountable for causing this devastation is probably not top of mind for most survivors. But in the long run, it is necessary. Change will not come unless it is made to come. The voices of the survivors must be heard to prevent such tragedies in the future. Because of the nature of our legal system, the only way to make those voices heard is to sue, to make it too expensive for the wrongdoers not to change.
The road ahead to recovery is long and bumpy. We know the future will not be the same as the past. It will be different, but it can be just as good.