Alumni Stories: A Fiery Escape

February 8, 2018
An alumna fleeing the recent California wildfires discovers the enduring power of the Wells network.
photo of jane lang and mary brayton

It was 2:30 a.m. when the phone rang. "Never a good sign," she remembered thinking at the time. Gradually shaking off sleep, Jane Lang '68 recognized the voice of a friend on the other end of the line telling her to get up and evacuate her home immediately; a wildfire was rapidly approaching their California home.

Moments later Jane and her husband Steve stepped outside, greeted by a blast of smoky mist. "That smoke was what woke me," Jane remembered. "Steve and I slipped into emergency mode. We gathered a few things and our dog Biscuit and we drove off — both figuratively and quite literally — in a fog."

And so it was that Jane and Steve soon found themselves sipping tea, along with five other evacuees, in a benevolent stranger's home in Sebastopol, their friend Flora having arranged to provide them safe haven. There, the strangers shared their stories — the initial shock giving way to realization and then panicked flight- well into the night.

The next day Jane was in touch with her friend Mary Brayton '68, who invited them down to Palo Alto. "Mary was my roommate at Wells almost 50 years ago. She is a kind and loving soul and she immediately made Flora, Steve and myself feel most welcome — even wrapping us all in blankets upon arrival," she laughed. "I guess she could see we were still in shock. She said that we could all stay as long as we wanted."

Enveloped in uncertainty, the friends huddled close and sat watching the live television coverage, transfixed, as the tragedy unfolded over the next five days. A state of emergency in California was declared as Sonoma County, Jane's home of 41 years, was engulfed by fire.

The devastation to Sonoma County was unfathomable. Countywide, at least 23 people were reported dead along with roughly 6,600 structures destroyed, including 5,130 homes. By Friday morning, with the fires 94% contained, Steve and Jane, with Biscuit in tow, drove back to a nearly empty, smoke-filled Santa Rosa, unsure of whether they even had a home to return to. Miraculously, they found themselves among the fortunate few whose homes were still standing, fully intact.

For weeks afterward the acrid smell of smoke lingered: a pungent, poignant reminder of the misfortune which befell so many in their community. "Certain communities looked like war zones; houses gone, shells of cars barely recognizable, the land scorched," Jane recalls. Thousands lost everything; many more needed emergency medical attention. The Langs and others like them, lucky to escape unscathed, did what they could to lend a hand to the emergency assistance efforts: setting up cots in makeshift shelters and helping to provide food, clothing and other necessities to those in need.

Although the initial trauma may have subsided for the Langs, reminders of the enormity of the loss felt by so many in their community are everywhere and inescapable. "The people who lost everything now face the harsh reality of dealing with the insurance companies, not knowing whether their claims will be approved or denied. There were many who were uninsured and unable to find a home to rent or, due to losing their jobs, have had to leave the area. Thinking of all of the children uprooted from their schools and friends — all of the loss — makes me feel heartbroken," Jane lamented.

Throughout the entire ordeal Jane, did, however, feel blessed to have the unwavering support of a circle of friends affectionately known as the "Group of Seven." "There are seven of us Wellsians [in the class of 1968], Mary and myself included, who have had the supreme good fortune to remain friends these last 50 years," Jane said. "When we convene at a restaurant for one of our mini-reunions, people are always amazed to hear of how long we have maintained our collective friendship. Our sense of gratitude for one another only grows stronger with the years." Jane said that the support from the "Group of Seven" helped sustain her through a most difficult time. "They were always there, my loyal 'sisters,' checking in to make sure we were all right."

Jane believes these bonds of friendship old and new, forged in the crucible of the California wildfires of fall and winter 2017, to be the silver lining of the story. "It does my heart good to know that communities can come together to support one another in trying, even tragic, times. As a result, we've met so many fine people that we wouldn't otherwise have known. Though we know things will never be the same, it gives everyone involved some hope that this community can come back even stronger than before" Jane said.

And of her time with her friend Mary? "Mary made us feel at home and at peace in a sad and difficult time," she recollected. "There are things that Mary and I share from our time together at Wells — so many memories, inside jokes — very particular reminiscences that you only get from being so close to someone for so long. I have to admit, even in the midst of much sadness, we laughed a lot! Just like old times!" she beamed. "It was the most remarkable feeling, being roommates again after 50 years!"

 Wells College Office of Alumnae and Alumni Engagement.

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