“Gratitude is the thing that keeps you from falling apart,” says Aruna Jayaraman, a married mom of two who lost all her family possessions in a California wildfire on Oct. 8.
The 41-year-old gastroenterologist and her two children, a daughter, 6, and son, 10, were getting ready for an easy night to bed that Sunday while her businessman husband, Vivek, 43, was traveling for work. The unspeakable happened overnight, with a fire tearing through their Santa Rosa neighborhood, leaving her just minutes to grab her kids and flee their home.
“I was home alone with the kids, Vivek was traveling and, when he’s traveling and it’s Sunday night, I go to bed early. I have to get the kids to school and get myself to work. I went to bed at like 9:40 and I remember it was really windy out,” Aruna Jayaraman tells Personal Space of that night. “I’m in bed and the alarm goes off right away — I had my husband on the phone — the alarm was going off because the door wouldn’t fully close downstairs because it was so windy.”
That started an evening of repeatedly losing and getting back power from PG&E, and a house that was left in a blackout.
“At 11:40, it’s pitch black I can’t see anything, the kids' monitors are going off, the electricity had gone out. My husband wasn’t picking up his phone. I called my sister, she lives 70 miles away, my brother-in-law picks up, and he stays on with me while I look around the house. The power is out because it’s so windy … My sister gets on the phone and says we need headlamps, we get off the phone, I try to go to bed again … 12:45 power comes back on, 1:15 off again … 1:30 my daughter is screaming from upstairs that her nightlight is out, I put her back to bed. At 2 a.m., my husband calls and I’m like ‘you didn’t answer,’ and he tells me our neighbor called him and said there’s a fire coming and we need to evacuate.”
Her first thought is “thank God” she had plugged her phone in for power earlier that night so he was able to make contact.
“We need to evacuate, we need to go to the fairgrounds. I take 15 minutes, take some water and snacks, pack up the kids. I quickly change out of my pajamas with no light, using iPhone flashlight, grab a suitcase, grab medicine, toiletries. I thought we were going away for the day and would be back,” Jayaraman says. “I grabbed chargers, I’m packing to keep the kids occupied for the day. At this point I only have my one iPhone flashlight, I tell the kids stay in your pajamas and I grabbed the clothes I put out for school, say 'there’s a fire coming, we need to get in the car.'”
At first she can’t even open the garage door, because the electricity is out, so Jayaraman does it by hand, then her son’s basketball hoop, knocked over by the wind, was blocking the driveway, but she managed to get around it.
“I’m freaking out, the smell of smoke was so bad outside and it was so windy — howling — what I’ve heard is that PG&E wasn’t cutting back their brush and a power line went down and created its own wind and firestorm,” she says. “We have a Tesla, I didn’t even have the car charger … We leave on my street and it’s so quiet, cars are coming out quietly. We took the backroads, only one car, a police SUV going in the opposite direction.”
Jayaraman says she was thinking about work the next day because she had a day packed with procedures, and where to take the kids.
“I kept going south, to my sister’s in the East Bay,” she says. “I’m talking to my husband and thinking we have a Tuscany-looking house, not very flammable, not wood. Then we hear a structure near our house had burned down and my son bursts into tears.”
As the family was approaching her sister’s house, Jayaraman says the alarm company calls that her house alarms are going off — she later realizes it was because the house was “ablaze” at that point and the fire had blown out all the windows, tripping the alarms.
“I get to my sisters and I go to her bedroom and try to figure out what’s happening, my husband’s coming, throughout that day I check social media and 90 percent of my street is gone,” she says. “I didn’t know until 4 p.m. when a friend walked on my street, took an picture and sent it — he said our house was completely gone. I thought of everything I didn’t take [like] wedding albums, thought I have nothing, only what I’m wearing, I only packed the suitcase a quarter full.”
Now she’s in shock, realizing her house is gone and “we don’t have a place to live.”
“How long before I have to back to work, how does this even work, we start looking for rental properties, it’s utter confusion,” Jayaraman says. We go to Target and buy some underwear, finally go to bed that night and we hear you can’t go back, the police had blocked it off… All the pictures and kids' stuff that I lost. I feel like I can’t even breathe.”
The following day, Aruna and Vivek drive up alone, park the car a little away, and walk by where their home had stood. “It looks like a bomb has gone off, there’s rubble everywhere, it’s just our chimney standing, stuff is still smoldering, there’s a tree still on fire … I felt grateful then for getting out.”
And while she thought every single thing she’d left was destroyed, something kept pushing her to go back over the next week and sift through the charred rubble.
“I never wear my engagement ring [because of work], I had left it next to my bathroom sink with a Cartier watch…when I start sifting in decent shoes and gloves, I find everything covered in nails, it’s a heatwave, there’s no foliage because everything burned down. I was by myself and I find my bathroom sink. I find the inside of my hairdryer, hair clips, etc., it feels so futile, I don’t find anything.”
But she goes back, again finding the bathroom sink, this time she is armed with a shovel and a rake.
“I’m looking, sifting, see a bunch of metal foil, I realize are the box springs from my bed, I’m throwing roof tiles away, digging, tossing aside melted glass, I find my watch was melted into glass, destroyed, charred, I realize there’s stuff in the glass. I was crying, breaking open all the glass I see, I’m crying and say to myself ‘give it five more minutes.’”
And as she’s shoveling around what used to be her bathroom, she sees her ring.
“My ring just shows up, and I start I start screaming and no one's around, I look like a crazy person,” she says. It looks perfect, my diamond looks intact, my platinum band looks dull gray, but it fits. I take a picture like I just got engaged. I called my husband, my sister, my mother. I went to a jeweler in Santa Rosa and he tells me ‘this looks like it’s going to be OK.’ He cleaned it, it has never looked better.
“I kept praying to take one thing from this home, just one thing.”
Jayaraman says they had an elderly neighbor who died in the fire, and that she realizes she’s lucky her family got out in time. They’d lived in the house for 12 years, but have since found a rental they are temporarily calling home.
“My daughter’s like ‘at least we have our family,’ I went on Amazon and found duplicate stuffed animals for her…It’s been harder on my son, he had a lot of stuff he loved. It’s like you just want to go home and you can’t go home.”
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