Every time Stephanie Stauer hears about a red flag warning, her anxiety spikes off the charts.
In 2017, the home in Santa Rosa, California, where she lived with her husband and two children was destroyed by the Tubbs Fire. In June, they moved into a new house, built on the same ground where their previous one stood.
But soon after firefighters began battling the Kincade Fire last week, the Stauers had to evacuate again.
“It’s surreal. It’s déjà vu. It’s ‘Oh my god, we’re doing this again,'” she told CNN.
The Stauers are among up to 186,000 residents under evacuation in Northern California’s Sonoma County, where the state’s largest active wildfire has been burning since October 23. As of Tuesday morning, the blaze had scorched more than 75,000 acres and only 15% of the fire had been contained.
A familiar experience for the family
The mandatory evacuation orders came Sunday morning.
And with that, the family left their home in Santa Rosa. They bounced around from Walmart parking lots to Safeway parking lots to the Mercedes-Benz dealership where Nick works before ending up in a cabin at the KOA campground in Petaluma, where they’ve been since Sunday afternoon.
There’s Stephanie, her husband Nick, her 16-year-old son and their two dogs. Their daughter is now in school in San Francisco. And there’s her brother-in-law, her brother-in-law’s significant other, their two children and their two cats, who had been staying with the Stauers after they were evacuated earlier from their home in Healdsburg.
The Stauers have been through this before. And this time around, things were easier.
“We had only been in our house since June and so a lot of the things we had accumulated had no sentimental value,” she said.
Aside from clothes and some basic necessities, all they took were the two boxes of photos collected by friends and family members in the aftermath of losing everything in 2017.
They’ve been back to check on the home and get some supplies such as towels and extra blankets to keep warm in the uninsulated cabin, Stauer said. Things have quieted down now in the area, and they’re hoping it stays that way.
The fire that destroyed their home
One night in October 2017, the Stauers heard someone pounding on their door.
It was about 2:30 in the morning, and someone was telling them they needed to get out. Fountaingrove, the neighborhood in Santa Rosa where they lived, was on fire.
“The sky was completely orange and red,” Stauer said. “It looked like it was on top of us.”
The couple ran back in and called out to their two teenagers, who uncharacteristically bolted upright immediately, Stauer said.
The electricity had gone out and they grabbed whatever they could find in the dark, filling up six grocery bags. After leashing up their two dogs and the other two they were dogsitting, they loaded up the car and took off without a destination in mind.
After going from a hotel to staying with friends to crashing at her husband’s workplace, they ended up staying in a home loaned to them by a friend.
But perhaps the hardest part, Stauer said, was losing the things that were irreplaceable.
Stauer said she took pride in being the family historian. But in the chaos of the fire in 2017, family heirlooms such as christening gowns from great-great grandparents and old photos from her mother-in-law couldn’t be saved.
“I felt as if I was the caretaker and I had failed now, because even though it was not my fault, I had lost it all,” she said. “Hundreds of years’ worth of family history.”
Now they might leave
If the wildfires in the past two years have taught them anything, Stauer said, it’s that their family is resilient.
“We have a motto: Stauers bend, we don’t break,” she said. “We are bent way low to the ground at times, and this is one of those times.”
The family has been through this before, and they know that they can get through it again. But the inconvenience and hardship brought on by the constant threat of wildfires is causing them to consider some life-changing decisions: leaving Sonoma County, the place where Stephanie and Nick were born and raised and where both of their families have roots.
“It’s really giving us pause to consider, ‘Can we do this? Do we want to stay here?'” Stauer said. “It’s the first time in our 24-year relationship that we’re contemplating leaving the area. If this is the new normal, I don’t want to be here.”