Stories from Sonoma: A land on fire

Fri, 11/10/2017 - 1:30pm
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Ed. note: In October, a series of wildfires in five California counties destroyed more than 3,500 buildings, torched more than 170,000 acres of land, and killed at least 41 people, with hundreds more missing. Block Island resident Karen Cadow LeRoy was out visiting her daughter at the time, and sent in the following first-hand account:

Last month, Charlie and I visited our daughter Rachel and her guy Josh in Sonoma, California. Oh, the plans we made and the places we’d go! Clear blue skies, no humidity; air fragrant with roses and rosemary; green vineyards, brown hills. Pleasant walks into Sonoma where sidewalks and streets are jammed with pedestrians and vehicles. Fresh produce from farmers’ markets, plentiful wine, late afternoon porch concerts with Josh on guitar and vocals. We tour PPI Engineering’s new headquarters and vineyard jobsite with Rachel and her boss, Jim. A turkey dinner, then music around the fire pit. The sparks and embers rise into the starry sky. It’s so dry... I walk into Sonoma to a bead shop. Aging hippie proprietor asks where I’m from. Block Island?! He used to buy beads in Providence, knew an employee who lived on Block Island. Weather forecasts high winds tonight. It’s so dry, hope nothing bad happens.  

Sunday night: We pile into PPI’s Ford Expedition, aka Death Star, and head to Gundlach Bundschu Winery to the sold-out Hope Sandoval and the Warm Inventions. I haven’t smelled so much pot smoke since 1970 when I was at SUNY New Paltz. Charlie and I set our camp chairs outside the venue by a tall wooden fence. Wind blows, fence looks unstable, we move our chairs, the band plays, wind increases. Crash. A section of fence disintegrates, landing by my feet. Wind gusts to 25 mph, 30, we’re pelted by clouds of choking dust, grit and leaves; it obscures the stage, blows into wine glasses, eyes, ears, teeth. Power goes out — a tree must have fallen on a wire. Technicians rig a generator, band returns, I join Rachel and Josh inside for the encore; my chair blows away. I close my eyes. Incredible music like a freight train, thunder, all-encompasing. We regroup by the gatepost, the corner fence collapses, barely missing Rachel’s head. Rachel and Josh go backstage. My hair is stiff, thick and gritty; I disentangle a four inch twig and several holly leaves. Rachel navigates down the mountain around downed limbs; the wind shoves the truck sideways. A branch crashes onto the windshield, five voices say “Holy shit!” At 11:30 Jim texts Rachel a photo of his neighbor’s house in Napa. It’s on fire. Wind blows all night, so do sirens.

Monday: A deep orange sun in gray sky; hills hidden behind smoke. Jim emails Rachel: Don’t come to work. You can’t get here — fires closed highways between Sonoma and Napa. PPI employee Jen’s family trapped in the fire zone, her parents and animals seeking refuge in open corral, hoping for rescue. No power or cell service in city of Napa, cell towers burned. A dozen fires burn out of control in both counties. Death, destruction and devastation north in Santa Rosa: two hospitals evacuated, entire blocks burned and leveled, Hilton Hotel gone, new firehouse incinerated. This is unprecedented, massive, tragic. Images of flames taller than houses, racing out of control, burning neighborhoods and mountainsides. Embers the size of dinner plates fly a half mile ahead of the fires, start new fires. “It feels like being in a war zone.”

Rachel’s Facebook post: Our house available for shelter, showers, washer, dryer, charging cell phones, food, comfort. Josh’s bandmate Jack arrives, a refugee from fires in Glen Ellen. He hasn’t slept since Saturday. He apologizes for his poor manners because he’s focused on answering 97 texts asking if he’s okay. He’d packed his truck at midnight with clothes bag, guitars, electric and upright basses, and big old golden retriever named Rumi. He called neighbors, played Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” on his Steinway as a prayer for his house, then drove down the narrow mountain road at 2 a.m., stopping to pound on another neighbor’s door. Two neighbors jumped in their car and drove through burning trees in the dark to escape, but no time to gather pets or cell phones. Their house was lost, probably the cats too. Another artist neighbor escaped but his lifetime’s artwork burned. Jack does not know if his own house still stands.

We make evacuation plans of our own. Charlie and I can use PPI’s Toyota crew cab. We are reluctant to leave; Rachel gently but firmly insists we stick to our plan because they need the room for their refugee friends. We head out of town, Charlie’s experienced truck driver-hands white-knuckled on the steering wheel; I fight back tears. Oops, the GPS doesn’t show road blocks. We’re surrounded by smoke: white from burning grass, gray from burning brush and trees, and black from homes, buildings or vehicles. A line of fire crests a hill to our east, a group of fire trucks protects the house and barn. We drive through thousands of acres of black, smoking fields and hills. In San Francisco, the smell of smoke permeates the city, even inside my cousin’s house. The view from Twin Peaks reveals gray and orange smoke hovering over San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, the entire North Bay.

Tuesday: We travel down Pacific Coast Highway to beloved Monterey, grateful for sweet, foggy air. Fire news: Winds clocked at 50, 60, 70 mph, fires 0 percent, 2 percent contained, over 5,000 structures burned, schools closed, flights cancelled, overnight high winds forecast. 

Wednesday: Rachel texts they are three blocks south of an advisory evacuation area. What does that mean? “Mom, it means pack up your shit but don’t get into the car yet. Don’t worry, the hospital is one block away, evacuation shelter three blocks away, neither has been evacuated yet, we feel relatively safe.” She removes debris from gutters, hoses down roof and landscaping, replaces air conditioning filters daily. They store flammable items inside, pile Josh’s guitars and music gear, pet carriers and food, artwork, laptops and photo albums in garage. Half the neighbors evacuate. Charlie and I spend the day at Monterey Bay Aquarium, comforted to be surrounded by sealife and water. A friend texts – her friends were caught in the fire, their son didn’t make it, the rest of the family hospitalized, covered with burns. We are horrified, heartbroken. To be caught in a burning car, to lose a child... We meet Irio, a Cuban refugee and evacuee from Napa County. His friend in Santa Rosa had a two minute warning to leave his home. His house burned. How much can anyone grab in two minutes after being sound asleep? 

Thursday: Rachel texts that air quality in Sonoma is terrible, fires still out of control, their house full of refugees — four adults, one kid, two dogs, three cats, a bearded dragon, piles of musical gear, please stay in Monterey another day.  Monterey is full of refugees, we reserve the last room available, lock our stuff in Gunnar, and spend the day as tourists.  Rachel texts: Jen’s family rescued, nobody hurt, their house literally exploded, all outbuildings burned, some animals died, they have only the clothes they were wearing, which in Grandpa’s case was just his underwear. Friend Dan’s house also burned but his girlfriend and cat escaped; still not sure about Jack’s house. 

Friday: Rachel texts the all-clear to return but expect some sad, sad scenery between Napa and Sonoma. We locate a store that hasn’t sold out of respirators and buy a box of 20. At the Solano/Napa County line we pass convoys of fire trucks and PG&E power company trucks. The sun has vanished into smoke. We see black hills; an iconic dairy farm, its buildings and equipment melted into the ground; the burned sign of a hillside winery. 

We view satellite images on Rachel’s laptop. Look, Mom, here’s Circle S Ranch up on Atlas Peak Road, where Jim and I saw the mountain lions and the huge rattlesnake, where you and I rode the quads. Dad, that’s Californiaspeak for four-wheelers. All 2,100 acres burned. Here’s Walt Ranch — 2,300 acres burned. We won’t have to bushwhack through that brush any more. I wonder how Kongsgaard’s winery is, way up high on Atlas Peak. You’d love John and Maggy, they have an organic vineyard and gardens, they’re really good stewards of the land. I hope their house didn’t burn. Good, the roof looks intact, they were saved by the irrigated vineyards. Here’s another winery and the track other friends took to get to the main road, four hours in the dark through burning trees and embers, barely able to see ahead. Some fires advanced 230 feet per minute. That’s almost four feet per second. Who can outrun that? 

What do we want for dinner? Nothing smoked or grilled, please. Let’s drive to Whole Foods. Why don’t we walk as usual?  Mom, it’s not healthy, think of all the crap in the smoke. We don respirators and climb into the truck. I whine. I can’t take a deep breath, the straps make my long hair bunch up all weird and my ears stick out, my glasses fog up, I feel like a dork. Rachel says, who cares? She’s right. Who cares. We take the last rotisserie chicken. The meat, fresh fish, deli and bakery counters are all dark and empty. The masked cashier in the smoke-filled store points to a pallet of bottled water. Take some water, it’s free. 

Saturday: Some fires 25 percent, 45 percent contained. Charlie and I walk to Sonoma Plaza wearing respirators. The town is utterly deserted: Post Office, all stores, restaurants and businesses closed. I could lay down in the middle of Route 12 and take a nap without being run over.  A convoy of yellow fire trucks passes, then a red one, then another. The firefighters’s faces are weary. We give them the thumbs-up; they return the gesture. Across the empty street in Sonoma Plaza a statue of General Vallejo sits on a bench; he’s wearing a face mask and a string of posters made by kids in the evacuation center. “Sonoma says Thank you firefighters, Bless You!!! for saving our town” “We Thank You Polices”  “The Love in the Air is Thicker than the Smoke”. 

We drive up the evacuation route to their favorite burger place. It’s too smoky to sit outside without respirators, and who can eat a burger while wearing a respirator anyway? A family sits at a corner table. The parents look beaten, exhausted; the teenager’s face is blank. They don’t speak.  We don’t know their story.  

School buses are parked in front of the senior citizen housing across the street. Are they getting ready to evacuate? Should we? Charlie talks to the drivers. Nobody is getting evacuated, the residents were getting nervous. The buses are the wheeled equivalent of a security blanket.

I ask about an image of boiling wine flowing down a hillside. Why did some of the wine cellars burn if they were in hillside caves? Oh, the doors are wooden. Have you heard if BR Cohn burned? How about Little Vineyards? Harlan? Gundlach Bundschu’s homestead burned but the winery and redwood barn didn’t. Hope’s tour bus drove through the fire, flames licking at the bus and the gear trailer. We look at aerial photos of state parks where Jack had recorded bird songs. All burned. What wildlife could have survived?

Sunday: Rachel’s phone beeps text alerts with good news — mandatory evacuation orders lifted for all parts of the city. Charlie drives to Friedman’s lumber yard at the edge of town. Inside and out, employees wear respirators and offer complimentary hot dogs and coffee  to a weary CalFire crew. Their chief says he has a county voucher to buy new work clothes. Friedman’s manager says the county can pay next time; whatever you need now, fellows, is on us. 

We say our tearful goodbyes. Rachel drives us to SFO for our red-eye flight. There’s little traffic and Rachel makes good time. We land in Boston at 4 a.m. and make the 11 a.m. ferry home.

Some of these stories have happy endings. Jack’s house is miraculously intact, the fire stopping mere feet from his door. The “Moonlight Sonata” prayer he played for his house must have been very powerful.