As I drove out of Sonoma into Napa County twelve days ago, all I could say was “Oh shit!” There was a large oily smoky fire burning down near the Napa River. It looked to be a fire at some sort of car lot or junk yard full of old tires. It burned on the flood plain and not near wooded areas, but the forecast was promising near hurricane strength winds. And those winds would be reversed. Instead of moist on-shore breezes from the Pacific, we’d be getting hot dry winds from the Great Basin. It didn’t bode well to see a large fire already blazing.
Monday morning, Ranch Manager Louis called to tell me there were wildfires all over Sonoma County. He’d been alerted that he might have to evacuate, then told it was safe for him to go home. Still later that night, he sat on his porch and watch a good part of the City of Santa Rosa burn. By this time Louis’s two sisters-in-law had evacuated to his little California bungalow, bringing the occupant total to three women, ten dogs, two bunnies, one kid and a cockatoo. We made a plan that the whole menagerie should evacuate to the Rancho if things started looking bad.
Tuesday, Louis braved the thick smoke, went to the Rancho and was told there was another fire here up over the next ridge. He met a Fire Chief from Oakland whose department was offering assistance. Louis was warned they were closing our road, so he offered the Fire Chief the use of our pasture as a staging area and our barn and its shower as a rest area for the fire crews.
Wednesday, Louis called to tell me that, if I prayed, now would be a good time for it. He was allowed five minutes to put diesel in the back up generators and then was escorted off our mountain and our road was closed behind him. By this time at least five separate fires were raging through Wine Country.
The next week was a surreal exercise in watching 24/7 local coverage and flipping between a variety of fire maps, which conflicted with the on-the-ground reports posted to a Facebook group by a hardy core of Sonoma natives who were refusing to evacuate.
By the following Saturday night, those strong hot winds kicked up again blowing the fire over the ridge and directly toward the Rancho. Our remote alarms and smoke detectors were pinging our phones every 5 minutes. Then our neighbor down the road called to say that he wasn’t on site, but his home security system showed thirty foot flames between his house and our property before the system shorted out. Shortly after our electricity, wi-fi and the monitoring system went out. Strangely, those little Next smoke detectors kept pinging us for more than a week until they, too, died. However, the alarm company did give us some helpful calls to tell us it appeared our system batteries were low.
Days later, as the rest of the county had their road restrictions lifted one by one and people returned to their homes, our road remained barricaded. We heard some hopeful stories and several people sent me screen shots of news reports showing the fire trucks staged in our pasture. We didn’t think several fire departments would let all their trucks burn up, so we hoped for the best.
More days passed and our roads remained closed. Information was thin on the ground. The Sonoma County Sheriff, who had twice daily press conferences scheduled, continued to cancel them all about an hour before each was to take place. I relied on the rumor and few eyewitness accounts from the local Facebook group. Finally, our contractor hiked into a side street in the valley below us. He looked through binoculars and said our house seemed completely intact, even the cloth pool umbrellas. We continued to hope, but the roads stayed closed, and every now and then, I’d get a half-hearted ping from a smoke detector. Our contractor also heard that there was a scary night when the firemen staging in our pasture had to douse our barn with fire retardant and take shelter in it from the heat and flames.
Now, here it is twelve days after the initial fire and there is still no firm date for opening the road. There are no fires burning up there. As I drove into Sonoma yesterday, I saw massive convoys of fire departments leaving the area. I checked into the hotel as dozens of fire personnel checked out. Still no firm date for opening the road. We were told through the rumor mill it would be Thursday morning, then Friday morning. No wait, it will be Friday afternoon. Now I heard from one of my neighbors that the expected opening is Saturday night at midnight. Which makes no sense at all. The only people who will be up and about at that time will be the looters. And besides, there is still not power on our side of the outskirts of Sonoma and it’s not expected to be on until late Monday.
We are told various things, most frequently that PG&E is doing site inspections for gas leaks and electrical lines. But most of us out on this side are on propane tanks — there are no city gas lines out here — and there are few electrical poles out here. Surely, a limited number of residents could be allowed in for a brief visit — enough to take pictures that will get FEMA aid or insurance claims started.
Meanwhile the rest of Sonoma is returned and rebuilding. All the available crews are being snapped up. Every scrap of coir mat and other erosion control material is flying off the shelves. Louis got a commitment from seven of our occasional workers who want to promise to work at our place. But if the road doesn’t open Monday, they have families to feed. They’ll have to take other work. Meanwhile, a new map that includes confirmed destroyed and damaged houses shows ours as one of the damaged. There is no word what “damaged” means. If an inspector sees a fallen tree on a building does he automatically mark it “damaged” or is his inspection more granular — say verified structural compromise? Nobody knows. The Sheriff cancelled his briefing again and no local official at the barricades can tell us anything.
Meanwhile, the local Facebook pages and the increasing crowds of people on the Plaza are all filled with locals high-fiving and talking about organizing a big town party.
For those of us who still don’t know the worst, who haven’t been able to get into our homes, or had any information about our isolated homes up in the hills, we don’t exactly feel like partying.
We have mixed feelings about the rain that is now falling. It will be great to put out any remaining hotspots. But it would have been nice to have been allowed in to secure a tarp over any holes in the roof or broken windows before we had to add water damage to our smoke damage.
I’m here through Saturday — maybe Sunday if I can get my hotel reservation extended and the kennels will take the terriers for an extra day — but I’m not expecting that the latest deadline will be any more real than the last half a dozen that were dangled in front of us.
So the waiting continues.