Story: David Bolling
Photos: David Bolling & Steven Krause
Beltane Ranch is a place, a state of mind, a vineyard, a winery, an antique orchard, a lush garden, a registered landmark and a Bed & Breakfast Inn that goes back, in one form or another, to 1892.
It is also a Highway 12 gathering place outside Glen Ellen, a friendly vortex for the self-identified members of a widely extended family, all of whom claim some kind of ownership in the property and/or the people who live there.
It is owned by the Benward-Wood family, three generations deep on the site, and firefighting is part of the family tradition.
All of which is why no one should be surprised by what happened after Lauren Benward Krause smelled smoke.
The B&B was full, they had just cleaned up after a dinner for 25, and walking back to her house in the dark, Lauren felt something she had never experienced before—howling winds blowing with near hurricane force, so hard that trees began falling. One tree came down so close it almost hit her and she could hear others falling back among the oaks and bays and madrones at the back of the property, over by Nelligan Road.
Ten minutes later she smelled the smoke and screamed for her husband, Steven, who was asleep with their sons, aged 4 and 2.
As soon as they looked, they could see the flames, already there behind the house, sending embers bouncing off their roof. That was a particular problem because most of the roof was bare, in process of receiving new shingles.
Lauren made what may have been the first 9-1-1 call of the fire, and she and Steven began spraying the approaching flames with garden hoses. Glen Ellen firefighter Chris Landry, who works for the Oakland Fire Department but lives nearby on Henno Road, showed up in minutes and quickly concluded, “We’re not going to put this fire out, we’re going to bump it around the houses.”
Lauren’s brother Alex, a former firefighter, showed up in flip-flops and headed for the tractor shed, not knowing the fire had reached Lauren and Steven’s house. At the same time, Steven and Lauren didn’t know the shed was on fire.
On top of the predictable confusion, the Beltane crew had to contend with evacuating the B&B guests (which included a baby), there were Clydesdales in the front pasture, which was on fire, along with a steer named Bob and a cow named Paisley.
Then the fire ambushed two guests’ cars, so Alex gave them the keys to his Ford Bronco, put four of them in it and told them to drive to somewhere safe.
When the fire burned through the water pipes feeding the Beltane hoses, the battle went hand-to-hand, shovels and rakes, literally pushing the fire away from valuable structures.
“There was definitely an assignment of resources,” says Alex. “Let that burn, don’t let this burn.”
The smoke was so thick and it blew so hard it was hard to breathe. “I thought if I fall down,” says Steven, “I could die there.”
The arrival of a water tank, courtesy of John Serres, swung the battle in their favor, the horses and other livestock were sequestered from the flames, and a fire engine took up semi-long-term residence at the ranch.
And while the vigil against rogue ashes, hot spots and flames went on for weeks, by November 11 there had been enough recovery to hold the annual Beltane zinfandel release party at the ranch, which ended up raising $44,000, all of which went to victims of the fire.