One Man’s Fire

A personal perspective on what we lived through.

Story & Photos David Bolling

Sunday night, October 8:

At 11:45 the wind was roaring past the bedroom window like the engine of an Air Force F-22 Raptor. Mandy and I have different reactions to loud sounds. She wanted me to close the window. I wanted to leave it open.

Earlier she had reported an ominous feeling about the night, about the wind. She tends to worry too much. I tend to worry too little.

Apparently she got up and closed the window. I had already fallen asleep.

And then, at about 1:15 my phone rang. It was my number two daughter, calling from her mother’s house on the Kenwood reach of Warm Springs Road, the house beside Sonoma Creek that had burned to its foundation about six years ago. She said she, her older sister and their mother were watching a red glow frame the ridge across the road when they got a call to evacuate. Probably, she told me, we should too.

I told her to keep in touch and not to worry about us, we were safe. Then I went outside and climbed up on my roof and looked out over the trees that line the boundary between our house and the Sonoma Developmental Center. The wind was howling demonically, a large oak limb had already fallen on the patio, somehow missing the furniture and the chiminea, and it occurred to me that airborne missiles could be an issue.

I’ve been in gales and one hurricane, which is how it felt on the roof. There is a primal attraction to that kind of wind—raw, unrelenting, overpowering, Nature unleashed. It was exciting in an elevated adrenaline kind of way and I later learned—we all learned—it was clocking well over 50 miles per hour.

Then I noticed a glow beyond the SDC rooftops to the north, something like the nighttime neon shimmer of a shopping center, except there are no stores in the regional park that borders the Developmental Center.

When I came back in the house Mandy reported that three couples with homes on Wolf Run—a narrow canyon off Warm Springs Road—were evacuating to our house.

We turned on the TV and found spotty coverage of a fire that had invaded Santa Rosa from the canyon of Mark West Creek. There was not yet mention of Glen Ellen.

By 2:30 there were nine under our roof and by 3:30 the power went off, after flickering helplessly for a minute or two. Because I have a flashlight fetish, light was not a problem, but losing the TV and WiFi felt like being abandoned in the wilderness while dangerous creatures prowled the dark outside.

We had beds and pads and sleeping bags enough for everyone to get horizontal, but most of us just dozed fitfully, and I made several more trips to the roof to check on the glow. It was always still there.

Monday morning, October 9:

In the transient light of a false dawn, I gathered up my cameras and drove into the heart of Glen Ellen, seeing nothing along the way to arouse alarm. But when I got to the intersection of Arnold Drive and Warm Springs Road I saw a fire truck parked in front of the historic Glen Ellen Community Church. It was part of an engine company from San Francisco, which told me one thing at once.

In the early morning light I couldn‘t see far beyond the bridge over Calabazas Creek. I left my car behind Glen Ellen Star, crossed the bridge on foot and was suddenly confronted with a view of indescribable destruction. Beyond the church and Rick Dunham’s adjacent home, there was nothing but fire, layers of fire, houses of fire, dimensions of fire. It was Dante’s Inferno and the nine circles of hell. No, it was more like Hiroshima, leveled, laid waste, blown to ashes and flame.

It was at first incomprehensible that this much devastation could have happened in the few short hours of night, and from that single vantage point it wasn’t even clear where the fire had come from and where it was going.

All I could see was fire from Warm Springs Road to the edge of Sonoma Creek, with most of the homes on O’Donnell Lane, bordering the creek, apparently gone or engulfed in flames. The firefighters on scene were overmatched, but they were standing guard over the church and Dunham’s house as the fire consumed almost everything else in its path. After an hour I drove back to my house unable to tell the Wolf Run contingent anything about the fate of their homes, but confident that our house was out of danger.

Twenty minutes later, two sheriff’s patrol cars began cruising the neighborhood with loudspeakers announcing a mandatory evacuation. When I stopped a deputy for more information he said the fire was approaching at 20 miles per hour and to get out immediately. His voice was grim.

This still felt like an exaggeration, but everyone in our house took it seriously, began repacking their cars and heading off for Sonoma.

In the commotion, a door was left open and Pearl the cat escaped.

I sent Mandy on with 11-year-old Kate, promising I would bring the cat, along with Thor the dwarf hamster.

Before leaving, I placed a hose on the roof of the converted garage that held my home office. Unknown to me, my two adult daughters stopped by later and added a second and third hose to the house and backyard.

Within an hour I had Pearl back in the house and began trying to stuff her into a carrying case, a move she resisted with all four legs and every claw. It took another 30 minutes and perhaps a pint of blood before she was secured, and ready to evacuate. I pulled as much art off the walls as I could fit in my car, added the creatures and pulled away from the house, confident it was not at risk. Halfway down the block I realized I had forgotten a cellphone charging cable and turned back to get one. With that in hand I was pulling away again when I looked back and saw an enormous dark cloud of smoke rise up over the redwoods and cedars behind my house. Finally I understood the unfolding dimensions of what was no longer a nuisance and might well be the end of our home.

My car was crammed with a random assortment of impulse grabs; some made sense, some not so much.

I brought every camera I cared about—six or seven of them—both still and video— which quickly became a car-borne nuisance too valuable to leave for a fire and worrisome to leave in my car—and every SD and CF photo card I had.

I grabbed all my external hard drives, totaling perhaps 10 terrabytes of storage and my laptop (but left the desktop. It was that, or leave some art).

I took half a dozen flashlights, two water bottles, a camping coffee cup, a zero-degree down sleeping bag, a handful of unfinished books, an iPod Nano for music, shoes and rubber boots for any contingency, a bottle of tequila and three good bottles of wine.

I threw in cat food and hamster food, a couple towels, a toilet kit, a portable radio, some USB thumb drives, an optical disc reader and about 10 movies I never had time to watch.

My work backpack was already crammed with notebooks, digital recorders, pens, batteries, an iPad, card readers, a multi-tool, extra reading glasses, sunglasses.

In the trunk I shoved handfuls of clothes pulled blindly from my closet, most of which I didn’t wear.

I didn’t bring insurance documents or my passport, because I forgot them. I did not forget my press pass, although there were extra ones at my office—a good thing because I lost one.

There was so much stuff in my car I felt like a homeless person, until it dawned on me that perhaps I was.

We sheltered, numb and exhausted, for the meat of the day at the home of Joyce Miller, who graciously let us invade her condo two blocks from the Sonoma Plaza. Later we accepted a dinner invitation from Renata and Toby Virk to share her curry dinner, and then accepted a further invitation to displace their daughter for a bed on which to finally get some sleep. With us, throughout, were Pearl and Thor.

Tuesday, October 10:

I abandoned the family early to begin the gritty process of exploring and documenting the destruction, with a first stop to see if we had a house. We did.

I sat in the driveway for a long moment trying to connect with my feelings, which included the inevitable sense of survivor guilt. I didn’t yet know how very close we came to losing the whole neighborhood, or the amazing sequence of chance and neighborhood vigilance that kept it from going up in smoke.

Inside, the power was still out and the sour stench of smoke clung to the walls. I remembered to retrieve my passport.

I then drove back into the heart of damage on Warm Springs Road, where I encountered three survivors standing near the smoldering ruins around Rick Dunham’s driveway. Rick was barefoot in the ashes with a cup of coffee, talking to Jean-Francois Ducarroz and Jim Hughes, who had both come through the firestorm with homes intact.

Dunham, a contractor and mechanic who lost his shop, tools, more than 30 World War II firearms baked in a gun safe, at least three restored classic vehicles and the antique gas pumps that were a signature landmark on his property, nevertheless still had a house because it was cheek-to-jowl with the next-door church, which firefighters were determined to save.

Ducarroz and Hughes described the overnight drama on Riddle Road, a short residential spur a block from the Glen Ellen fire station and parallel with Henno Road on the opposite side of Calabazas Creek. Riddle was rained with burning embers as the fire chewed along Henno Road, but residents (prominently including former high school principal Micaela Fillpot’s husband Larry) fought the sparks with garden hoses until the fire station could get an engine to them. But for that, Riddle would have likely burned.

I shot my way up Warm Springs Road as gas lines protruding from rubble continued to hiss with live flames. The sad tableau was littered with small vignettes of loss; here a baseball glove in the ashes, there a statue of the Virgin Mary still standing amid the ruin, and there a plastic trash can thoroughly melted on one side while the dead grass inside it remained unburned.

There were angels and Buddhas and a painted masonry turtle, and everywhere the skeletons of incinerated autos, alloy rims melted into hardened puddles, interiors gone, paint vaporized.

I was also working my way toward a confrontation I was dreading but felt compelled to keep. Half a mile up the road, Wolf Run follows a narrow canyon up into a scattered enclave of beautiful homes, three of which belonged to friends who had evacuated themselves out of town to escape the smoke. Roadblocks kept them from returning and none of them knew if they still had homes.

I turned up Wolf Run in the late afternoon under a waning sun, the sky still choked with smoke. The canyon wall rising up from the road was on fire, flames crackling through the dry brush and girdling madrone trees overhanging the asphalt. I wound my way gingerly up the canyon, alert to the danger of a burning tree toppling in my path.

There was only time and daylight to check on two of the three houses; both were intact, unburned, but surrounded by the charred shadow of singed ground cover within feet of each structure. When I phoned the exiled households the joyous reaction was electric.

I dodged burning trees on the way out of the canyon, wondering if those flames could reverse course and return to the homes they had failed to burn.

There were a few more stops I needed to make before losing the light. At the intersection with Bennett Valley Road I headed east on Warm Springs toward Kenwood where my ex-wife’s home, and the homes of several friends sat in a cone of media darkness. There were no reliable reports on what had happened in the canyon of Sonoma Creek, but many people believed it had all burned.

It hadn’t, for reasons inexplicable, mysterious, perhaps divine. Wedged between two active and destructive fires, the Sonoma Creek canyon was serenely unscathed.

But Kenwood itself, I had heard, was destroyed, the Kenwood gas station had exploded, Café Citti was gone, Chateau St. Jean destroyed, Landmark Vineyard too.

None of it was true. The northwest corner of Kenwood suffered some tragic losses, Chateau St. Jean had what looked like minor damage, Landmark appeared unmarked. Café Citti was intact, the gas station had not exploded or burned or even been dusted with ash, the premature demise of all these places a product of social media’s indiscriminate appetite for sensation and rumor.

Wednesday, October 11:

It’s been less then four days and this fire feels like it will go on forever. I’ve already forgotten what day it is. We’ve moved on to our third evacuation site following the mandatory evacuation of our second landing place. Now we’re on the east side of Sonoma with a loving couple whose granddaughter is good friends with our 11-year-old. I continue to map, photograph and record impressions of the kinetic beast that refuses to die.

Visiting the evacuation center at Sonoma Valley High School is inspiring. The work done by volunteers, students, teachers, friends and strangers flows from the campus like a palpable presence.

An invisible apparatus is somehow generating an endless supply of food. Follow the flavors and aromas and you find yourself at the Red Grape where Tony Moll is helping coordinate the production and distribution of pizzas, hundreds of which were sent to the Vets building to feed the caretakers of SDC’s most vulnerable residents.

Meanwhile a cadre of chefs are working nonstop in the kitchen at Suite D, Sondra Bernstein’s facility on Eighth Street East, where food flows in all directions—to La Luz, to the high school, even to Santa Rosa.

Gary Edwards and his coterie of Rotary volunteers were an engine of food production and distribution. On Monday they served more than 300 meals. On Tuesday, they served more than1,000 meals from the Red Grape to first responders on the fire lines, with ingredients contributed by Sonoma Valley Market, Whole Foods and others.

On Wednesday, they gathered donated food from restaurants forced to shut down—Glen Ellen Star, Aventine, Sonoma Mission Inn, Ramekins. The list of donors was almost endless, including Cochon Volant, TriTip Trolley, EDK, Sunflower Café, Café La Haye, Anja Lee Catering, Sheana Davis, Nima Sherpa and Sonoma Grille, Harvest Moon, El Molino Central, and on and on, not to mention Sondra Bernstein and John Toulze who insisted on avoiding the spotlight.

There were many miracles, heroes were everywhere, and the fire kept burning.

But my personal story took on dramatic new dimensions when I was later able to reconstruct what happened to my neighborhood as I drove out of town with a cat and a hamster in the back seat, choosing not to think about my house burning down.

As it turns out, the black cloud I saw on departure was a house half a block away on Burbank Street that was almost fully consumed. Sparks and embers spread from there down Burbank to a garage, which was fully consumed and only failed to burn the adjoining house because it was covered with Hardie Board, a composite siding made partially with cement. That house survived with repairable damage, but embers flew an entire block into the backyards of four houses on Marty Street. They ignited fences and outbuildings, and flames were rapidly growing in strength when another of many minor miracles occurred. Glen Ellen fireman Jim Kracke had gone home for a more comfortable pair of boots and was headed back to town when he saw the cloud of smoke erupting from the backyards.

“All we saw was thick, black smoke,” Kracke recalls. “I was thinking, ‘Holy crap, in two or three hours I could be homeless.’”

He and a fellow fireman pulled a hose line and doused the flames and were wrapping up the site, when they spotted former fireman Alex Benward next door, checking on the house of fireman Keenan Lee, who was at that moment saving something like a hundred lives at an assisted living center in Santa Rosa.

Kracke asked Benward to keep an eye on the smoldering coals while he returned to his other assignments. Benward then secured a portable water tank and pump which he towed back the site and ensured the fire did not flair back to life.

“It’s just like poker and golf,” reflected Kracke later. “If you don’t have a little lady luck on your shoulder, sometimes you don’t win. We happened to be at the right place at the right time. We had a little lady luck on our side.”

Kracke insists there was nothing heroic about what happened. “There’s thousands of stories like this one. We’ve got a job to do, and we were doing what we were trained to do. We didn’t do anything extraordinary. But we did get lucky there. It could have gotten really bad in the whole Marty Drive subdivision.”

If Jim Kracke doesn’t want to be a hero, that’s OK with me. But I’m pretty sure if he hadn’t spotted that fire, and put it out, I wouldn’t have a house.

That bit of salvation turned a little bittersweet when I took an older daughter to look at a different house, on Henno Road, where we spent eight of her most intense growing up years. It was no longer a house. It wasn’t even a ruin. It was just a carpet of grey ash and a railing leading down some concrete stairs into nothing.

We stood there together absorbing the awful impact of what wasn’t there. Maybe somewhere inside me I felt the existential guilt loosen its hold just a bit. I did lose a house after all. Sort of.

There are thousands of fire stories in the Valley of the Moon, many more painful and poignant than mine.

But we have all lived through something we will never forget, something that binds us together with a common memory. Part of that memory is loss. And part of that memory is the transcendent beauty of how good we can be when we come together in community.



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