7 Moving Tales of the 2017 Bay Area Fires
As an unprecedented disaster devastated our neighbors to the north, many of us watched from the safety of our screens. Here are tales from seven people who had to act, and act fast.
“This scale is off the charts. When you look at historic fires we’ve had, it doesn’t even compare in terms of the devastation of property, the environmental loss, and the fatalities,” says Marin County Fire Department Battalion Chief and Public Information Officer Bret McTigue. “This was an unprecedented fire. We’ve never experienced anything like it.” In the face of this disaster, Marin County put every single Marin firefighter in the department on duty and deployed eight strike teams (five engines per team) to fight fires across Northern California, including the Nuns, Atlas, Tubbs and Redwood Complex fires, as well as the Bear Valley Fire in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The Marin Fire Agency also took over management of the Highway 37 fire for five days, as the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) was overwhelmed.
According to the most recent numbers, the multiple fires that ignited in the windstorms across Northern California that night burned 245,000 acres, destroying 8,900 homes and commercial buildings and displacing more than 102,000 people. Most significantly, 43 lives were lost in the three counties. “We spent the entire first 24 hours in lifesaving mode,” says Novato Fire Battalion Chief Jeff Whittet, whose strike team of 22 worked for 10 days straight, some days on 72-hour shifts without a break, battling the Atlas Fire.
“Total destruction” is how Congressman Jared Huffman, who toured Sonoma and Mendocino in the days following containment, describes what he saw: “The only thing I can compare it to is the footage of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in that it has reduced entire neighborhoods to smoldering ruins, in some cases as far as the eye can see. The FEMA administrator, who sees a lot of disasters, said it is the worst destruction he has ever seen.”
According to Marin County Fire Department’s McTigue, it could have just as easily been Marin on that fateful windy night. “It is amazing it was not us. We had the exact same wind events and the same burning conditions,” he says. “We do our best here with the staffing and resources we have, but it is going to take every single Marin resident understanding they need to take responsibility — reducing [flammable timber and vegetation] fuel, cleaning gutters, creating space and access, and learning what to do to help us to protect their homes in these fires. Really, this is our wake-up call.”
So many in Marin have family or friends in Sonoma or Napa. We work, go to school, vacation or own second homes in wine country. The extraordinary mobilization across Marin County arose in part because we are all members of an expansive interconnected North Bay community. According to Katelyn Willoughby-Bagley of the Center for Volunteer and Nonprofit Leadership (CVNL), which contracts with both Napa and Marin counties to provide volunteers in case of a disaster and was responsible for the establishment of Marin’s primary evacuation shelter at the Marin Civic Center, “Since opening a fire relief fund on October 9, CVNL has raised almost $160,000 to aid those affected by the fires. In addition, $50,000 in gift cards have been received to date and 3,000 volunteers were deployed in Marin and Napa counties.” She adds that 10,000 people from around the Bay Area are registered online to volunteer. Dozens of charities have received donations of time and money as well.
Looking to the future of the region, Congressman Huffman’s concerns are vast. Now that the heroic acts of lifesaving and fire containment are over, he says, it is time to start putting lives back together, rebuilding communities, protecting watersheds, addressing housing shortages, and policing the scams and abuses that come in the wake of a tragedy. Huffman points to the vulnerability of the elderly and immigrants as well as renters who, unlike homeowners, might have little or no insurance, often have no savings, and in some cases will not have a livelihood. “Marin County has been incredibly generous in the immediate aftermath of this crisis, but the need is not fully met, and will not be for a long time,” Huffman says. “The challenge is, can we continue to support our neighbors for the long run?”
BELTANE RANCH WINERY AND BED-AND-BREAKFAST, GLEN ELLEN
We host a Sunday night “Farm to Table” dinner series. I cleaned up with my brother, then went to my own home on the ranch, and there was no news of anything, it was just extremely windy. My kids and husband were asleep when I smelled smoke and I just knew in my heart that it was too abrupt. I knew it was a threat. I screamed as soon as I smelled it to get the kids out of the house. I ran to my mother’s, nearby on the property, and screamed at her to get out of the house, but I still couldn’t see where it was coming from. Then, within one or two minutes it was an orange glow, a semicircle from the whole back of the ranch, coming toward us, and there were embers blowing and landing on our roof by the time I got back to my house a couple minutes later. It came on really hot and fast, a wall of fire blowing sideways.
The kids went with my mother and my husband and I started spraying down the back of our house, because the fire was right there. My brother arrived and made sure all of the guests in our historic home, our bed-and-breakfast, were out of the rooms. The fire spread so fast it wrapped around the parking lot and some of the guests’ cars burned. My brother gave them his car to evacuate. It burned our barn, our woodshed, and our wine storage with all of our wine inside.
I don’t even know how they all found out but we have so many friends in the area who came straight to help us as soon as they heard, including our friend Chris Landry, who is a fire captain in Oakland and told us what we needed to do, where we would need to spray, because we had so much to protect. We are so lucky.
I was double-checking that all of the guests were out of their rooms on the second floor of the farmhouse, and I looked out and I couldn’t believe it, it was horrible, both the horse and cattle pastures were burning the animals into a corner. It isn’t easy to move cattle from a burning corral, but all the animals were rescued thanks to so many who helped us. Most of our vineyard survived, and in our orchard we lost our olive crop, but our trees will recover.
There are a lot of ups and downs to the process of recovery. All of the fencing on our property, the electrical at the well for the pump, things like that that aren’t necessarily insured. Now we are faced with the removal of outbuildings that burned, farm equipment that burned, automobiles that burned, water pipes that melted, power lines down. It is overwhelming.
But our most important historical structures and private homes were spared and we were able to retain our family history. All the animals are alive and well, including our personal pets that we got in the car when we got the kids out. We feel so very fortunate and full of gratitude.
PRINCIPAL, CARDINAL NEWMAN HIGH SCHOOL, SANTA ROSA
I was at Lake Tahoe to celebrate my sister’s birthday and my son was at home alone in Windsor and told me what was going on. When I went online to the Press Democrat I saw a picture of Willi’s Wine Bar engulfed in flames, and that is on the corner right near Cardinal Newman and I thought, “that’s not good.” When we got home we tried to get onto campus but of course, roads were blocked, but I was able to see a video of the destruction of the front administration buildings and the library and 20 classrooms, so I had kind of an idea of what to expect. But to see it the next morning was pretty shocking.
My office was a museum of my personal history from being a child on up, all kinds of stuff important to me, school things, and it was just a flat pile of ashes. But it was remarkable that we didn’t lose all of the school. Trying to process it all and make a plan, I realized it isn’t just us that has had a fire, it is everything around us. The utility poles and lines are all down, burnt up, so when would we be able to come back to campus? We just don’t know.
The fires continued all week and the evacuations continued all week. So, you’re on edge, trying to scramble to do something, but you are also worried about, “do we have to move out of our own homes?” We had two teachers who were burned out. Multiple people had to evacuate. About 90 families, one-sixth of the school, have lost their homes. A significant number. We wanted to make sure people felt supported. We were trying to get our balance and plan for the school community, but it was constantly shifting. It was chaos.
The next week we had a little more time to put some plans together. We were able to set up two sites in Rohnert Park and Windsor to create a retreat experience for the students where they could come together, see each other, write thank-you notes to first responders, give our professional counselors a chance to see who needed particular help.
Faculty and staff also got back together as a group at St. Rose Hall downtown, so we got everybody together to restart the school year and talk about working online and remind everybody what we’re doing and how we can’t hold on to how we always did things or prefer to do, but the number one thing is taking care of our students because we understand that the community is the people, it is not the buildings.
OWNER, SAFARI WEST
About 10 p.m. Sunday evening our ranch manager who heard there was a fire came up to our home ranch, which is about a mile away from Safari West, and got Nancy and me out of bed because he knew how urgent it was. We got the dogs and Nancy grabbed a few items, but you know how ladies don’t go anywhere without their purse: Nancy forgot her purse, which tells you something.
Nancy took our dogs and drove with our ranch manager out through the flames and I followed them. We got down to the property and the sheriff immediately wanted to evacuate everybody, so I just sort of let everybody go and I stayed.
We have a lot of spigots and hoses all around the property, which is 400 acres, around 1,000 animals. I used all the hoses I could, connecting them, putting out fires wherever I could put them out, going back and forth around the property through the night. I didn’t need a flashlight because the fires provided all the light I needed. I never wear a hoodie, but for some reason, I grabbed a hoodie that night so I soaked it with water and put the hood over my head. It would last about 10 minutes before it would dry out, so I would soak it again.
Fires were burning in parts of the hyenas’ area, so I would put the fires out wherever they popped up. The hyenas were a little freaked out. It burned up to the rhinos. And it burned right up to behind our guest tents on the mountain. There was a group of five Nyala antelope up on that side of the mountain and they got burned into a corner. I climbed over the fence and scared them until they jumped over an area where the fire was just one foot high and they were able to get away. I used a forklift and moved large piles of wooden posts away from the fire because it was so much fuel.
I was looking up at the mountain across the road and watched the whole thing burn, four houses. I had to let my neighbor’s house next door go because it was just too much.
I have been around fire, on ranches, but I have never seen anything like this fire. I guess I got lucky, everything started going for me. The big winds died down. It was a small breeze encouraging the fire to creep down the mountainside above us rather than roar down. We lost some vehicles but I was able to save our buildings and all of our animals.
At 8:30 a.m one of our employees was able to get through to come up to the park. I was very happy to see him.
The fires continued all week, so we were concerned and working on the property. In fact, I was not able to change out of the clothes I put on Sunday night until the following Friday.
We talked about when we will reopen. I do not want guests to have to drive up Mark West Springs Road and see all the burned homes and fire devastation. We were planning to open in the spring but we reopened Thanksgiving week due to hundreds of requests to see the animals.
FOUNTAIN GROVE NEIGHBORHOOD, SANTA ROSA
I couldn’t sleep; we had tremendous winds, up to 80 miles an hour; and it was throwing our patio furniture around all over the deck, so it was noisy. At 1 a.m. I heard a bang, bang, bang on the front door. My neighbor was outside with her flashlight. The fire was coming from behind our house, so when I went out to the front and looked up I could see flames all across the sky.
I woke my husband and grabbed my computer, medicine, and a T-shirt and jeans and put them in a bag and that was about it. We hopped in the car and thought we would go down Fountaingrove Parkway, but then there was a new house on fire and it was shooting flames across the road so I managed a U-turn and we went the back way, heading down toward a Safeway parking lot. What would normally take 10 minutes took an hour-and-a-half because you couldn’t see and everyone was converging.
I still didn’t have any idea our house would burn. We thought we’d go to IHOP to have a cup of coffee and wait, but no one came to IHOP to open up because the employees’ neighborhoods were burning also.
At about 3 p.m. I got the text that my whole street was gone. We went to a hotel and then to my daughter’s house and were not allowed to go back until Saturday. We arrived to go up to our house; we checked in with the National Guard. They were kind and wonderful. They gave us buckets and gloves and masks to sort through the ash. There were so many kind people, volunteers who gave us meals to take up with us for the day, so we had food as we worked. One woman leaned into the car with an envelope that said, “From my home to yours,” and inside was a $100 bill. Such kindness from everyone.
It wasn’t until we drove up our street, such a peaceful cul-de-sac where we had lived for 15 years, now in ruins, that it really hit me and for the first time I sobbed. We, and all of our neighbors, lost everything, from the documents and passports, etc., to photos and my grown children’s childhood notes and artwork, things I was getting together to pass on to them.
But we are all right. in a situation like this, you can’t look back. You just have to look forward.
On Sunday night around midnight, my husband’s phone started ringing. It was his mom, telling us about the fires. That night while our two children, 3 and 4, were sleeping we packed our bags and we stood outside looking up at the Tubbs Fire. We didn’t get any sleep that night. We stayed, but the next day we had no power, so we couldn’t get updates on the news. My work at UpValley Family Centers closed that day and my husband works at a winery in St. Helena. It is harvest now, but he couldn’t go to work either. The smoke was really bad, and we were all so anxious. We stayed inside with our children, waiting for text updates from our families and just reading and playing games with our children. There were still no evacuation orders.
On Tuesday we decided to stay and sleep in our home, but we had our bags packed up. At 3 a.m. my husband woke me, telling me it was time to leave. There was so much adrenaline. We carried the kids into the car. I went back to check where my daughter was sleeping and saw we had left her Mickey Mouse she sleeps with, so I made sure to grab that.
There was a shelter at Napa Valley College, so we decided to go there. My son is always a chatterbox, but as we drove to the shelter he was so quiet I kept asking my husband to make sure he was with us; it was so unlike him, I didn’t think he was in the car. We got to the shelter and had no idea what we would do. We felt so vulnerable, like I had my hands tied, seeing the stress level of my kids and nothing I could do about it. My husband and I tried to hide our emotions but when we were evacuated my daughter drew a picture of our happy family and told me, “I want to see you happy, Mommy.”
We were so fortunate that our home and our family members’ homes did not burn. I was telling my co-workers today how hard it is to be homeless when you have small children. When the evacuation was lifted and we were finally able to drive home, we arrived in Calistoga and my daughter started clapping. We were all so happy.
PASTOR, THE LIVING WORD CHAPEL, FIRE EVACUATION CENTER, NOVATO
Monday was my day off, so that morning I was getting ready to take my son to high school in Rincon Valley when I received a text from my in-laws. That was when we checked the news and realized Rincon Valley might not even be there. Within short order, we wrapped our head around what was going on, particularly when we saw the travel time from Santa Rosa to Novato, which told us the enormity of what was going on as far as evacuations. That was my big clue: they were coming and would need a place to stay. We’ve got space at Living Word, so I thought, well, we’ll turn it into a hotel. I got in the car and went to the parking lot at Vintage Oaks, by Costco and Target, and confirmed my suspicion that that was where people were congregating. So, I handed out every card we had, and I began inviting people to come stay with us. My son and his friend were back in the church and began clearing classrooms, and we had our sanctuary, which was ready to go, and then we put a sign out on the sidewalk. It just said Fire Relief with a red arrow.
When I got back from Vintage Oaks, what was following me into the parking lot was almost a caravan of people who were already coming with donations of supplies for the evacuees. We had several tables filled with supplies within an hour-and-a-half, overflowing, so we were very prepared. Wow, it was just very humbling to reflect on that.
That first night we had 34 folks, and the next night it was 40, and then it peaked on Wednesday with 70. Volunteers would come and say, “How can I help?” and if I didn’t have anything for them to do at the moment I’d say, “Stick around five minutes and you’ll be busy.” Or I’d say, “Do you have kids? Well, bring ’em and let them play.” We had kids running around laughing, because kids do that, and it was good medicine for everybody.
I never used the term victim with the evacuees. I saw on their faces, they were men and women who have a great work ethic and wanted to jump in too. They were cleaning and folding, emptying the garbage. Then it turned into mowing the grass and landscaping. There was one tree that really needed pruning. They helped run the shelter.
The hardest thing was knowing my neighbors were struggling with so much loss. But at the same time, we had created a peace-filled place where they felt safe and had a sense of refuge.
It was about 2:30 a.m. on Monday, October 9, when my 16-year-old daughter texted me from her bedroom down the hall. She said that our dog was growling. Our dog doesn’t growl, and I felt a shot of adrenaline. Then I smelled the smoke. On my way to her room, I passed the back patio door and saw that the entire eastern horizon was glowing, bright red with bursts of orange flames every time the wind gusted. And the winds were ferocious! The wall of fire on the ridge traveled as far south toward Santa Rosa as I could see. I can only describe my reaction as one of helpless terror. There was no stopping those flames if they came our way. Later I would learn that this was the Tubbs Fire.
I spent the rest of the night with my family staring at the fire, ready in case it roared down the hill toward us. There was nothing between us and Tubbs except dry vineyards and trees. In hindsight, we should have packed up the cars that night, but my mind was in overdrive. All I could think was that our stuff didn’t matter if we were dead. My husband began spraying our roof, our barn and the surrounding grass with water. We have two horses, two dogs, and three outdoor cats, and I knew we’d have to leave the cats behind to fend for themselves. My biggest concern regarding evacuating was the horses. I had no idea where I’d take them. Most shelters don’t take livestock either. Besides that, I only had half a tank of gas in my rig, and I wasn’t sure how far we’d have to travel if we left. It was all very distressing. We decided that staying home to fight the fire was the best decision for the horses. Thankfully, the winds did not blow the Tubbs Fire down the hill.
We have many friends and several members of our Santa Rosa Pony Club group who lost their homes, horse gear and horse trailers. It’s difficult to see others suffering. It was also difficult to live with the terror for the next several days after Tubbs started. Every time I received a Nixle text, I felt a whisper of panic. Being surrounded by fires that remained at zero percent containment for half the week was awful.
We’re grateful to be safe and able to help others. We also took in some adorable goats from Geyserville that were threatened by the Pocket Fire. In this time when our country feels so divided, it’s been heartening to see that when trouble comes, help comes. We’re not divided when it comes to our humanity. People are good.
This article originally appeared in Marin Magazine’s print edition with the headline: “Fire Stories”.