In October of 2017, Napa and Sonoma were ravaged by wildfires that destroyed nearly 8,500 homes as well as several wineries and other businesses. Lives were lost and many communities thrown into upheaval. The first week of the fires, I posted the article below about what it felt like to be living in the middle of this surreal chaos, not knowing whether our home was safe or in line to be destroyed. One of the great survival mechanisms we have as humans is that we forget bad things almost immediately – they fade quickly and melt into our distant memories and seem like they happened so long ago. October 2017, however, feels like yesterday in many ways and will not be soon forgotten.
As most everyone knows, it has been a devastating four days in Napa Valley and neighboring Sonoma County. Devastating wildfires have raged through our communities since late Sunday night, initially driven by winds that gusted at nearly 70 miles per hour. At 1:30 a.m. Monday, the sound of someone banging on the front door and repeatedly ringing the doorbell wrenched me awake. It turned out to be our neighbor, her eyes wide and frantic, letting me know that two fires were burning on either side of the neighborhood.
One of the fires burned out quickly but the other, the Partrick Fire, continues to burn and Cal Fire shows its containment, almost 90 hours later, at 2% containment. Fortunately for us, the wind changed direction around 2 a.m. on Monday and headed west into Sonoma County. Unfortunately for us, two other fires merged together (Nuns and Norrbom) and are currently burning on Mount Veeder, a nice hilly walk we like to take from our house. Flames from this fire are about five miles from the house and either no threat at all or a severe threat, depending on what happens with the wind. A northerly wind would drive the blaze down Mount Veeder right into homes in Napa’s Brown’s Valley neighborhood. Those of us whose homes are intact are extremely grateful but the strain of not knowing what will happen in the coming hours and days is fraying nerves all across wine country.
Helping to make this time easier to manage has been the visible and palpable sense of community, caring and empathy from neighbors and local businesses. In our neighborhood we are all looking out for each other, sharing information when we have it and making sure that everyone is ready for evacuation if it comes to that. But it is the concern and community of strangers that is most touching; small acts of decency have made each day a little bit more palatable. For the first 24 to 36 hours, many of us had no power at home and all of Napa Valley’s cell communications were knocked out, making it difficult to get information and stay connected with friends and family. During this day and a half, most restaurants and supermarkets were closed.
In our neighborhood, though, one restaurant did say open and served as a haven for hundreds of people seeking a hot meal and, just maybe, a WiFi connection: Hop Creek Tavern. When I showed up to the restaurant it was overflowing with customers and the prospect of getting seating for one seemed very remote. However, the owner came over and asked if I minded being seated with a stranger and I shared a table for a while with one of the regulars. When he left, I offered part of the table to a group of three who, as it turned out, had just lost their home as a result of the Atlas Peak fire. Unbelievably, they were warm and lovely company and we actually laughed a little bit. When I left Hop Creek I was in dire need of WiFi and noticed a crowd standing outside of the tiny Brown’s Valley Yogurt & Espresso Bar. “Are they giving away free coffee or something,” I asked someone in the crowd. “Better,” he told me, “their WiFi is working and they are sharing their password with the community.” For a few minutes I was able to reach out to loved ones and catch up on the latest fire news. This gesture may seem like nothing but to those of us that felt isolated and out of touch it really meant something.
As I ventured into downtown this morning in search of coffee I was upset to see that another java favorite, Napa Valley Coffee, was closed. On the door they posted this sign:
When the smoke finally clears, there will be dozens, if not hundreds, of stories – large and small – of neighbors sharing hoses to water down their homes, building fire trenches together, sheltering pets, and just generally looking out for each other.
As always, the first responders (police, fire, paramedic) have risen to the challenge of managing nearly one dozen fires across more than 100 square miles. One of our neighbors shared a link to the police scanner, which has turned out one of our most important resources for finding out what is happening in an environment of rapidly shifting risks. It was heartbreaking listening to the exchanges between responders in the field and central dispatch wondering when they would be relieved after working eighteen straight hours.
As I write this, there is no clear end in sight for those of us that live in Napa and Sonoma. Throughout the extended San Francisco Bay area, the air is thick with smoke but of course nowhere worse than here. Since Monday morning the sun has appeared to us eclipsed by smoke, either not visible at all or an eerie orange ball.
We have been exposed to brush and wild fires many times in the past but these fires present unique challenges we have not seen before. For starters, Napa Valley is bordered by fires on all sides leaving our wine country hemmed in on all sides. Second, the winds in Napa Valley shift frequently which has caused fires to literally change direction 180 degrees within a matter of hours. Fires that started in Napa and were wind-driven to Sonoma are now back in Napa again due to shifting winds. Third, the fires are spread over such a large area – and one that consists of steep and rugged mountains – that establishing defensive fire lines is more than tricky. At this point, most of the major fires are only 5% contained – after nearly 96 hours of firefighting. Napa’s Chief of Police commented at a community meeting yesterday that if the fires were fully contained within three weeks he would consider that “amazing.” In his view, it could be months before we reach full containment. If so, our community’s patience and empathy will be stretched further until we see this situation through to the end. My hope is that the feeling of community and humanity we’ve seen this week will linger; not all of it, that would be too much to hope for, but perhaps some of it.
As always, our first responders have outdone themselves with their level of commitment, courage and dedication to handling these many, far-flung blazes. One of our neighbors shared with us a link to an online site that allows us to listen to the live police scanner. Access to real-time emergency communications has been an extremely useful tool during days when information is scarce, often stale, and even contradictory. It was heartbreaking listening to the scanner on the second day of the wild fires and hearing exhausted personnel asking if relief was coming as they had worked for eighteen straight hours. There is never enough thanks to give to those that put their lives on the line to save us, our homes, our pets. But we saw a sign painted by some kids and hanging on a fence in our neighborhood that summed up our feelings.
Our community, our Napa Valley, has suffered loss of life, loss of property, and loss of livelihood. As we talk with our neighbors and new friends, though, we are struck by their unwillingness to let these fires and their impact take away their hopes and dreams. for the future. One of the very first wineries impacted by the fires Sunday night/Monday morning was Signorello Estate on Napa’s Silverado Trail.
Today on the winery’s Facebook page Ray Signorello said this, in part: “Today, the most important thing is that all 25 of our employees are safe. Pierre and I were finally able to access the property yesterday, and while the winery buildings themselves had essentially burned to rubble, the vineyards appeared to be in good shape—and ready to bear fruit for another 20 vintages. We can, and we will, rebuild the winery.”
Just to our west, Gundlach Bundschu, a 158-year-old winery in Sonoma County, was just barely to evacuate family living on the property before the blaze came over the hills. While the family home on the vineyard property was destroyed, their reaction has been an admirable mix of gratitude, humility, and defiance:
While the loss of the family home is hard to reckon with, the Bundschus feel fortunate that most of their property was spared. “The grieving happened on Monday,” Jeff Bundschu said. “But then, immediately, there’s this amazing gratitude.”
As in so many other parts of Wine Country right now, the line between charred and untouched is stark and sudden. You can see the precise moment where the blackened, ashy hillside yields suddenly to healthy earth — on some parts of the property, as close as 10 yards from a building.
Those buildings, after all, are veterans: They’ve survived fire before. Among those precious family archives is a letter penned by Charles Bundschu — Katie and Jeff’s great-great-grandfather — reflecting on the fires that had raged at the property after the 1906 earthquake. The winery, the guest house and the barn survived then, too.
“We’re lucky enough to have a 150-year-old rearview mirror,” Jeff Bundschu said. [Courtesy of the San Francisco Chronicle]
The Bundschu family were true pioneers, immigrants from Germany who came to the United States to be farmers. Six generations later, they carry on this legacy as they rebuild and renew their vineyards. All across Napa we know the response will be the same as Napa Valley’s wine region is also the legacy of pioneers and dreamers who believed that this little stretch of California could produce wines of such high quality to be considered among the best in the world. We may need a couple of weeks to recover, but the next time you visit Napa Valley, or Sonoma County wine country, it’ll be hard for you to believe that this community went through the things that were endured.
John & Irene Ingersoll
October 12, 2017
To see our post on Gundlach Bundschu from 2016 click here: A 158-Year-Old Family Winery