An On-the-Ground Account of the California Wildfires

Contributing Editor and resident Virginie Boone details her first-hand account of the toll fires are taking on her family, community and the wine industry.
The ruins of houses destroyed by the Tubbs Fire are seen near Fountaingrove Parkway on October 14, 2017 in Santa Rosa, California. At least 40 people are confirmed dead with hundreds still missing. Officials expect the death toll to rise, and now estimate that 5,700 structures have been destroyed. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

This report was filed Monday, October 16, 2017, over a week since the outbreak of the Northern California wildfires.

It was incredibly windy by the time we went to bed on Sunday night, in our house in the town of Kenwood, which lies between Santa Rosa to the north and Sonoma to the south.

The wind whipped so hard and fierce that our 12-year-old son came into our room around midnight, scared that a tree could fall on our house. The thought hadn’t escaped us either.

So we were in and out of fitful sleep when we heard our neighbor’s voice from below our bedroom, trying desperately to wake us up. We bolted to open a screen door where we could hear her, assuming a tree had indeed fallen on her house or ours.

No. She was there to warn us that a fire had broken out across Highway 12 and it was moving fast. She implored us to get out.

We weren’t able to smell smoke yet, but still didn’t hesitate. Not helping matters was the fact that our power had gone out. We struggled with our cell phone flashlights to gather ourselves, two dogs, a cat, passports, computers, toiletries and whatever else we could manage. My son grabbed his backpack and I did the same.

Nothing I can write can possibly convey the scope of the devastation physically, mentally and geographically. This part of Northern California will be forever changed and countless lives broken and needing to be rebuilt.

It’s easier to forget what you need than what you don’t when you’re in full-on panic mode. I managed to take a tub of Nutella I saw on the counter but never thought for a second about needing a bra. I somehow remembered a handful or two of dog food, but in the hurry left their collars behind.

The wind was whipping so fast I thought a tree would fall on me as we stuffed our two cars full of whatever would fit. As we hurried, I could see an orange glow just up the hillside from our driveway as well as across the valley on the highway and to the south and to the north. It was everywhere.

Cars started streaming downhill on our road, a mass exodus. Soon enough the bullhorns blasted, “Evacuate now, evacuate now, get out now.” Thank god we were ready. We headed downhill to Highway 12 and turned north, to my mom’s house in the nearby community of Oakmont. We knew nowhere else to go.

As my son and I sprinted about, my husband managed to reach the chicken coop and rescue our seven birds from their sleepy perch, stuffing them into a box in his car.

We settled everyone nervously in Oakmont, as rumors of evacuation there swirled. We tried to sleep, or at least gather some strength, as texts started coming in from friends near and far. Many offered shelter, help, anything. It already seemed unreal.

We escaped to downtown Santa Rosa, driving slowly along the underside of Fountaingrove Parkway as it actively burned.

Cars kept driving around honking as we wondered where we’d go next. As dawn broke, and we could see fire in the hillsides to the south, to the east and increasingly to the west just above us, the bullhorns came blasting again.

And so we did it all again, everything we had taken with us stuffed quickly back into the cars, and headed north once more. We bolted to a friend’s place nearby, until smoke and fire began to encroach again.

Next, we escaped to downtown Santa Rosa, driving slowly along the underside of Fountaingrove Parkway as it actively burned. Fountaingrove is now almost completely gone. My son’s best friend lived there. His house? Gone. Another schoolmate’s family had moved in that weekend, spent one night, and now their house is gone as well.

Those stories continue nonstop and it’s hard to take. We continue to be evacuated but have heard our house might, just might, still stand. There’s charred earth all around it. Fires continue. It all could change any moment. We can’t get near it.

Friends as far as Calistoga, Santa Rosa and Glen Ellen have lost everything. More than 30 families in my son’s school alone have lost their homes, representing at least 150-some people displaced. His school is not unique.

And, of course, there’s the winery side of the tragedy. As has been reported, wineries in Napa and Sonoma are gone, from Signorello Estate along the Silverado Trail in Napa to Paradise Ridge Winery in the new Fountaingrove AVA in Santa Rosa.

As if to demonstrate universe’s sick sense of humor, I’d actually had a tasting arranged for this week at Signorello. I’d never been there.

How to Help Victims of the Fires in Northern California

Lesser-known stories are the ones about vineyard crews that were out picking as the smoke started to build; they all had to evacuate, too. Many lost homes, as well. There are the warehouse wineries and smaller wineries up and down both appellations, where small producers without a lot of capital make so many of the wines we love and respect. Many of them need to get back into their spaces to keep making the wines and maintain their livelihood, but are not all being allowed back in.

Karissa Kruse, the president of Sonoma County Winegrowers, lost her home on Sunday night. Still, she issued this statement yesterday.

“As we end the work week, we are encouraged to know that greater containment of the fires is occurring throughout the region. While the devastation is beginning to add up, I do take pride in hearing reports from firefighters that vineyards throughout Sonoma County have been credited with serving as firebreaks time and time again.

“We are strong people; we will move forward. Please do not give up on Wine Country. Your support for our businesses, wines and people is needed more now than ever before.”

Nothing I can write can possibly convey the scope of the devastation physically, mentally and geographically. This part of Northern California will be forever changed and countless lives broken and needing to be rebuilt.

At the same time, the care and concern from near and far are encouraging and real, the work of fire, police and others intense and courageous. This is far from over, with many regions remaining or newly under siege, from Alexander Valley and Sonoma Valley to Oakville and Rutherford.

As I write this, new evacuation orders have been put in place overnight, a double mandatory evacuation at this point for some of us. All I can say for now is, let the winds be on our side.

Published on October 16, 2017
Topics: California
About the Author
Virginie Boone
Contributing Editor

Reviews wines from California.

Contributing Editor Virginie Boone has been with Wine Enthusiast since 2010, and reviews the wines of Napa and Sonoma. Boone began her writing career with Lonely Planet travel guides, which eventually led to California-focused wine coverage. She contributes to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat and Sonoma Magazine, and is a regular panelist and speaker on wine topics in California and beyond. Email: vboone@wineenthusiast.net



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