There are few things that instill a more primal fear than a raging wildfire bearing down on your town.
The Napa and Sonoma County fires quickly became ferocious infernos that threatened life and property in the California wine country and in neighboring Lake and Mendocino counties.
Fire is also one of the great equalizers – it doesn’t matter if you own a small cottage like ours or a winery with hundreds of acres of pristine vineyards because everyone feels the same heart racing, stomach churning sense of panic when their home (and in many cases, their livelihood) is in peril.
A friend text messaged me at 5:00 am Monday morning asking if I had “gotten out” of Sonoma yet. I had no idea what she was talking about, but just as I started to ask myself why she would send such a cryptic message, I could begin to smell the smoke. Still half asleep, I opened the front door and the stench was overpowering. I was sure that there had to be a fire on our block, but eerily there were no house lights on, no wail of sirens in the distance, and no flames to be seen.
I woke my husband up. “There’s a fire somewhere – and it’s close. Get up and get dressed.”
He was as baffled as I was about the intense smoke but no other signs of fire. A sense of impending doom was impossible to shake as we turned on the news.
We saw images of a wall of fire along the Silverado trail and hearing first responders saying the words “out of control” and “our immediate focus is only on saving lives” made it clear that we weren’t dealing with a late season brush fire that the local fire department could handle in an hour or two.
While Napa County might appear on a map to be a comfortable distance away from Sonoma, the majestic Mayacamas mountains between the two counties affords fire a largely defenseless pass from Napa County into neighboring Sonoma County – especially when aided by high winds carrying red hot embers.
Desperate for information after we left for San Francisco, we turned to our Next Door email list and then to Facebook and Twitter. It didn’t take long before we realized that a local writer, Sarah Stierch, was all-in on staying on top of the rapidly-changing situation (quite often at her own risk) and sharing updates that we literally couldn’t get anywhere else. I vow to track her down at a later date and give her a big hug and I’m sure that I’ll have to take my place in line.
From Sarah’s feed I also began following Sam Coturri of Winery Sixteen 600 on social media. Even though we have never met, I felt emotionally invested in the effort his family was taking to save their property – and the genuine concern they had for the welfare of their neighbors and others while they were under a terrifying assault of their own homes and vineyards.
There is that saying about hearing things “through the grapevine” that refers to old-fashioned person-to-person communication. While our modern society generally turns to mass notifications to relay disaster information, neighbors directly sharing reliable information that they witnessed with their own eyes was a God-send during this tragic fire.
Also immediately inspiring and comforting was seeing people help each other with seemingly small things – extra walkers or wheelchairs not being used, sharing generators, offering beds, food and showers to the displaced – including a temporary home for 3 chickens. As the hours and days passed, we heard of people risking their own safety by taking the time to wake their neighbors when seconds could have meant the difference between life and death, people working to save each others homes with garden hoses and bucket brigades, and people picking up terrified animals from the side of the road to keep them safe until they could be reunited with their owners.
Because the best way, the right way, and the only way is to take care of each other first.
There is no doubt that the Sonoma and Napa Valleys will not only recover but will rebuild and will remain the supportive and resilient communities they have always been. Media photos can make it seem that the entire area is charred beyond recognition but there’s an amazing abundance of natural beauty to experience. Support our recovery efforts and our local business communities by buying Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino county wines (wine is a perfect gift – my holiday shopping will be much simpler this year).
Even if you are not a wine lover, our little part of the world offers myriad ways to be close to nature, Michelin star and farm-to-table dining, accommodations ranging from quaint to extravagant, hiking, sublime subjects for photography, art galleries, opportunities to explore California history, and of course, world-class hospitality.
Here was the gorgeous view today as we drove on Arnold Drive into Sonoma:
Wine Country is alive, open for business and always welcoming. Come visit!