Travel Journal No. 12: The Wine Country Fires of 2017

“I’ll be right back,” I said as I poked my head into our Calistoga home’s bedroom just before 10 p.m. on Oct. 8, 2017.

My wife was in bed reading. She looked up.

“Where are you going at this hour with all your camera gear?” she asked. “More star photos?”

“No, not stars — I just want to check something out — I won’t be long,” I said vaguely, hoping she would not push for more information.

Moments before when I’d been outside I had smelled smoke and noticed an orange glow through the trees to the north.

 “OK, please be safe,” she said.

I patted our dog, Sam.

“Not this time, boy — not sure what I’m going to find out there.”

He collapsed back onto the carpet with a sigh.

A wall of smoke and flames

When I opened the front door a wave of wind and smoke rushed toward me. The orange-yellow glow had grown and was pulsing against the dark sky like a misplaced sunrise. I jumped into my truck and headed north from Calistoga along Highway 128 toward Tubbs Lane. As I approached the fire I slowed. The flames and smoke leapt hundreds of feet into the air from the nearby hillside and moved with such ferocity and speed that I pulled over and started making phone calls to my friends in the immediate area.

“You OK?” I’d ask when they answered. Their response was either explaining how they were frantically fleeing an inferno or being completely unaware that flames were in some cases nearly lapping at their door.

 The air crackled with the sound of fire and broken branches from the hot, near-hurricane-force winds as they whipped and twisted. With my phone in one hand I used the other to film the unbelievable scene as the fire spread a few hundred yards eastwardly, moving at an astonishing pace, embers leaping vast distances and then instantly bursting into flames in the dry underbrush or a tree’s branches.

After calls to everyone I could think of in the area I filmed as firetrucks entered the hellish scene. Through their windows the yellow-gear-clad first responders looked resolute. I packed up my gear and headed back to the house.

“Lynn, we have to go,” I said as I came through the door. “There’s a fire near Tubbs and.…”

She had smelled the smoke, too, and was already preparing to leave.

Packing bags in the middle of the night

It is odd what you bring when you’re fleeing a disaster. A friend told me all he grabbed was an old jazz record, another her mother’s wedding ring. Pets, a few clothes, phones, computers, a photo. I refused to take anything special, believing somehow that doing so might doom our home. I’ll be back soon, I said as we each packed a small bag of clothes and corralled the cat into a travel crate. With our pets in tow and a few belongings we jumped into our cars and sped down Highway 29.

As we travelled south new fires seemed to spring up along the way, and by the time we reached Yountville the Atlas Peak fire that had started earlier in Napa had already spread north, clearly visible in a jagged red line of explosive flames. I pulled off the highway onto Yountmill Road, hoping to reconnect with my wife and decide our next course of action.

“Why did we pull over?” she asked as she rolled down her window.

Her expression looked as if she were shell-shocked, numb.

“I think we might be able to wait it out here for a couple of hours and then head back home,” I said. “I am sure the fires will be out by then.”

She looked at me as if I were insane.

“Why don’t we just get somewhere safe and maybe get a hotel for the night or even head to visit our children in Los Angeles for a couple of days?” she asked.

 “I can’t go right now,” I stammered. “I feel like I need to stay. Maybe we can help.”

My wife and I have been together since we were 18. I instantly know by her expression when one of my requests has been vetoed. She looked at me, her gaze intense but not yet decided. She was wavering, too, torn by the desire to leave and the desire to stay and somehow help the valley where we’d both grown up.

“Let’s just spend a couple of hours here where it’s safe and then see how things look in the morning,” she finally said. “We can sleep in our cars on the side of the road. And you can take your pictures,” she added knowingly.

That night I didn’t sleep but instead took time-lapse photos as the flames spread along the eastern hills of the Napa Valley. I was mesmerized by the awful beauty and heartsick and worried about the thousands of people affected. When I tried to call, email or text, my phone service didn’t respond.

Heading back home in smoke

When the sun rose we agreed to head back to Calistoga and assess the damage. Given our experience with a few fires in the past, we believed the risk was almost certainly past. When we arrived back home the air was smoky, but it seemed manageable. According to the word on the street, the fire was under control. The power remained out and the cellphones were still not working, but we assumed both would flicker back to life soon enough. We unpacked, to the delight of our cat, Gnocchi, ate some of the thawing food in the freezer and then lay down for a nap.

Four hours later we woke to choking smoke and a crowd of neighbors gathering on our street, each bringing new bits of insight — “Parts of Santa Rosa are gone,” one said, and “I’ve heard all the roads out are blocked,” another added. With no news or phone service we could take nothing for granted and decided again to try our luck and head south.

Eventually, after another day of back and forth, my wife left for Los Angeles to stay with our daughter. A day later, after the mandatory evacuation order, I headed south to join them.

Leaving my valley

As I drove out of Calistoga the smoke was so thick that everyone in town wore particle masks over their faces. All of those still left behind, from normal citizens to the brave first-responders, displayed expressions of fierce determination to protect their town and their valley, but each person also exuded a generosity and friendliness that is rare in everyday life. The kindness and spirit of sharing was as if the entire region had become a tight-knit family, all determined to protect their shared homeland.

Leaving the valley was hard, and I remained antsy until I returned as soon as the evacuation was lifted. We decided that my wife would stay down south with the pets and I would head back home to continue my reporting, photography and help where I could.

When I returned to the valley late on Oct. 15 the roads were nearly empty and the hills still glowed with remaining fires. We had seen the ongoing devastation on the news in LA, but I was shocked to still see raging fires nearly a week after they’d begun.

The strength of our community

Over the next few weeks I traveled the region, doing my best to capture the horror of the destruction but also the amazing spirit and strength of our community. I found myself often touched to the point of tears when I’d meet people sifting through the ashes of their home, overjoyed to find a single intact memory such as a toy truck or carved stone trinket. My heart sank many times when I’d turn a corner and find a charred animal in the woods, imagining the fear and anguish of all those that died. At times I stood trembling after I’d sent my drone above a burned-out region, horrified by the devastation yet somehow finding an awesome beauty hidden within the destruction, a single seed sprouting or an ash-covered doe and buck licking one another in a thicket of blackened Manzanita.

The images and memories of the extreme level of destruction are already fading. Even those who have lost their loved ones, homes, animals and jobs are seeing signs that suggest the possibility of moving on, beginning the long task of rebuilding. There will be challenges ahead for many, and the scars of these tragic events will last for generations, but I won’t forget the resiliency and resolve that I witnessed during the Wine Country Fires of 2017.