Santa Rosa Firestorm

Burned-out ruins of Cricklewood restaurant (see below)

For us, it all began with a 3 a.m. text message from our daughter Melissa. Actually, it was about 6 a.m. on Monday, Oct. 9, where Sandra and I were, but 3 o’clock in California, where Melissa was. She, her husband Julian, daughter Amarie and two dogs had already fled their home in Santa Rosa, driven out by the heavy smoke from the rapidly advancing fires. They’d stopped at a shelter in Petaluma, about 25 miles to the south, to send a message to us and other close family members, so we wouldn’t worry when we awoke and heard the news about the fires raging all over Sonoma and Napa counties and beyond.

Sandra and I were 2,000 miles to the east, visiting our other kids and grandkids, when I heard my phone buzzing on the nightstand at the home of our daughter Naomi and her family in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It was still dark. “Who could be trying to reach us at this hour?” I wondered. That was the first we heard of the wildfires – the largest ever in California history – that are still not fully contained and by now have ravaged communities in Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and Solano counties, burning over 195,000 acres (an area larger than all of New York City!), causing at least 42 deaths and destroying nearly 7,800 structures, most of them private homes.

Sandra and I had left home five days before the fires broke out late Sunday night, Oct. 8. We were on a 15-day trip not only to visit kids and grandkids but also to attend the 55th reunion of my high school’s graduating class, about which I wrote on this blog last week.

For most of the ensuing 10 days, while we remained in Michigan and then flew to the home of our son Adam and his family in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., we remained glued to our iPhones, looking for news of the fire and poring over the ever-changing online maps of evacuation zones and the fire front to see if its advance would engulf our home too. On the first night, freak hurricane-force winds had propelled the fires down mountainsides and into heavily populated areas.

It came close.
A few days after the outbreak, neighbors with whom we spoke by phone told us they’d been notified they should be ready to evacuate at any time. Some had left in advance of the dreaded order to abandon their homes. Fortunately, the call never came, although the fires got to within about a mile and a half of our house. That, however, was not the wildfire itself, but a backfire in a nearby field that firefighters had ignited, when the wind was blowing in a favorable direction, in an effort to clear away brush and dry grass that could fuel the advance of the conflagration toward our neighborhood when the winds again reversed and began blowing toward our homes.

At a point when the danger seemed to have temporarily abated, Julian – who had returned to Santa Rosa to help out at the mental health facility where he works – drove to our place to retrieve important papers and a few other items we hoped to avoid losing if the fire claimed the house. And to pick up our cat, Shadow, whom we’d left in the care of neighbors. His report was frightening: “There was a fire near a ridgeline southeast of my location. Gridlock on the roads is a factor too. There was confusion about the news being reported online. Local residents didn’t know it was a controlled burn. That problem has happened at least twice. Looting has been reported, so everyone is on edge about anyone [like Julian himself!] entering a home to ‘rescue’ things.”

As for his own place of employment, Julian added, “We almost had to evacuate the place last night. 150+ patients, 57 of them severely mentally ill. Ugh. Epic disaster here.”

Julian and Melissa hadn’t stayed long at the shelter where they’d initially stopped after hurriedly leaving home. It was very smoky in Petaluma too, so they headed much further south to the home of my sister-in-law Dorcas in Sunnyvale, close to San Jose in Silicon Valley. There, Melissa and Amarie remained for the better part of a week, together with their dogs Charley and Sadie, cat Mike and (after a few days) our cat. The two felines had to be housed in separate rooms to avoid an … ahem … cat fight. At one point, however, Melissa reported that Shadow spotted her reflection in a mirror and became incensed, spitting, hissing and bristling, much to everyone’s amusement.


The widespread destruction affected a great many acquaintances. Just three and a half miles from our house, our friends Lynette McGee and Michael O’Brien lost not only their home but their livelihood, the popular Cricklewood restaurant – our favorite dining establishment – upstairs from which their apartment had been located.

Cricklewood, burned out

Just before leaving on our trip east, I had finished editing the fall issue of Sonoma Medicine, the publication of the Sonoma County Medical Association. The latest word from SCMA is that over 200 Sonoma County physicians alone lost their homes in the fire. These include the chairman of the SCMA editorial board, Dr. Jeff Sugarman, who with his wife Lisa, had recently hosted a retirement party for the magazine’s longtime editor, Steve Osborn, at their magnificent ridgetop home – now just a ruin.

In the days following the fire’s outbreak, Melissa, who teaches in the highly regarded nursing program at Santa Rosa Junior College, was keeping track of the many faculty and student friends and acquaintances who had also lost their homes. She tells us she stopped counting at “three dozen that I personally know and love” who “have lost everything. Everything.” It was more than she could take.

Sandra and I, back home since Wednesday evening, are counting our blessings and mourning with those who have lost so much.

2 replies
  1. TJ Kelley
    TJ Kelley says:

    Well done, Howard. Thanks.Those who’ve been through it…know. Although evacuated twice in my life (the first as a child from Painted Cave in SB), and convinced I’d lost my home in the second evacuation until receiving the good news, days later, the home had survived, I guess I can only say I ‘sorta know’. But that’s close enough.


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