Three of the five thousand to whom we are grateful! (Courtesy: Facebook)
Sandra and I are back home — safe, warm and grateful. For anyone reading this who may not know what we’re grateful for, it’s this: Despite what looked for a time like pretty unfavorable odds, Northern California’s Kincade Fire did NOT burn our home to the ground.
At their closest, on the night of Tuesday–Wednesday, Oct. 29–30, the flames came to within about a mile of our house. For the fact that our home is still standing, unscathed and unscorched, we owe thanks beyond measure to the five thousand tireless, tenacious firefighters — some from as far away as Utah, Idaho, Washington State and South Dakota! — who held the line and kept the fire from densely populated neighborhoods in Windsor, Calif., where we live,* and neighboring Healdsburg.
Map showing the southwestern limit of the fire in Windsor. Burned area is shown in tan. The flames came to within a mile of our home, marked with a red dot. (Courtesy: PressDemocrat.com)
Fire scar (lower left) just above homes bordering Foothill Regional Park (near the top of the map above this photo). (Courtesy: Tom Rennie)
We’re also grateful that the wind assisted the firefighters by failing to blow as hard that night as predicted. Like so many other California wildfires, the Kincade blaze was propelled by hurricane-strength winds that, at their peak, gusted at over 100 miles (160 km) an hour. On Tuesday evening, when we went to bed in the Sunnyvale, Calif., home of Sandra’s sister Dorcas (thank you for your wonderful hospitality!), we were greatly concerned that a predicted fresh burst of high winds could carry the flames right into our neighborhood and incinerate our home. But when we awoke on Wednesday, we learned that the wind had blown much more gently, helping the firefighters keep the flames at bay. That afternoon the wind died down altogether, and we learned that together with most of those in mandatory evacuation zones — nearly 200,000 people — we could return home.
Firefighting from the air (Courtesy: Facebook)
We got back on Friday after a two-hour drive north from Sunnyvale and found that although our electrical service had already been restored, we were not yet reconnected to the natural gas network. That meant that the house was cold (about 50°F/10°C), we had no hot water and we couldn’t cook. Fortunately, in a wonderful parade of utility trucks, amber lights flashing, the hard-working natural gas technicians from Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) fanned out through our neighborhood well after sunset. A friendly, bearded tech came to our door at about 9 p.m., turned on the gas and lit the pilot lights on our furnace, stove and water heater. When I remarked to him that he and his colleagues must be putting in a lot of overtime hours, he told me the extra pay was not remotely as gratifying as helping people feel warm and get back on their feet again — a touching conclusion to a long day. Sandra and I then enjoyed a warm, untroubled night’s sleep.
Thank you, firefighter and gas tech angels! Thank you also to the many friends and family members who let us know by phone, email and social media of their concern for our safety. We love you all!
Firefighters came from all over California and far beyond. In one online comment I saw, a local resident waving thank-you-and-goodbye to departing fire crews reported seeing a fire engine from Sioux Falls, S.D. (Courtesy: Facebook)
That’s the end of the story … here’s the beginning
The fire broke out a week and a half ago, Wednesday evening, Oct. 23, near Geyserville. While the town is only about 15 miles north of here by road, we didn’t think to consult a map and imagined the blaze was an unworrying 20 or more miles away. Actually, as I write this and finally take a good look at the map, it turns out that the fire began just 11 miles from our home. With the winds pushing it south and west, it’s no wonder that it soon threatened Healdsburg and Windsor. For the fire’s first couple of days, however, the danger seemed remote. So we were quite surprised when, at about 10 o’clock Saturday morning, the 26th, we were told that we were in a mandatory evacuation zone and would have to leave by 4 p.m. (As a subsequent map of the fire’s progress made clear, the conflagration galloped south on the 27th, and it was the forecasters’ awareness of this likely development that triggered the extensive evacuations. In fact, in a Nov. 3 interview [which I spotted online only on Nov. 5] Windsor’s mayor, Dominic Foppoli, said “we were told within almost 100% certainty that we were going to lose our entire town.”)
Smoky sunrise as seen from our living room on Saturday, the day we were told to evacuate. (Photo: Sandra Kelley)
Overview of the area. The Kincade Fire is shown in tan a little north of Santa Rosa. Our home is about seven miles north of Santa Rosa (and 60 miles north of San Francisco), in the narrow strip between the southwest edge of the fire and Route 101 (shown in heavy red). (Courtesy: Google)
Sandra and I gathered a few things together and left the house at about 2. The road was a slow-rolling southbound “parking lot,” but I headed out into the countryside and took back roads first west and then south till we could drive mostly traffic-free to our daughter Melissa’s house in Santa Rosa. A normal 10–15 minute trip took us over an hour. But the roads, past the gold and red of vineyards in autumn, were quite scenic.
Expecting to stay with Melissa and her family, we were again surprised to get a series of announcements through the evening and into the wee morning hours that the mandatory evacuation zone was quickly moving south. When the voluntary evacuation line got to within a mile of Melissa’s house, shortly before 5 a.m., we decided it was time to head for Dorcas’s home, about 100 miles farther south. Traffic was crawling on the freeway, but we got there by lunchtime.
Dorcas was a wonderful host, and we all — four adults, one six-year-old, a puppy, a kitten and a sometimes-grumpy older cat — had a very pleasant stay with her. Granddaughter Amarie had a great Halloween in Sunnyvale. Son-in-law Julian commuted several times back and forth to Santa Rosa, where he was needed as a senior staff member at a local hospital that was partially evacuated. I managed to get some Pen-for-Rent work done.
Dorcas’s hospitality notwithstanding, we were all happy to leave for home on Friday morning, Nov. 1.
Actually, though, our story began even earlier
Needless to say, we hardly anticipated the sort of week we just experienced. In fact, we’d long been planning to have our son Adam and his wife Jodi with us last weekend. Jodi was going to be in San Francisco on business during the week, and she’d also made plans to take part in a relay race that was scheduled to begin in San Francisco on Friday, Oct. 25, cross the Golden Gate Bridge, wind through Marin, Sonoma and Napa counties, and end in the town of Napa on Saturday afternoon. Jodi would be carrying the baton for three legs of the race, two of them in the dark on Friday evening and before dawn on Saturday. One of her teammates would actually be running right past our house at around 4 a.m. Adam was planning to fly out on Friday to hang out with us and join us in our car as we chased Jodi and her team through Wine Country.
On Thursday, however, the race was called off. In light of the advancing fire, many of the police who would have been deployed along the route to keep runners safe were being redeployed to provide security in the evacuation zones.
My first instinct was to ask Jodi and Adam if they wanted to visit anyway and “toast some marshmallows,” but they wisely declined my invitation. Jodi headed home to the Washington, D.C., area, and Adam stayed put. And a good thing it was, too, since if they’d been here, it would have greatly complicated our evacuation.
So that’s our story. Not from beginning to end, but the other way around. And here’s the cherry on top of our tale: On Tuesday, Sandra’s birthday, the best present she will have will be something she can’t unwrap: the home we’ve come back to.
It could have been toast. It wasn’t. We’ll be raising a toast to that!
* Our postal address is in Santa Rosa, Calif., but our home is actually about a mile inside the nearby town of Windsor. I’m told that the reason for this anomaly is that when Windsor was incorporated as a town in 1992 and (presumably at about the same time) acquired its own ZIP code, the residents of the small retirement community in which we live appealed to the U.S. Postal Service to preserve its previous Santa Rosa address and ZIP status to ensure that Social Security checks would not somehow go astray if this modest group of homes were to be designated as located in Windsor. So, while our mail is directed to Santa Rosa, in municipal elections we vote with our neighbors in Windsor.