Fire! Fire! All around us!

It was 11 days prior to our departure for our 30 day trip around the world. We had been experiencing very high winds gusting to 80 mph for about 12 hours. At about 10pm we lost electricity at the house. We figured it was due to the winds and didn’t think anything more about it. Joe had to get up at about midnight to secure our side rear fence as the winds were going to push it over any minute if he hadn’t tied lines from the fence to our trees to secure it. We went back to sleep. How we fell back to sleep with the howling wind was amazing now that we look back at this.

At about 2am we were awakened out of a deep sleep with a pounding noise. Being very disoriented, we didn’t have a clue what was happening until we realized it was someone pounding and screaming at our front door. Our neighbor told us Annadel (the park right behind our community) was on fire and we should gather our things and leave.

We were woefully unprepared for this kind of an emergency. We had no internet since we had no power. We had no mobile reception since the fires had taken down the cell towers also. We lit candles and dug around in the dark of the garage for an old battery powered radio that Joe used to take with him on his trips in the 80s!

We walked out to the street and looked up to Annadel and saw it ablaze (header photo). To the right we saw this:

When we finally got the radio working we heard that fires were burning out of control in Fountain Grove. This is about 9 miles from our house but the glow made it seem like it was much closer. This fire started over in Napa and burned down to Mark Springs West, then to Fountain Grove where it burned almost 99% of the homes in this high priced neighborhood in a matter of hours before jumping the 101 freeway and taking out the K-mart and fairly large neighborhood called Coffey Park.

Looking to our left we saw the village of Kenwood fire glowing:


We spent the next couple of hours until dawn not quite sure what to do. We didn’t fully grasp the devastation that surrounded us until we had evacuated and watched some of the TV news reports. In those first hours we thought that the golf course with its large green area would protect our house from the fire. How incredibly silly of us to underestimate the power of the fire amplified by the winds that continued to blow.

By dawn when we could see something we wandered on to the golf course across the street from us to finally get a first hand look at what had happened and was going on. Certainly the fires look less ominous in the daytime than at night, as the skies were thick with smoke. Branches and huge limbs from trees were strewn all around the golf course. The apple tree in our neighbors drive split. But by far the worst thing was a massive limb snapped off from the huge oak tree on the golf course. It just missed landing on the roof of a house, but still did substantial damage as shown in the photos below. I heard the terrifying crack when the limb went in the middle of the night but couldn’t figure out what it was (I thought it might be a transformer) until the light of day.

Here’s a video of what we saw at first light:

We could have been so much more productive with our time while waiting to decide if we should voluntarily evacuate or stay in our house. We did take our hard drives, and back up drives (but not our computers). We took our passports, checkbooks, and some paperwork but not nearly what we had time to pack in to the car. The same went for our clothing for our trip. I had boxes with some of the incidental items for our trip already packed and could have easily taken our clothes, shoes, and suitcases and just thrown them in the car. But we kept on thinking if we had to evacuate it would only be for a day or two. So when the sheriffs cars came through the neighborhoods announcing we were under mandatory evacuation and everyone must leave as soon as possible. This would be no easy feat for a community of 4,500 homes to evacuate when the two exits from the community exit on to Highway 12 — a two lane road (one in each direction). We reluctantly closed up our house and headed out. The police did an incredible job moving all the residents out of our community. Police were stationed at each intersection to keep everyone flowing. No cars were allowed IN to Oakmont, only out. And they turned the 12 in to a 2 lanes of exiting traffic. It was amazing how organized and fast we were evacuated.

We split our time … which ended up being 10 days between Michael and Nancy’s and Stevie & Gerrys. Every day we were glued to the TV news and our iPads anxious for news if our house would survive the terrible nightmare that was happening. Would we see our little house again? Would we be able to take our trip? Would we need to cut it short and leave later than we had originally planned? Would we have to cancel completely? It was like living on a giant roller coaster. One morning things would look hopeless as the winds continued to blow and the fires raged out of control engulfing more and more acres out of control. And then the next morning it looked like they were improving and the firefighters were lighting backfires, and digging fire breaks with their massive tractors, only to hear that the winds picked up and the flames jumped the fire breaks and were moving closer to our community or coming together to eat up everything in their paths.

Here are two maps of just the area around us.

The first one shows the Annadel park at the bottom burning a huge area to its right is the Adobe fire which had consumed most of the towns of Glen Ellen and Kenwood the first night and continue to challenge the firefighters for days. I put an arrow where our house is. Five days in (Friday afternoon), we were getting good reports that the firefighters were starting to contain the fires and we were hoping that maybe the following morning (Saturday) we would be able to return to our home. Unfortunately, when we got up the next morning we read that a fire had started up directly across the 12 from our house and that they were having problems containing it. That fire is the red above and a little to the left of our house on the two maps. The second map shows a more zoomed in view of the fire in our area. So it was more waiting and worrying and thinking up alternate plans for our trip which was scheduled to depart on Thursday.

By this time we had been displaced from our home for almost a week and our nerves were shattered. We were amazed by the reports of help that came from states on the other side of our country and even from countries as far away as Australia. These firefighters and first responders were working 24 hours a day with little to no sleep. This photo captures the dedication and exhaustion of these amazing people.

By Monday night we were sure our trip, at least the beginning part, was lost. They were lifting the evacuation orders for many neighborhoods in Santa Rosa, but not ours. Needless-to-say we were getting very anxious. Then miracle, of miracles, they lifted our evacuation order on Tuesday night with the caveat that Oakmont residents that returned immediately should be aware of the fact that the gas in their homes would not be turned on until Wednesday, and that flames would be highly visible across the 12 from us as the fire fighters were aggressively lighting backfires to protect Oakmont at the expense of Sugarloaf Ridge State Park. Sadly 80% of beautiful Sugarloaf Ridge State Park was burned. Our neighbors across the street said that it looked like “Hell was on fire” Tuesday night. We decided that we would scoop in on Wednesday mid-day hoping to avoid the crowds returning first thing, triage our house by throwing away everything in our fridge and freezers, resetting our electronics (computers, solar, and UPSes), grabbing our clothes and suitcases for our trip and packing at Stevie & Gerrys for our originally scheduled departure on Thursday. It worked! We were like crazy people getting everything done. And we are eternally grateful to two sets of neighbors who stepped up and offered to do anything we might need them to so we could stay on track with our original departure date. This devastating disaster has brought us closer to our community, and if possible, more appreciative of what a little jewel of a place we have chosen to live in.