Tuesday, November 7, 2017

TOURING THE GREAT AND TERRIBLE SONOMA AND NAPA COUNTY FIRE(s) OF 2017


Sorry, no pictures this time…

Yesterday I made my monthly coffee run from my home in the Russian River Valley over to the Calistoga Roastery in Calistoga.  The blends they create are robust and tasty and you get a full pound when you buy a bag. I always pick up two.

This would be my first coffee run since the fires ravaged large potions of Sonoma and Napa Counties.  I hopped on Enrico, the Yamaha, and headed south and east on CA 128, knowing I’d return by a different route, thereby making a loop out of the little adventure.


November is that special time of year when the harvest is in and the leaves on the vines turn a rainbow of reds and orange and yellows.  The colors depend on both the varietal planted and the location of the block.  In the Dry Creek Valley it is not uncommon to see a field checkerboarded in chartreuse and rust divided by vines already naked or vines yet to turn.  Up a hillside will arch a band of bright Zin or Pinot between stands of pine or cypress or oak.  Over in the Alexander, fields run from the banks of the Russian River all the way to the rolling summits of the Mayacamas.  On a clear, sunny day, the evolving landscape is glorious. A random tune enters my head and accompanies me through this joyful kaleidoscope of scenery.

Dropping into the Napa side of things, the area is more densely forested until you descend into the broad valley of one stream course with its rich, verdant soils, then over a rise and into the next and the next.

Weekdays are fine for such an excursion because the weekend wine tasters and lookie-loos are home or at work or doing something other than clogging the beautiful roads that sweep through the area.


On 128, a tick or two from Tubbs Lane, about six miles north of Calistoga, that thick forest has suffered harm, however.  Grievous harm.  Last month, on a night with near hurricane force winds, something touched something else and the shower of sparks that resulted kindled what, on any other evening would simply be a spot fire. 

Rounding a bend into a darkened section in a relatively narrow canyon, the trees that weren’t bare wore chalk-brittle leaves, fried in place.  The grasses were gone and, though weeks had passed, the air hung with the residual acrid odor of nature’s fury.  A pair of deer stood in the roadway, seemingly still dazed, only clattering out of my way at the last moment.  Up the highway a piece, I squeezed into a one-lane traffic–control section.  Arborists sawed and chopped and grinded the standing deadwood that would be hazardous to passers-by if left unattended.  But just as quickly as I entered that scene, I exited.  Four miles on, Calistoga, a town which had been under mandatory evacuation orders stood bustling and calm and unscathed as if what had happened, never happened.

I parked Enrico in front of the Roastery and dropped in picking my two bags of whole bean: “Eva’s Bitch in a Bag” (I’ve met Eva) and some “Frank Sumatra.”


Just north of town, the alternate route I chose would find me heading west on Petrified Forest Road, winding over a ridge, then tracing a creek, then turning right onto Porter Creek Road which, itself winds through a narrow canyon before it becomes Mark West Springs Road and descends into the northern outskirts of Santa Rosa some ten miles distant. 

The Santa Rosa Press Democrat reports that the fire traversed those ten miles that windy, windy night in about two hours and forty-five minutes.

Shortly after I dropped over that first ridge the forests I’d so anticipated and appreciated were gone.  Naked trees, those that had not collapsed, stood like the giant bony hands of some wicked October witch, ready to reach down and grab what ever might be passing on the highway underneath.  Pastures were scorched bare.  Wire fences sagged between the random distant posts that didn’t get consumed.

With the surrounding vegetation gone, home sites that I hadn’t realized were home sites were now evident, not because some expansive domicile was left, but because the masonry chimney was all that could withstand the fury.  Around a bend, I entered a swale where nothing was touched, just as quickly to pass through and see what looked to be someone’s ’28 Model A, reduced to rust inside the concrete stem wall of what used to be a garage.  Out of the little canyon, where valley opened up, entire hillsides were denuded.  Nothing left but ash.  And that sad, acrid odor.

Safari West, tourist attraction and home to exotic animals, seemed spared.  Mark West Springs Resort and Conference Center: same.  But coursing down into north Santa Rosa it was clear that these were exceptions.  Just short of the Redwood Highway (old 101) mainstays of a safe, cozy and modern American life – subdivisions – were rendered to crazy paved cul de sacs littered with the rusted hulks of minivans and SUVs, dotted with freestanding chimneys and the occasional melted piece of something metal. 

In the initial scene of an Indiana Jones movie, Dr. Henry Walton (Harrison Ford) finds himself in a tunnel when a huge round boulder breaks free and comes charging at him at breakneck speed.  He runs for his life.  I picture that this is how the fire must have seemed – must have advanced – that night.


I had packed my camera.  In the past, when visiting a fire aftermath zone, up on the Stanislaus or the Tahoe, I’d stop for snapshots of the unbelievable.  This time, I could not.  This time, it felt too much like invading the privacy of those who lost something precious, their home, their photos, their memories, and for some, their grandparent, spouse or neighbor.  It seemed unbecoming to photograph the objects of someone else’s grief simply to induce a reader to drop his or her jaw at the spectacle.

Motoring home, the random song that might accompany me in the saddle grew mute.  It is tough to feel music when so many lost so much.

© 2017
Church of the Open Road Press

2 comments:

  1. It's a delicate balance indeed...

    Recently, Rachael of www.fuzzygalore.com expressed reservations about photographing poverty-stricken towns in the South. It seems that she was torn between the desire (and--in my opinion--responsibility) to document, and compassion for those affected. I'm not sure what I'd do in either case, but I think I would document discreetly if no one were watching.

    The more I engage online, and the more I use social media, the more responsibility I feel: I believe that we must (responsibly and respectfully) document and share our observations and impressions and also must do our best to be citizen diplomats in this troubled world where too many "powerful" people are sowing seeds of division.

    Though you shared no photographs, you did a mighty fine job relating your experience.

    Oh, and what GREAT names for coffee blends! :D :D :D

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  2. This post just makes me sad. The fires were so devastating that it is hard to imagine it all. We watched it on the news and on the internet in awe of nature's fury.

    I am glad that you documented your view. The way you described it we can still see it in our mind's eye.

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