An incredible, tragic day
Sunday, Oct. 8, 2017, was a beautiful fall day in our village, simply perfect for the 27th annual Glen Ellen Village Fair. The theme was “A Sense of Community” and all that is wonderful about our village was on vivid display. At 11:55 a.m. the announcements began, and then the parade, with the clients and employees of the Sonoma Developmental Center as the Grand Marshal. The super shined up fire trucks rolled through town. Students and teachers from historic Dunbar School waved and walked in front of the cheering spectators. So much was so good this year: the parade, the music, the vendors, the food, Kids' Alley.
Less than 12 hours later, wind and fire furiously swept through and our “sense of community” was put to the test. Through both fire and flood, Glen Ellen's quirky strength and resolve has been forged and reinforced in the past, and here we were, yet again. Neighbors came to the aid of neighbors. Lives were undoubtedly saved. Generosity and cooperation sprouted from the smoke and ash. Immense gratitude, resolve, and peace are blooming all around us.
We all have a story. What we heard, what we saw, what we smelled, what we did, and what we came back to. How we felt. Who we hugged. A thousand unique stories inextricably bonded together through this singular event.
Here are some of the stories that have been shared with me. Please continue to share.
Karen O'Hara, Nuns Canyon Road: “We tried to drive out but there were 30-foot flames on either side of the road. We drove back up the canyon and sheltered in our cars in a meadow for seven hours, surrounded by flames. Finally we decided we had to drive out or we would not make it. We tried again for Nuns Canyon but it was too dangerous, so we doubled back up Nelligan and found the gate to Beltane open. When we made it to Highway 12, the entire area of Dunbar Road was engulfed; it seemed that the flames were all around the school.” [Karen is a long-time teacher at Dunbar School. Her husband, two kids, and father, who had just had heart-surgery, were all together on that terrible journey. Her initial 911 call was one of the very first placed at the start of the Nuns fire].
Josh Phillips, Wolf Run: “It was a beautiful Sunday, very relaxing. The wind started picking up but the temperature didn't drop towards the end of the day. I smelled smoke and so I drove up the hill between my home and my parents. There I saw the flames blowing from east of Highway 12 towards Henno Road. I immediately went in and rousted my parents to let them know I thought this was going to be very bad. They evacuated at 3:15 a.m., their home was engulfed at 3:30 a.m. The winds were in my favor, then the winds shifted and there was a firestorm like I've never seen. I immediately evacuated myself. They lost everything. I just lost my outbuildings and my shop. Scariest thing I've ever seen.” [Josh's parents are AG and Betsy Phillips, also on Wolf Run.]
Lisa Hardy, Williams Road: “We were not fire fighting in those first hours; we were life saving. There was no stopping this monster. After that first day, we were gifted with five nearly wind-free days the forecast said we weren't going to get. That's what allowed the crews to knock it down and back-burn it enough to keep it from potentially destroying the entire valley.” [Lisa is a longtime firefighter with Glen Ellen Fire.]
Steven Lee, Arnold Drive: “Up until 4-ish a.m. [Oct. 9], when my family evacuated, fire personnel were not doing much to try to halt the fire's advance; they were simply trying to save lives and protect structures where they could. The winds were just too strong. But just before dawn, they made their first attempt to stop the advance of this flank of the fire, the one that blew over Warm Springs Road and through Glen Ellen, just north of our property line. There is a lot of open grass and grazing land on those properties across from me on what is called Meadow Lane, and that is where they put up the first fight to stop the fire, using multiple trucks and a bulldozer. This also coincided with the time when the fierce winds started to drop off. As dawn broke and I was here by myself running the tractor and with hoses readied, there were still embers landing on our property. I was able to get all of them out and I kept my eyes on the flames visible through the trees below as they approached the creek.
“The fire crews moved on to the next big fight leaving open fires burning just beyond the riparian corridor which encompasses the property line. I watched these fires spread into the creek in a few places, and when they started to flare up in the jumbled overgrowth of the creek, I got together buckets, shovels and a chainsaw and started heading for the creek. Luckily, my brother [Robert Lee], nephew [Joey Lee] and his friends [Paul Sokolowski and Kevin Phillips] showed up just then, and we all went down there together and managed to tamp down the flames. They were over 10 feet high in places! Then later that morning another flare-up happened, and the fire started to rage uphill toward homes and Jack London Park. One flank headed to the creek further upstream in a 250-yard line of flames fed by wind gusts. Me and a friend John Powell and John's tenant fought that for an hour with shovels and stopped it just before reaching the overgrowth of the creek canyon. But the uphill moving flames were too much for the one fire fighter I hailed onto the scene, and it raced up toward those homes and the park.
“All day and night and throughout the next day, me and a couple neighbors up there [Will Hopper, Scott Lindquist, Matt Smith, Neil Shepherd, etc.], assisted by fire crews which I hailed down on Arnold Drive at three critical times, kept it from crossing the creek canyon. Had it crossed the creek canyon it would have entered the never-burned SDC lands and spread unabated up Sonoma Mountain and across to the hillside communities of Morningside, Sobre Vista and Diamond A.
“Another flank of the fire came at us from the east as it burned through the Regional Park. This was mostly halted before Arnold Drive, but it did jump the road right below us between the two bridges and burned to the creek. It jumped the creek in one place closer to the SDC campus and started heading uphill into the open space. Eldridge Fire got that part under control before it got too high on the hill. That was stressing me out for a while there! That spot was the furthest south it got on Sonoma Mountain.”
Stacey Tuel, Cavedale Road: “Here is an update from our beloved mountain home: We were able to go up yesterday [Oct. 20] and see our place. The mountains are burned in many places, and our homes are completely gone. But the mountain remains beautiful and we have no doubt that Mother Nature will heal with wildflowers and new life. We know fire is just part of her cycle. In the ashes of our once home, we found little treasures and reminders of our wonderful life there. It was sad, but also sweet, and we're filled with hope for what is to come. While we could feel devastated at this loss, instead we have been buoyed by the incredible generosity of friends and family, blessed by abundance coming from near and far. We have so many to thank; [you] have lifted us up and kept our spirits rising like phoenixes.”
Leslee Bonino, Highway 12: “Thanks to Bob, the house and barn are OK but the vineyard is demolished and the grapes were two days away from being picked. We literally left with 30 seconds to spare! Next to us is Aurora Lane and two of the four homes there are completely gone. Bob and I are now the 'protectors of the hill!' Imagery [winery] next door had some damage but continued on with the crush. Oak Hill was seriously impacted. I haven't yet heard from Anne Teller.” [I confirmed later that Anne was safe as well as her house.]
Felicia Valente, Highway 12-Trinity Road: “Would love to share my story... I could however sum it up with just a big 'it really sucks.' I want to come home, I'm sick with sadness today that I can't… Headed out of town for the day [Oct. 21]. Back tomorrow. Hopefully back to work soon…”
Brad Surosky, Gibson Street: “I woke up at 2:30 a.m. and it smelled like smoke. I thought I had stunk up the house with the chicken I had smoked for dinner on the patio the night before. I checked the patio, lots of wind, got a glass of water, wondered why my cell had no service, and went back to bed. At 6:30 a.m. we were snapped awake by neighbors pounding on the front door. I came outside and realized we needed to leave right then. I didn't even take my phone, our laptop. I drove to Oakland in my socks. I forgot my shoes.” [Brad and Amy are the founders of Transcendence Theater Company, which has already launched a fundraising campaign for Sonoma County fire victims, has affiliated artists who are doing a benefit performance in New York City on Nov. 5, and plan to donate some proceeds from their holiday concert to fire recovery.]
Veronika Sheftner and Noel Amand, Warm Springs Road, Lupine Hill: “First call at 11:53 p.m. from close friend Regina Rolland who lives in Kenwood village. She was upset, crying, could see the fire/flames from her house, and was asking to come to our house with her family. We saw her 30 minutes later. The delay was due to her driving to friends' houses in the village pounding on their doors and windows waking them up and telling them to get out. Meanwhile I contacted my sister (on Laurel); she got her family out and headed to our house. She could see the fire from her backyard. Turning onto Warm Springs from Clyde, a tree had fallen and blocked the road. She had a moment of panic, we talked, and she found another outlet to our house. Warm Springs was covered in debris from the severe winds. So severe that the Eubanks (who live across from Palooza) had their large trampoline fly up and get lodged in the branches of their walnut tree.
“By 12:30 a.m. we had three families at our house in Kenwood and were talking to two others on the phone, trying to figure out what to do. Within 20 minutes we saw the glow from Kenwood at our house looking north. We also heard Beltane was burning and within five minutes we all evacuated, figuring we were in the middle of two impending fires. I let the goats out/chicks out, got the dog, the cat, ran to grab passports and bailed. Drove Bennett Valley Road out - red glow to the right of us as we drove the road. People pulled over and were driving slow. That was the scariest part of the whole thing for me. Noel turned back in his car 10 minutes in to wake two neighbors. Drove to my parents in Rincon Valley. Once headed north on Yulupa past Whole Foods we could see the entire ridge above Rincon on fire. Got to my parents; they evacuated and we headed south. All Rohnert Park hotels were full at this point. We stayed in San Rafael with multiple other Rincon families at a hotel. Noel went back in Monday. Tuesday night [Oct. 10] was the night our house almost burned. Cal Fire inmates held the line at Lupine Ridge, drawing from a 15,000-gallon neighborhood water tank up on the ridge.”
Mike Witkowski, O'Donnell Lane: On Facebook Mike recounted this story: “I ran into an elderly man and I told him I was so sorry he lost his house. The man said, I didn't lose it, I know exactly where it is, it is just smaller now.” [Mike, a retired Dunbar teacher, is a well-known pun-master and amateur comedian; thank you for the levity even as you and Jane have had your house “shrunk” as well.]
Jennifer Decker, Chauvet Road: “We'd been smelling smoke for more than a day from the Napa fires, so around 1 a.m. [Monday morning] when the wind was howling and I still smelled smoke, I headed to the balcony. We only have a view east, and the sky over us was clear and I saw smoke coming over the hills from Napa. My husband Tom drove up the street and never saw fire, and while we were uneasy about the wind and smell of smoke, we still thought the fire was only in Napa. Around 1:30 a.m. CHP came down Chauvet blaring horns and loud speakers to evacuate. We got my 89-year-old dad, two kids, dog and cat, and left in two cars.
“Had we seen fire, or had any clue, we would have brought more with us. We left with almost nothing but a change of clothes. No pictures, no wedding rings. We stayed in the crowded Safeway parking lot with people wandering around in pajamas, their dogs, and even cats in purses. I think we all thought we'd be going home soon. Highway 116 was the only open road out of town, so hotels in Petaluma were filled by 5:30 a.m. We then stayed at our friends' Sonoma home for a few hours, from where Tom and our friend went back to Glen Ellen to check on our house. They returned to tell us our home was gone. Impossible to adequately describe everything going through our minds, and hearts, at that time. Awful.
“Our insurance found us a hotel in Vacaville and we headed up there when Highway 37 reopened early afternoon. We were there for a week and Tom would go back to Glen Ellen every day to try to get to our property. I was relieved our daughter was away at college... and had more belongings than her combined family. I wouldn't let her come here in the following week, as the valley was still burning. I have only been once to what is now property. Everything gone. Rubble. Just held on to my dear dad and husband and cried. Wandered around in a daze and left.
“Tom has been there every day since the strict closures were lifted, looking for anything salvageable. He brought back my mom's tiny, blackened wedding band the second day and it gave me a little hope. I'll go back this weekend, and for days after to do the same, hoping it will get easier. The kids aren't yet ready to see it. We've been back in Sonoma for a week [Oct. 26], in the home of the kindest stranger, a friend of a friend, opening her home to us while she is away for a month. I am completely overwhelmed by the kindness of friends, family and strangers. Don't know where we'd be, both literally and figuratively, without this help and support. We are looking forward now and will rebuild on the property, with an ode to the 115-year-old house that we so loved.” [Jen & Tom's incredible house at the top of Chauvet sat across from Jim Berkland's old place and was an historic Glen Ellen structure, with a colorful past.]
Glen Ellen's honorary “mom,” Marge Everidge, Warm Springs Road: “That was the best garage sale ever, I got rid of everything” AND “well, it took care of a few problems for me” [this is so like her, and on a personal note, she and I had the most amazing hug standing right in the middle of the desolation that is now her property - if she can find gratitude and show such grace and resilience at this time, then we all can!]
Buzz from around the bend…
Message from Dunbar Principal Jillian Beall: “We are incredibly grateful to the fire fighters and first responders. It is because of them that in our 160th year, Dunbar remains standing strong. There was significant damage to the kinder play yard, the Dunbar garden, and the outdoor stage, but our main buildings and classrooms remain intact. This past Tuesday [Oct. 24], Dunbar staff were excited to reopen our doors and welcome students and families back to our campus. We are so appreciative of the immense support from our community and district, and have been amazed at how we have come together as a school community to support our students and families. We want our Dunbar community to know that we are here to help and support in any way we can. There is so much heart in this community and we are grateful that we get to rebuild together.”
Message from Ed Davis, long-time Glen Ellen resident: “I have set up a network to help keep displaced Glen Ellenites in the area by matching housing wants with needs. Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and/or go to the Facebook page - Keep them in Sonoma Valley - Homes for Fire Victims.”
Elsewhere in this edition of the Kenwood Press you can find a list of fundraising that is Glen Ellen specific. Please give if you can. Together we will RISE. We are #GlenEllenStrong!
As always, if you have any Glen Ellen-related news to announce, OR if you would like to tell your story of the firestorm, the evacuation, the recovery, please email email@example.com or call 996-3352.
Do you have any Glen Ellen stories to share? Milestones? Celebrations? Email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 996-3352.