A year after the Glass Fire
Thoughts and recollections
By Jay Gamel
This story is about the personal impact the Glass Fire had on me and a few of my neighbors and friends. Though I have previously written about the 2017 fires and about people who lost everything, I can now say I have a much deeper understanding of what we have experienced.
I will never forget the moment Fire Chief Daren Bellach told me my Adobe Canyon house was gone. Up to then, it had seemed like Kenwood was going to be OK — and then it wasn’t. I tell everybody I meet that I decided to live my life in Adobe Canyon the day I drove up it in 1972. I made it my home in 1977. And it was, until Sept. 28, 2020.
Cal Fire investigators appear to have found the general area where the Glass Fire first ignited around 3:30 a.m. on Sept. 27. A day later, just after midnight, evacuation orders for Adobe Canyon and homes along Highway 12 were issued and remained in effect until Oct. 4, though some Adobe Canyon residents were kept out longer in a “phased reentry” program, due to the extensive damage at Sugarloaf Ridge State Park.
According to Cal Fire, the state firefighting agency, the raw data is sobering, especially considering that it was but one of dozens of similar fires throughout the state that year. The Glass Fire consumed 67,484 acres, destroying 1,555 structures in Napa and Sonoma Counties. More than 2,700 people came to fight the blaze with 409 engines, 83 bulldozers, 49 water-tenders, 23 aircraft making 514 sorties, and — miraculously — zero injuries. An additional 282 structures were damaged.
The fire damaged private, local government, state, and federal lands and buildings. The people in charge recognized a major incident was underway immediately and organized accordingly, pulling together the strongest possible management team within 12-hours.
The after incident report noted that the whole region was “experiencing dangerously low precipitation, with the North Bay receiving less than 25 percent of normal rainfall over the previous three months” (from Cal Fire 2020 Fire Siege compendium). The rainfall was only 5 percent of normal in the month leading up to the fire.
The day before the fire broke out, a weather system much like the one pressing down on us as I write this on Sept. 9 developed. The big difference is there were 50-60 mph winds with that system, which are (so far) mercifully absent this time around.
So much for fact and figures.
My neighbors in the Canyon, a group of families who collectively owned five cabins that have been there for over a century, lost all but one. Ritch Foster talked about losing the family cabins built on property obtained from horticultural icon Milo Baker in 1906.
“Visiting our cabins was like taking a step back 100 years to a simpler time,” Foster said. Six generations of family and friends have enjoyed the property, basking in the shade of the huge Douglas firs and splashing behind the dam they put on Sonoma Creek almost every year. When they weren’t in residence, I took to a rubber boat and dallied long afternoons on the cool creek, watching hundreds of small fry and crawdads scuttling about.
They too felt lucky to have escaped the 2017 devastation that wiped out over 5,500 homes in the county, many in Kenwood, Glen Ellen, and the surrounding Mayacamas Mountains. Though slow, acceptance has crept into the family feelings, the loss of “historic family photos, furniture, tools, books, and magazines,” has resulted in many moments of reflection and grief.
“Our hope now is to rebuild one basic cabin and allow the rest of the acreage time to heal,” Foster said. He knows that will be a “years-long” process.
Arden Bucklin-Sporer has long lived in and loved Sonoma Valley, where her grandmother, Anne Teller, bought 300 acres in the 1950s. “Our parents built a a simple house made of redwood, pine, adobe, glass, and beautiful concrete floors,” she remembers, “including a great room with a fireplace.” Outside, wisteria and grapes proliferated on trellises. The Glass Fire was aptly named; it was hot enough to melt the glass out of the windows, which meant it was nearly 3,000ºF. Three generations of family gathered to clean the sites, “stacking metal in containers, shoveling ash, scraping the earth to remove toxins,” followed by a “funeral” for the house.
Bucklin-Sporer hopes to nurture some of the fire-damaged hardwood trees nearby back to good health, and knows nature will ultimately reclaim the blackened Doug fir forest. At this point, they have not decided how much to rebuild.
“Forests will regrow; California dogface butterflies will fly in the spring; quail, foxes, and deer and an occasional lion will call it home. We have developed a little campsite with an outdoor kitchen, and we still gather to enjoy family get-togethers,” she said. “Our grandmother’s vision persists — despite the great sense of loss that we carry.”
Farther down Highway 12, my duplex housemates Kathy and Ray Yahr lost their homes on a twoacre parcel against the base of the mountain, very close to the Christmas Tree Farm, which was also destroyed. They initially headed to Indiana, where Kathy has family, with the intention of moving there forever, but the cold winters and not-so-scenic landscape brought them back to rebuild.
“It’s been a roller coaster,” Ray said. “We finally realized how much we miss this place while taking long, cold winter walks.” They lost everything personal to them, “everything we couldn’t pack in the Subaru.” What’s left behind, emotionally, is the continuing fear of fires. “It’s like living in Oklahoma and constantly looking over your shoulder for tornadoes.”
Kathy finds it hard to talk about the loss. “My daughter and two grandchildren lived there from grade school through high school. It was a family compound. We lost all that.” She is hopeful in that all the underbrush is now gone, reducing future danger.
Today, however, the foundations are being poured for a new home by the Kenwood contractor who built the duplex they lost. Hank McLain is housing two fire refugees at his Kenwood house on Frederica.
The Yahrs built the first bedand- breakfast at Greene Street and Highway 12, known then as Muir House. It is now Casa Bella.
“If we have to stay anywhere while waiting for our house to be built, Kenwood is a great place,” Kathy observed.
The losses we all experienced were tangible, precious and heartfelt. I was perhaps the luckiest since most of my very personal belongings were gathered in my other “house,” a garage-sleeping unit where I actually lived, waiting for a new roommate to come along to rent the main house. Still, my sense of place was destroyed and I retain a great fear of fire, heat, and wind, which therapy hasn’t fully dislodged.
What has come through for all of us is a sense of belonging to this Valley. Its people, the mountains, and the everlasting soul of the land is the home which will not be destroyed.