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The Wild Ride

Remembering that night in 2017
The Wild Ride
Smoke and flame block the highway south of the intersectionintersection of Arnold Drive and Highway 12 on the morning of Oct. 9, 2017.Photo by Tracy Salcedo“We have to go, Shannon.”


By Tracy Salcedo

Early on October 9, 2017, Shannon Lee and I stood in the middle of Cherry Avenue in Boyes Hot Springs. We didn’t know each other well but were acquainted through our affiliations with Dunbar School. Each of us had fled Glen Ellen the night before, in separate cars, on separate, uncertain journeys, chased by wind and flame. Now, standing on the quiet street under a blood-red sun, we were struggling to understand what was true and what was not.

Was Glen Ellen gone? Was Kenwood? Where was the fire? What had burned? Could we go back? Confusion was as thick as the smoke.

After a long, sleepless night, my son, my dog, and my cats were finally safe in the Cherry Avenue house. Shannon’s daughters were safe with other friends. Shannon’s husband, however, had chosen to stay in Glen Ellen to protect their home and, as it turned out, the homes of their neighbors. Shannon wanted to see him. I wanted confirmation. Steve said the little tinderbox I call home was still standing … but the neighbors’ house was aflame. I wanted to see for myself.

So Shannon and I headed into the burn.

We took her car, a Subaru like mine, because mine was a disaster. One of my cats had deemed the roasting pan full of cat litter I’d improvised at 3 a.m. completely inadequate and pooped on the front seat. I’d tried to clean up the mess with wet wipes, but the smell, combined with the smoke, was stultifying.

The cop stationed at the intersection of Arnold Drive and Madrone Road would not let us pass. Undeterred, we went the back way, snaking through the abandoned neighborhood south of the Sonoma Developmental Center. The authorities would figure out how people were getting around the barricade by the end of that first day, but in the morning Martin Street was empty and open.

The developmental center, too, was abandoned, and aside from the pall of smoke, everything looked normal. On the far side, however, a low wall of flame marched across the meadow in the regional park. Up until that moment, my experience of the Nuns Fire had been smoke — smoke that closed in like a blackout curtain, that blotted out the stars, that coated the inside of my mouth. Smoke that hid the mountains. Now there it was: the fire itself. I snapped a blurry picture, incredulous, as if an image on a device would somehow confirm the unfathomable.

Steve was okay, fueled with adrenaline and outfitted for the long haul. While he and Shannon reconnoitered, I walked around the house to look east, toward the park and the hidden, burning Mayacamas. I watched a thick dark plume rise from the nearest ridgeline, darkening the orange-gray sky.

“We have to go,” I said to Shannon.

At the base of her driveway, we tried to turn right. But fire blew across Arnold Drive. So we went left, toward the village center. Our plan, quickly formed, was to take Highway 12 back to the safety of Cherry Avenue. We didn’t ask each other the considerate questions we might have in other circumstances, about whether we were making the right choice, or whether the other person agreed with the choice being made. It was as if, through the exhaustion and anxiety and our own unrelenting adrenaline rushes, we mind-melded. We wordlessly meshed our curiosity, competence, and fearlessness, our sense of duty, our need to see and document and pass along truths that, in those fraught hours, were so hard to find.

“Take video,” Shannon suggested.

I held up my phone. Arnold Drive was quiet, empty, roadside homes still standing. Jack London Village was intact. At Chauvet Road, I asked Shannon to make the turn so we could check on my place, but that wasn’t possible. Flames, again, licked across the way. London Ranch Road was barricaded. Warm Springs Road was barricaded. Downtown was also quiet, empty, intact, I explained to my phone. It wasn’t until we reached the fire house that I realized I hadn’t pressed the record button.

At the junction of Arnold Drive and Highway 12, a pair of officers brought us to a stop. Looking south down the highway, pillars of smoke piled into the orange sky. I don’t remember the conversation exactly, but essentially, when we asked if we could get through, one of the officers replied, “What do you think?”

We turned around. I managed to record snippets of video of what transpired next, of our wild ride back through Glen Ellen, where we again found ourselves hemmed in by fire, then back out to Highway 12. In mechanical voices, Shannon and I noted what we saw, what we could do, what we wanted to do. If things get really bad, we can shelter at the fire station. That plume on the hillside — is that the Deckers’ house? No, no, it can’t be. The fire is still raging across Arnold Drive. The regional park is blazing. We should turn around again. Maybe Dunbar Road? No, there’s fire there too.

Back at the junction of Arnold and 12 we turned left, toward Kenwood. What was left of Trinity Oaks smoldered, scattered houses still standing like magicians’ illusions. Fire shot from both ends of the highway culverts like blowtorches. We circled around to Dunbar School, overjoyed it was still standing. We drove right onto the playground, strategically noting this as a place to shelter if things got squirrely, and taking video (button pressed) to share with worried parents and teachers.

Then we headed into Kenwood, to kill time, hoping the fire would simmer down so we could get through. We circled the plaza park, where the previous night’s Diablo winds had ripped limbs from the trees and tossed them onto the grass, onto the street. We didn’t know that, while the homes in the village proper were untouched, the fire had claimed the Treehaven neighborhood. We didn’t yet comprehend the hopscotch way the wildfire had blown through our towns, obliterating blocks of houses but leaving one here, one there.

The wild ride took us back again toward Glen Ellen. We were hoping, after what seemed like an eternity, that Arnold Drive was now clear, that the wildfire might do the thing we wanted it to do. But no. The blaze had taken up residence in the regional park, and none would pass until it was done with that place.

Shannon began to falter. Her girls are younger than my son, and she needed to get back; she needed to mother them. My heart swelled with hers; I understood her need viscerally. We turned west on Highway 12 and left Glen Ellen behind. It was the last time I’d be home for weeks.

We followed the empty highway into Santa Rosa, not knowing that it, too, was burning. The ridge that is Fountaingrove was smothered in smoke, invisible. We wouldn’t learn about what happened there, or in Coffey Park, until later that night when, safe on Cherry Avenue with our children and friends, we watched the news — news that was all about all of us.

Silver linings are hard to come by for many of the people who survived the 2017 wildfires. Silver linings are trivial given the losses so many neighbors and friends have endured. But when I think back on those first crazy days of the Wine Country fire siege — the blood-red sun, the town still standing and the homes destroyed, the wild ride — something marvelous and unexpected is in the mix. That unexpected gift is what resilience looks like. It looks like friendship. It looks like my unbreakable bond with Shannon Lee.