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Our son and daughter both live and work in the Los Angeles area. My wife and I have been scheduling short weekend trips two or three times a year to the West Coast, so we can get the family together. Last month, we decided to meet the kids in San Francisco and drive up to Sonoma County with plans to drink large quantities of wine.
My wife spent weeks planning the trip; making reservations, finding the perfect food tour in the city of Sonoma, finding the perfect guide for our wine tour of the Russian River Valley, and finding great restaurants for dinner.
Upon arriving at SFO on Saturday morning Oct. 7, we picked up our rental, a Chevy Suburban, and headed for the city.
For breakfast, we feasted on Millionaire’s Bacon at the Sweet Maple Restaurant on Sutter Street in San Francisco.
Then on to the food tour in the city of Sonoma. On the tour, we sampled locally produced items; cheeses, Mexican cuisine (with Margaritas), olive oils, and balsamic vinegars. We also got a lesson on the history of California missions, the origins of the California state flag, and the beautiful historic architecture of the city.
After the tour, we drove to our hotel, located in Healdsburg about 45 miles northwest from the city of Sonoma, and 16 miles north of Santa Rosa along Highway 101. We capped the evening of our first day with a great dinner and wine at the Rustic Restaurant located at the Francis Ford Coppolla Winery. The restaurant features a museum of movie memorabilia focusing on The Godfather and Apocalypse Now.
The next day, Sunday, Oct. 8, we embarked on a wonderful tour of several small family wineries and got to try many different wines, including several Pinot Noirs (my favorite), for which the Russian River Valley is so well known. We had a personal tour guide who also served as our designated driver. Our tour included a winery where the tasting room was in a man-made cave. Cave fire protection features included sprinklers and two remote exits
Our daughter needed to get back to Los Angeles for work on Monday, so that evening, after the tour, we drove her to Sonoma County Charles M. Schultz Sonoma County Airport and saw her off.
Our plan was to rise early Monday morning and leave the hotel by 5 a.m. for all of us to make our 9 a.m. flights out of SFO.
Something was a little off when I awoke about 3:30 am. I got up out of bed and headed for the bathroom and could not understand why the light did not work. It did not take long to figure out that our power was totally out. I checked the hotel corridor and it was clear that the building power was out. Looking out the window, I saw the street lights were lit as well as lights from some of the adjacent buildings. I figured the power outage was localized to our hotel.
So, we all got up and got ready in the dark. Using flashlight apps from our iPhones we took cold showers, dressed and packed out.
As we left, our room neighbor came out and said there was a wildfire and that we should prop our hotel door open, in case we had to return to the hotel.
Still, not aware of any real danger we hustled down the dark stairs. The emergency lights were not working, so it was likely the power was out for at least a couple hours. My theory on the power outage was there was some type of early morning disturbance in the electrical grid caused by the initial wild fires, and it tripped off our hotel. Because our hotel was not staffed in the evening, there was no one there to deal with the outage, to turn the lights back on.
Once in our Suburban, we turned the radio on and started hearing about the wildfire in Napa and the call for evacuations. We quickly got on Highway 101 heading south from Healdsburg and then began to hear the reports that Highway 101 was closed in both directions.
It was still quite dark and within a minute or so, we crested a hill on the highway and could see the entire horizon before us glowing bright red. I remember staring in amazement and saying the obvious, “We are driving straight toward this thing.”
My son then said, “Shouldn’t we be going away from this?”
Soon after, we came upon a highway patrol roadblock, which detoured us off Highway 101 onto surface streets around the Sonoma airport area. As we got mired in a massive traffic jam, we started to get a little worried.
The area filled with people evacuating north from the fires. Fortunately, with the help of his iPhone, our son and his girlfriend were able to navigate us away from the jammed main roads and onto small rural roads leading us in maze-like fashion, west towards the Pacific Coast Highway.
All the while the air with full of smoke, irritating our throats and eyes. At 8:30 a.m., we finally crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, drove through San Francisco and arrived at SFO four hours after leaving Healdsburg.
We never were in any real danger from the wildfire, but there were moments there where we were very scared.
It was only later in the day, as we listened to continued reports of the fire, that we realized how terrible the devastation was.
This Sonoma County wildfire has rewritten the history books for California. There were 43 fatalities, making it the largest wildfire life loss in California history. It surpassed Los Angeles’ Griffith Park fire of 1933 (29 deaths) and the 1991 Oakland Hills fire (25 deaths).
More than 240,000 acres in Sonoma, and surrounding counties were burned. Approximately 8,900 buildings were destroyed, including entire subdivisions, in the worst hit areas around Santa Rose.
It also turns out that this is also the costliest fire in California history at $3.3 billion. Insurance losses for Sonoma County alone are estimated at over $2.8 billion.
An official cause of the fire has not been released, but news reports appear to be focusing on downed power lines being a possible cause of the three initial fires. Apparently, the three largest fires started between 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. on Sunday evening. Sustained dry weather and winds gusting from 50 to 75 mph allowing the late evening fires to grow very rapidly before residents and firefighters could react.
So, what can we learn from this fire? We all remember Smokey the Bear teaching us how to prevent wildfires (he called them forest fires back then). One can find a great deal of preparedness information on the web that is very informative.
For this fire, the issues that stood out to me were notification of the population and evacuation planning. There should be a system in place that could alert the population of a fire starting late at night when most are asleep. There were also reports that early power outages affected communication systems.
Also, once people began to leave their homes, evacuation routes quickly became clogged. A couple well placed east-to-west highways connecting Highway 101 to the Pacific Coast Highway would have helped with the evacuation.
Again, though my family was never in any real danger from this wildfire, it has given me a new-found appreciation of the threat wildfires pose to many of our communities. This is one fire problem we are not able to sprinkler and call it a day.