Those used to gazing up at the deeply forested mountains framing the Valley of the Moon now look to the east in shock. The Nuns fire that blowtorched through the upper Sonoma Valley in the middle of harvest, has transfigured the multimillion dollar views that inspired writers like Jack London and Michael Ondaatje and made it one of the most prized destinations in Wine Country.
The firestorm vandalized the landscape, scorching hillsides and leaving haunting bald patches that look like iron burns. Hummocks, once green and now the color of shale, rise denuded above vineyards. Clusters of oak and other deciduous trees still standing wear crowns of brittle burned leaves as winter approaches; many evergreens are now brown.
More heartrending are the ashen homesites eerily strung like Pompeian ruins along Warm Springs Road and Highway 12, and tucked back on country lanes between Kenwood and Glen Ellen. The loss of some 400 homes in the Sonoma Valley broke up tight-knit neighborhoods and placed a massive strain on a community already shy of affordable housing.
But there are signs of life. With the first fall rains, grass shoots poked through the blackened fields, repainting the landscape as nature began the inevitable process of restoration.
And that has given residents and businesses grieving lost homes and property, and the sight of burned ridge lines, reason to believe that the valley’s scars will eventually fade.
“The contrast between these lush, brilliant green juicy sprouts and the dead black ash on the ground surface is inspiring,” said Caitlin Cornwall, a biologist and research program manager for the Sonoma Ecology Center. Flames came within 100 feet of their offices at Sonoma Developmental Center.
“On one hand it’s very much a visceral, human disaster. We all know people who have lost their homes and just being on these burn sites is shocking,” she lamented. “The smell is bad. There are toxics in the ashes and debris left behind. And it’s been a big hit to the public in terms of the economy and their routines. A lot of us were evacuated and stressed out. But, on the other hand, we all know the land has been waiting for and wanting and needing fire ever since European settlers stopped the regular Indian burning that the land is used to.”
Before the fires, as another harvest launched in September, the valley’s biggest challenge centered around the pace of growth in the wine industry, the strain of increasing traffic along the storied Valley of the Moon Scenic Route and the loss of residential housing to vacation rentals for tourists flocking from around the world to take in the region’s charms.
But that seems like another lifetime.
While there has been an increase in utility and construction trucks for clean up and rebuilding, those who depend on the wine economy now worry that tourism will drop. Despite none of the valley’s wineries suffered major damage, the images of smoke and flame that played out in the national media for weeks are seared into the minds of many people.
“Traffic is down at all of our locations,” said Josie Gay, head of the Heart of the Valley Association, which markets 29 wineries between Kenwood and Glen Ellen.
Read all of the Press Democrat's fire coverage here