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First person accounts of Sonoma Valley fires make it personal

Nick Brown, 12800 Dunbar Road, Glen Ellen

Nick Brown spent last Sunday at the Glen Ellen Fair, working the Safety Committee’s booth as its co-chair. At the end of the parade and its street activities, a friend reminded him that their next meeting was dedicated to disaster preparedness.

“OK,” Brown thought absently, heading home for the night. He was beat from the long day, and fell asleep on his couch.

Sometime after 11 p.m. a neighbor came knocking. “There’s something interesting going on,” the man said. Together, he and Brown drove up Dunbar Road.

“Beltane Ranch was silhouetted against the fire,” Brown said. “And fire was landing in spots all around us.” Still, he wasn’t overly alarmed. His house was situated between two fire stations, after all.

He went home, woke roommates and neighbors, grabbed two shovels and went outside.

A neighbor sped past, terror in his eyes. “It’s the wind! It’s the wind! We can’t do anything! It’s the wind!” he screamed, disappearing around the bend.

A second neighbor sped past shouting that bulldozers were coming. “I had hope then,” Brown said.

Five minutes passed, then 10, then 30. No bulldozers, no firefighters. Just Nick Brown and his shovels. He took breaks on the pavement of Dunbar Road, dashing in and out of his property, keeping flames at bay. “It started to become very, very scary,” Brown said.

“And then it became untenable.”

Nick had to drag his foot behind him, marking his path to keep his bearings, keeping himself oriented as he moved toward the road. The smoke was thick, visibility was negligible. Brown found his Jeep and prepared to go.

“But then I heard this noise coming down Dunbar Road. It was a tractor, going just as fast as it could without blowing its tread. It blew through the fence and went straight into the fire. Straight into the fire,” Brown said, and then paused.

Three of the five houses at 12800 Dunbar Road burned, including Brown’s. The artifacts of his life were all up in smoke. He’s got the Jeep and the two shovels and the clothes on his back. And his two shelter kitties – Tabby and Black Cat – who were found the day afterward, one with burned paws.

“I found my pets in the woods,” Brown said, his voice trembling a bit. “When I found the cats…that made everything OK.”

Peter Hansen, 12550 Henno Road, Glen Ellen

Sunday nights are typically quiet when you are a teacher. The job is relentless, requiring energy reserves. Peter Hansen went to bed at a reasonable hour, but was awakened at 1 a.m. by the wind. “Damn wind,” he thought, shifting position. There was smoke in the air, a faraway hint. The teacher rolled over and slept on.

At 2:15 a.m. he woke again to an eerie red glow and, grabbing binoculars, stepped to the window.

He didn’t need the binoculars. Flames were everywhere.

He jumped into his jeans, threw on a T-shirt, scrambled into his shoes and grabbed two valuable paintings. Palming the first set of car keys he found, Hansen ran. At the car door, he paused, thinking to perhaps go back for a few things. He took four steps toward the house when an explosion of flames stopped him. For a moment, he feared that his tires had melted.

At the bottom of the hill, Hansen parked and got out, lifting his iPhone up to record the inferno before him. He’s the creator of the SVHS film program, after all. His instinct is to keep a visual history of things. Around him, neighbor’s homes were consumed one by one.

Lungs aching now, Hansen drove on. “The ride to Sonoma was apocalyptic,” he said. “On each side of the street for at least a mile I saw houses exploding, collapsing, propane tanks spewing 30-foot white flames from rubble. A tree blocked the road, and a sheriff told me to drive around it.” He drove over the downed tree, not around, and went on.

By 5 a.m., Hansen was at SVHS, where a flood of similarly displaced people had begun to arrive. Without a prescribed game plan, he followed his instincts: he and a handful of other teachers opened the school.

For the next five days, Hansen simply stayed busy. Setting up cots, organizing food service, jerry-rigging a news feed. And because movies are a balm to certain kinds of people, Peter created a screening room to pass time. On beanbags, snug under donated blankets, people filled the long hours, distracted by happy endings.

Hansen’s own ending is uncertain. He still doesn’t know yet if his house stands. He’s been told that it doesn’t, and told that it does. Like the fire itself, information is still fluid. “I simply had to distance myself from the incessant inventory of loss, finding wonderful distraction in the service of others,” he said.

And if everything he’s treasured is in fact up in smoke? “I still have 165 kids to help heal me.”

Karen O’Hara, 1210 Nuns Canyon Road, Glen Ellen

Tim Korn had just had open-heart surgery, and his daughter, Karen O’Hara, was in charge of his care. She’d taken a week off from her second grade classroom and was settling in on her father’s ranch. By 10 p.m., Korn was comfortably settled in the big house, so O’Hara, her husband, and their two kids headed for the cottage a few hundred yards out.

The wind was fierce and they worried for the trees, nestled in a forest as they were. The power failed almost as soon as they entered their quarters, so the family went to bed, listening to the wind howl.

“Then we looked outside and it started to get lighter and lighter. I could see flames by my Dad’s house,” O’Hara said. To get to the main house where her father lay sleeping she had to cross a meadow and pass over a small bridge. Against the dark night, a nearby artist’s studio glowed orange.

O’Hara ran back to the cottage and grabbed her phone, dialing 911 in a panic. The operator insisted that she calm down, but with an immobile 74-year-old father and two children under 10, staying dispassionate seemed almost impossible.

“I told her ‘This is major!’” O’Hara said. She sent her husband to manage Korn’s exit and turned her attention to the kids.

A man recovering from open-heart surgery cannot will himself into a sprint, regardless. As fires glowed around them, Korn’s progress was glacial. His daughter decided she would leave with the children, trusting her husband to assist with her dad, who was leaning on a walker and struggling toward the car.

Buckled into the family car, O’Hara and her kids began winding their way down Nuns Canyon Road. “There were flames as tall as the trees on both side,” she said. “I thought it would just be for a little and then we’d get through.”

But as they rolled down the hill, the inferno intensified. “We felt the car getting hotter.”

At the first opportunity, Nelligan Road, she swung the car around and headed back up the hill.

Nuns Canyon Road dead-ends at a driveway. There is no way over the mountain from there. They couldn’t go down, and they couldn’t go up. Karen’s family and her father were trapped.

Their only neighbor knew that the house at the end of the road was built of fire-resistent materials, so – now with a third car – the caravan decided to head that way. But the long driveway was blocked by an electric gate, and with power down they couldn’t get through.

Out of options, the group rolled into an open meadow, hunkering down as wildfires raged around them. They could see fire approaching from above Trinity Road, and twisting its way up Nuns Canyon. Mercifully, the kids and their ailing grandfather fell asleep. Through the long night, the others watched and waited.

Every hour on the hour, her husband drove back down the hill, hoping that somehow safe passage was possible. Seven times, over seven hours, he made that long trek. Finally, at 5:30 a.m., he thought they could make it.

In three separate cars the group zigzagged through flames, passing downed power lines and other peril. When they reached Highway 12, they felt almost safe. Until they heard the news about Kenwood and Glen Ellen. “We just couldn’t believe it,” Karen said, almost whispering. Some tragedies are literally beyond words.

The fate of Korn’s house, a historic beauty built a hundred years ago, is unknown. Like so many others, they must wait for the news. But her father is healing, and the kids are OK.

In the peculiar calculus of Karen O’Hara’s new normal, that’s not a bad day after all.

Contact Kate Williams at kate.williams@sonomanews.com.