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Sonoma Valley slowly turns toward recovery from devastation

The impact of this month’s fires on the Sonoma Valley are emotionally incalculable, but the numbers are starting to come in: though specifics on the actual number of houses destroyed or damaged are difficult to ascertain, the latest number is 5,791 structures county-wide – a number that, thankfully, has not changed since Wednesday.

Fifty people remain missing – down from initial counts of over 2,000 – with half of those, 25, outside of the City of Santa Rosa. Despite repeated efforts to get a count of the missing in Sonoma Valley, again, no specifics are being released.

So far, there is only one known Valley fatality, Lee Chadwick Roger, 72, of Glen Ellen.

One telling figure: Alex Young, the geographical information systems manager at the Sonoma Ecology Center, calculates that 28.5 percent of the Sonoma Valley has been burned.

When presented with that number, Cal Fire Battalion Chief Kirk Van Wormer didn’t bat an eye. “Basically, the entire east side of the Valley is black, from Oakmont all the way down to 121,” he said.

At times, it seemed the fire would never end. Almost a full week after the first blazes swept up Mark West Springs from Calistoga to Santa Rosa – and almost simultaneously, blazes erupted in Nuns Canyon and elsewhere in the Valley – that a new arm of the Nuns Fire reached into the residential area east of Sonoma, driven by renewed high winds.

Early on Saturday morning, Oct. 14, emergency mandatory evacuations along Castle, Lovall Valley, Thornsberry and Old Winery roads were called, though most residents had already left under the advisory evacuation called days earlier.

More than a dozen fire engines rushed to the area, and crews were dispatched to protect properties, including the historic Buena Vista Winery, known as the birthplace of the Sonoma Valley wine industry.

“Crews experienced some very intense, some very difficult fire conditions. They did an outstanding job,” said Sonoma Valley Fire Chief Steve Akre, who estimated hundreds of homes in the fire’s path had been saved.

A few were lost, however: a couple buildings on Castle Road, another on Half Moon Street, a house and garage on Seventh Street East, several more along easternmost Lovall Valley Road.

Saving Buena Vista was a drama that unfolded on live TV, as the iconic winery was well-covered by Bay Area news teams. “We watched it on KTVU Channel 2 as the fire swept to the edge of Buena Vista, right up to the buildings,” said Megan Long of Boisset Collection, which owns Buena Vista. But slowly, agonizingly slowly, things began to return to normal. On Monday some evacuation orders were lifted along Arnold Drive, south of Eldridge; Tuesday more people began to return to their homes in the Lovall Valley area; by Wednesday blue skies returned to the smoke-socked Sonoma Valley.

Fortunately there is now little doubt that containment is on the way, and the long process of recovery has begun. As of the latest Cal Fire update on the Central LNU Complex, Thursday, Oct. 19, the 36,432-acre Tubbs Fire (Calistoga to Santa Rosa) is 92 percent contained, the Sonoma Nuns Fire, which now includes both the Norbbom (sic) Fire and the Partrick Fire, totals 34,398 acres and is 82 percent contained; and the Pocket Fire north of Geyserville is 16,552 acres, 73 percent contained.

In this trying month, these are not the only fires to afflict Northern California. The Redwood Fire has burned approximately 36,523 acres in Mendocino County, though it’s currently 85 percent contained; the Atlas Fire in neighboring Napa County (with some cross-over into Sonoma) totals 51,624 acres, again with 85 percent containment; and in Lake County, the Sulphur Fire of approximately 2,207 acres is 96 pedrcent contained (all figures as of Oct. 19).

Containment is roughly the percentage of the fire’s perimeter that has control lines put in, but that’s not the end of the story, said Van Wormer. “Once the control lines are in, we’re not done. We’ve got to make sure the fire stays within those control lines. We’ve got to do what’s called mop-up and control.

“It can be up to a couple-three days before we’re convinced that line will hold the fire and will not allow that fire to escape.”

He said that calculating the number of destroyed or damaged structures is a task that is currently underway, as a 40-person “damage evaluation team that’s going through to identify every single structure that burned.”

“It’s a long process, even though there’s 40 people,” said Van Wormer. “There’s a huge amount of territory out there they have to go through, so it’s taking them awhile.”

Late in the week, Battalion Chief Bob Norrbom (correct spelling) of Sonoma Valley Fire and Rescue was managing the fire response in the upper valley, from Glen Ellen to Oakmont. He was concerned that the fire, though controlled, was hardly over. “We want to get everybody back in as soon as we can, but the big hazards right now are the trees that have been burning for a week – they’re getting weakened and falling over. In the hard-hit areas, it’s still not safe for folks to come in.”

He asked people anxious to return home to be patient just a little while longer: “As we deem areas safe, we’re allowing access to the public. Hold tight a little longer, I don’t think it’ll take much longer, we’re almost there.”

Norrbom couldn’t avoid his own connection to the community where his grandfather fought fires and his father has served on the Glen Ellen Fire Department board for decades, and where he grew up. “It’s sad, as someone who’s lived here all their lives, watching all these homes of people you know burned to the ground.

“It’s unreal, really, it really is.”

Contact Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.