Why Sonoma County wildfire survivors believe oak trees saved their homes
New houses, framed and partitioned with plywood, are rising along Glen Ellen roads hit by the Nuns fire, which raced down Warm Springs Road and O'Donnell Lane and took out nearly every house in its path. It's taken longer than many expected, but the village is coming back.
Marjorie Everidge, 82, has four family properties in Glen Ellen. Her house was lost, like so many others. 'We walked up the driveway and everything we'd ever had or worked for had gone up in smoke,' she said.
She is living in a nearby rented guest house as the home she plans on reoccupying is being rebuilt. Two of the other homes are now inhabited and the remaining project is permitted and ready to go.
'We're really blessed,' she says now. 'We're alive, and things go on.'
Slow progress in the valley
Of the 1,208 fire rebuild permits issued by Permit Sonoma, more than half — 679 — are in the 1st Supervisorial District centered in Sonoma Valley. Excluding Mark West Springs, Rincon Valley and Bennett Valley, 189 structures sit in Sonoma Valley, 106 in Glen Ellen, 70 in Kenwood and 13 are east of Sonoma.
Construction has been completed on 15 properties, including nine single-family dwellings, five secondary units and a bridge on O'Donnell Lane.
Like many others, Everidge is looking with trepidation at the approaching two-year mark of the fires, when insurance payments for cost-of-living expenses runs out for most survivors.
Arthur Dawson, a neighbor on Warm Springs Road and a local historian, has been living nearby in a mobile home with his wife Jill since the fires. They plan on asking their insurance agent for bridge coverage to take them to the end of the year.
'They started construction on May 2 — if you know the Gaelic calendar, that's Beltane, which honors fertility,' Dawson said.
That was a full year and a half after the inferno that destroyed the neighborhood, but Dawson was philosophical about the arduous journey, citing what he called fire survivor's advice: 'Don't be in a hurry.'
Dawson kept up with his work, documenting the fire history of Bouverie Preserve, which was extensively damaged by the 2017 fires.
'It's been kind of illuminating to see that it's a cycle, as opposed to a one-of-a-kind catastrophe,' he said. 'It's a 40- or 50-year cycle. It just kind of spins around over time.'
The Last House still standing
Bouverie's fire damage in was notable, with nearly all of the 535-acre preserve swept by flames. Many structures, including the huge Gilman Hall education center, were burned to the ground.
A significant exception was The Last House, which David Bouverie had built for food writer M.F.K. Fisher in the early 1970s. Though flames burned ground reaching nearly to the foundation, the house itself never caught fire, its roof sheltered beneath a thick live oak canopy.
Jared Childress, a prescribed fire specialist with Audubon Canyon Ranch, which owns the preserve, is familiar with the story of The Last House. He described the tree overhanging the Bouverie landmark as having a 'very robust canopy,' which could help not only keep brush and grasses down, but provide shelter from embers.
'The number one reason you don't want overhanging branches isn't because the tree catches fire and it jumps to the roof,' said Childress. 'What happens is the house catches fire and it burns the tree.'
About a mile away, Tracy Salcedo's 110-year-old wood-frame house on London Ranch Road also was spared. Though it lay in the direct line of the fire's approach, it was sheltered by an expansive live oak.
The travel guide writer and environmentalist was awakened by a phone call early in the morning of Oct. 8 from a friend who told her that Dunbar Road was on fire.
'No it's not,' she told him, not being able to see fire from her window. Then she went outside and saw a wall of smoke approaching.
'You do not know what's happening,' said the friend.
Salcedo gathered her son Jesse, dog and two cats, loaded up the car and sped away. As flames laced across Chauvet Road, she was sure her house was gone.
But two days later it was still there, standing in a landscape of char and ash, in the shade of that big oak.
Salcedo is pretty sure the canopy protected the roof from flying embers, carried by the 60 mph wind that night.
'I have heard that these old oaks are not only fire resistant, but also protective,' she said. 'It makes sense, given the hopscotch pattern of burn in my neighborhood. There's really no logical reason that my home is standing, nor is there logical reason to take down the trees, since (they are) standing.'
Nuance in fire-safety planning
Cal Fire's 'defensible space' recommendations for vegetation around structures include both 30- and 100-foot clearance zones, with more rigid requirements closer to a house. Two related bullet-points recommend: