Return to normalcy seems distant in fire-ravaged Sonoma Valley

Matt Courtney, right, and Alex Thurman, both with Grayback Forestry, Inc., walk out after cutting line along Adobe Canyon Road, near Sugarloaf Ridge State Park on Sunday, October 15, 2017. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)


Along Highway 12 through Sonoma Valley, world-famous vineyards beginning to show off their brilliant fall hues are now juxtaposed against a jarring backdrop of mountains blackened by flames.

Majestic parklands ringing the valley have been scarred, including Sugarloaf Ridge State Park and Hood Mountain Regional Park near Kenwood, where flames Sunday continued to send a massive plume of smoke into the sky visible for miles, fueling fresh rivulets of anxiety for both residents and firefighters.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Tom Siragusa, an assistant chief for the San Francisco Fire Department and Petaluma resident who has worked in the fire service for 40 years, said Sunday morning while standing watch with members of his strike team at a home at the end of White Circle Drive in Oakmont.

The hillside home borders the eastern edge of Trione-Annadel State Park, where flames chewed through the undergrowth and came dangerously close to the neighborhood of exclusive estates.

Elsewhere in Sonoma Valley, the rampage continued unabated. Along large swaths of territory and in pockets of small, historic communities, dozens of homes and other structures have been lost and landscapes distorted. This is the new reality, and with evacuation orders still in effect for much of the area, it’s one relatively few people have yet seen.

It will be shocking.

The valley normally hums along on an economy largely built on winemaking and tourism. Both are likely to suffer as a result of fire damage.

Winemaker Steve Ledson said late Sunday his castle-like Highway 12 winery, which has not been damaged by fire despite flames drawing close, remains closed due to power outages. The same is true of his Sonoma hotel and crush facility, which also are closed.

Ledson said his crews have been unable to harvest 100 tons of cabernet grapes hanging on vines on Cavedale Road due to emergency response to fires there. He is working on plans to help his 150 employees financially through this period of unexpected upheaval. But he acknowledged the unavoidable impacts of going without a paycheck for any length of time.

“When they’re not working, how do they pay for their rent and gas? It’s a chain reaction,” Ledson said.

Outside his Highway 12 home near Kenwood on Sunday afternoon, Will Carpenter still appeared dazed as he looked eastward across vineyards at a massive plume of smoke rising above Sugarloaf.

Speaking through a mask covering his mouth, the registered nurse expressed “heartbreak” over the scarring of the beloved parks he and countless others escape to for recreation and quiet.

The sound has been replaced with sirens, the whir of firefighting aircraft and someday soon, hammers and chainsaws.

“It’s going to go from a sleepy little place to a construction zone,” Carpenter said.

On Adobe Canyon Road leading to Sugarloaf, numerous homes have been destroyed by the inferno. Flames still coursed along the hillsides Sunday, bringing fresh anxiety for Harry Trembley.

The Emeryville resident said he spent more than three years building the 2,600-square-foot home on Adobe Canyon Road where his 83-year-old mother lives — and where she has remained despite evacuation orders.

“I’m going to do what I can to defend it,” Trembley said.

High above the home Sunday, firefighters inside Sugarloaf attacked flames whipped by a strong breeze.

The fire was tearing through vegetation but had not touched the Robert Ferguson Observatory, the park’s visitor center or campgrounds.

A return to normalcy seems distant. Driving along Highway 12 Sunday with his two dogs in tow, John Campbell stopped to flag down a PG&E worker to ask when power at Campbell’s Shady Acres Lane home will be restored.

“I would say prepare for later rather than sooner,” the man told Campbell.

After the worker drove off, Campbell turned the volume up on his SUV’s stereo to catch the waning moments of Sunday’s 49ers game. He laughed at the new normal.

“You have to stay cool and do the best you can,” he said. “You can’t get all worried and frantic because that doesn’t do anyone any good.”

In Kenwood, fires destroyed several homes along the town’s western flank.

A dog walked the deserted streets before being whistled home by its owner, Jerod Nethaway, who has been separated from his wife and the couple’s 2-year-old daughter for a week. A union carpenter, he said he felt a duty as an “able-bodied person” to stay behind and defend his Laurel Avenue home, as well as his neighbors’ homes.

He thought the threat was behind them until fire broke out over the weekend along the ridgeline to the east of town. With the plume of smoke rising menacingly Sunday in the near distance, Nethaway soaked his rooftop with a sprinkler and a hose attached to a fire hydrant. He also had turned on the lawn irrigation systems at his neighbor’s homes and raked up leaves into piles to try and reduce fire hazard.

“It’s a tight community,” Nethaway said of his actions. “We’re all friends and family.”

In Glen Ellen, the raging inferno leveled entire blocks on the village’s north and western sides, including along Dunbar Road, Sylvia Drive and Henno Road. Warm Springs Road between Arnold Drive and Saddle Road also was struck hard, with a number of homes destroyed.

The 15-room Olea Hotel appeared to escape major damage. But the horrific 180-degree view from the hotel’s balconies now encompasses a neighborhood of charred houses, vehicles and other structures, including a spiral staircase rising into the sky to nowhere, its facade having burned away.

The flames came close to overtaking the Glen Ellen Community Church, established in 1894, but stopped short of causing apparent damage. The fire also spared the village’s communal center and Jack London’s home, winery and other historic buildings at the state park up the hill.

Jean-Francois Ducarroz, a longtime Glen Ellen resident who was among the few to stay behind in the aftermath of the fires, on Sunday dropped off masks at an impromptu donation pile growing in front of a row of mailboxes that haven’t seen deliveries in a week.

Across the street, the town’s fire department was buzzing.

Ducarroz, a software engineer, said he has been feeding his neighbor’s cats and watering their gardens while waiting to welcome evacuees home.

“We’re still living,” he said. “I’m sure once it’s over, we’ll start feeling the next phase.”

“What’s next?”