Friday, October 13, 2017

Thoughts on the Wine Country Fires

Standing outside at 4:00 AM Wednesday morning, I was inordinately thrilled to see Orion’s belt just above my head, through the trees that overhang my house. It was my turn to get up, go outside on a blessedly calm morning, and smell the air for smoke, glance at the horizon behind me and pray there wasn’t an ominous orange glow signalling disaster, like the cotton candy hair of our President. There wasn’t, and I suddenly recognized the irony of being happy not to see fire anywhere near me while I gazed at the heavens and stood in awe of the indescribably gigantic orbs of fire in Orion’s belt and the rest of the universe, from which we are all descended. Wildfires humble you nearly as much as the heavens.

I live outside of Healdsburg, nearly equidistant from that quaint tourist town and from Calistoga in the other direction. The Tubbs fire (Is that really the most intimidating name they could give such a destructive and death-dealing fire? It sounds like it’s at Bed, Bath and Beyond. If only.) is about two or three miles south of where my wife and I live. Perhaps six miles to the north of us the Pocket fire is burning up Alexander Valley near Geyserville. Yeah, I’m scared. Though at the moment, safe and optimistic.

We began to pack our cars with valuables on Monday morning after our landlord awakened us and told us the ridge behind where we live was on fire. It’s forest from the ridge to our house. It was going to burn towards us. Gathering valuables and putting all of our animals in travel cages, I struggled with visions that most closely resembled Heironymous Bosch paintings. Yet a wildfire quickly brings one great focus. My wife Kathleen was the hero. I was more like Daffy Duck bouncing off the walls and repeating, “Woo Hoo, Woo Hoo, Woo Hoo!”

There was time. The winds had vanished. It was very still. We were outside, cars nearly packed, watering down everything like a bartender on a cruise ship. The smell of smoke makes you crazy. At about 10 AM, my landlord said that, “if I were you, I’d leave.” Kathleen and I drove into town to stay with friends in Healdsburg. Less than a mile from our house we had to pull our cars to the side of the road so that about five fire trucks could roar past us, on their way to fight our little fire up Young’s Road. I felt like applauding.

Our house survived that Monday night. The firefighters extinguished the fire about half a mile north of us, and the winds didn’t return. Tuesday morning we returned, and we’ve been here ever since. The cars remained packed. It ain’t over yet.

I haven’t been out to see the destruction in my community. I haven’t had the time or the desire. It’s been five days of sleepless nights and vigilance. I’ll see plenty of that destruction in the coming months and years. I don’t need to see it to know how terrible it is. I can smell it in the air. I can see it in the faces of folks at the grocery store, in the dozens of cars in the parking lots filled with belongings and pets. I can hear it in the planes and helicopters that are constantly flying overheard. I lived through four major earthquakes in Southern California. This is far worse. Earthquakes are the wedgies of natural disasters. A wildfire like this is a brutal beating.

There will be countless stories about these fires. Mine are trivial, but for my wife having to euthanize her beloved Arabian mare Lorian who was tragically injured when she reared and fell, refusing to be loaded into a trailer to be taken to safety, breaking her hindquarters. A three-legged horse has no chance against a wildfire, and a veterinarian, who had lost everything to the fire, her home and all of her belongings, rushed to help. Dr. Tere Crocker’s courage and compassion made all the difference in this horrible incident. Kathleen lost a loved one in this fire. So many have. The death toll is going to be staggering. 

But I’ve been lucky. I’m only writing this because many people have reached out to me, worried about me, and concerned I hadn’t posted here in a while. Maybe not my most avid fans, but, nonetheless, concerned. All is well.

So many things run through your mind in these situations. I’m reminded that people we should genuinely admire—firefighters, first-responders, volunteers and law enforcement officers from all over California and Oregon and Nevada—don’t have letters after their names. Should you? Frankly, it’s embarrassing to see WSET after a name, or CSW, or MS or MW. Earn the degrees, follow your passion for wine, but stick the initials where they belong—up your box canyon. This is the kind of chatter that goes on in the brain under stress.

I came home from work Sunday evening late, angry at how crappy my weekend had been, how ridiculously screwed up the job conditions were those two days—essentially feeling sorry for myself. Now I can’t remember why I was so angry. I haven’t given work a second thought. Where I work didn’t burn down like so many wineries have. And speaking of heroes without initials after their names, what about the CalFire helicopter crews who ferried trapped vineyard workers on night pick out of the fires? Trump would have fiddled while those brown people burned.

I’m grateful for the network of friends who checked on us, for our close friends in Healdsburg who took us in without hesitation Monday night and fed us, housed our menagerie. How do you repay that kindness? 

All of us will be talking about these wine country fires for a long time. Today is my 65th birthday. I won’t ever have to struggle to remember what I did on my 65th. I’m not celebrating. How could I amid all the loss and grief and pain and fear? It’s just my birthday. I’ve never felt smaller or less important than standing outside at 4AM gazing at the stars, happy to see them so bright and intense, burning into eternity.


Paul T. Gilmore said...

Happy birthday to you, Ron. And it is, indeed, a happy birthday for you. I hope things continue that way.

Unknown said...

Thank you for the lovely and heartfelt words, Ron.

Bill Ward said...

For your birthday, you gift us with your eloquence and clarity.

Clare Tooley said...

Thank you. It has been an awful week and continues to be immensely fearful and strained. As you say, the faces of people in the grocery stores tell a tale of shock and loss. It will make me and my children stronger in the long run but for now I have never felt more vulnerable and at the whim of the winds. Xx

Anonymous said...

Hugs to you and Kathleen. I grieve for all of my friends up North, and a bit more tonight as I read about Lorian. So damn sad.

gbgolfer71 said...

I am so glad that you and your wife are, for now, safe. The story of your horse made things more personal than you could imagine. I'm in Sacramento and our "issue" is the smoke. Really not a big concern is it? I still cannot wrap my mind around the devastation or the "from nowhere" rapidity of the fire.

My prayers are with your family and the victims of this fire.

For those who want to help the Sacramento Bee has a list of ways to help (anything is appreciated):

Unknown said...

Fine writing, Hosemaster. Stay safe. We need you.

Unknown said...

Ron, I was in Healdsburg from Sunday afternoon through Wednesday afternoon. I came up looking forward to our annual vacation in Sonoma/Napa. That was really not to be, but it was difficult to complain about how that was going, when we met so many people forced to evacuate from the fires, who still had no idea of exactly where they were going to go, or what they were going to do, much less the status of their homes. I hope that your home can continue to stay out of harm's way, and that so many of those I met will be able to put their lives back together after this devasting event.

Unknown said...

Thanks for your real-ness, as always. You're not afraid of speaking what you feel - something many of struggle to do. I had a birthday on Tuesday too, and it sucked. And I'm not even in the fire zone.

I saved this all evening to read it in peace and quiet, because I knew it would be good.
I'm so sorry for the loss of your wife's beautiful horse. That really hurts.

Thanks for sharing.

Sarah Pittenger

Charlie Olken said...

Sadly, everybody in Napa and Sonoma has a fire story. Too many of them are incredibly sad, and everybody has one. Like so many, we have friends who have lost houses, we have Santa Rosa evacuees in the house next door, and my daughter's house in Sonoma Town is threatened and we can't get in to retrieve things we would like to save.

And we are the lucky ones.

We hope the new evacuation order up your way does not affect you.

Mike Dunne said...

Thank you for the update, and glad to hear all is well, relatively speaking. Very sorry to hear of the horse, and bless the selfless vet. And happy birthday, however late!

Vine Language said...

Thank you for sharing your story, Ron.

RAE Mueller said...

I love the Sonoma wine country, and Napa too. When I read here in Germany about the fire and saw the pictures on the web, I was stunned. Your account gave me a feel what it must be like to be in the middle of it. Thanks. And stay out fire's way.

AmitiesJerome said...

Happy Birthday Ron! I feel a certain kinship after the floods of hurricane Harvey here in Houston (how's that for alliteration!). But death by water to me seems more peaceful than death by fire....

PaulG said...

You remind us of the fragility of our individual worlds; of the brevity of our passage through life; of the solace to be found in the immensity of eternity. God bless, be strong, remain centered, hug your wife, thank your friends, help whomever you can, and know that so many of us are praying for your safety.

Wine-One-One said...

Ron very nicely said. I hope you never have to go through a situation like that again. You only hope that in the next 2 weeks that rains start as they usually do to prevent any more damage. The pictures of the Napa and Sonoma that I know look like a War Zone.
Stay safe my friend.

Unknown said...

Words seem out of reach right now, but somehow you found them. Be safe. Karen (Evacuated)

Unknown said...

Thanks Ron. Your story connects everyone to what's happening there now. You, family and all are in my thoughts. Hope you get to celebrate 65th somehow.

Amy said...

Thanks Ron. Sometimes you have to get personal to wrap words around such an unfathomable disaster. Beautiful.

Mel Knox said...

Happy birthday
You don't look a day over 63!


Ron Washam, HMW said...

My friends and common taters,

About twenty minutes after I posted this essay I was back outside hosing down the roof of our house and the surrounding grassland and trees. Three hours after that we evacuated again. We're home again, safe for the moment, and grateful beyond words for our luck and well-being.

If you want to help (not me, I'm fine), it's not hard to find places to donate money online. Do so. The ten bucks you spend on Starbucks every day can go a long way to help the people here, many of whom have lost everything, or worse, lost a loved one. Buy a cheaper bottle of wine tonight, give the rest to wine country. Simple.

Thanks to everyone who commented, and for the birthday wishes. I got what I wanted for my birthday--my family and my home. Maybe I shouldn't have blown out the candles so hard.

Karen MacNeil--I hope you return to find everything intact. Best of luck. Much love to you.

Charlie--Gosh, I hope your daughter's house is OK! Best of luck, my friend.

Sarah--Happy Belated Birthday! Thanks for the kind words and thoughts. I dashed this piece off in about 30 minutes, and it shows, but I tried to speak from the heart. At times like this, that's all we have.

I don't know if I'll have more to say about the fires. So many will write about it, and many with more talent. Not that anyone is clamoring for my thoughts. The way that the wine business has rallied around Napa and Sonoma will, I promise, never be forgotten. I insult everyone, I mock those in positions of power in the biz, but I'm proud of how the wine world has tried to help those in need here. Thank you. It's meant more than you can know.

Marcia Macomber said...

Happy Belated Birthday, Ron!

How bittersweet... :-( My deepest condolences to Kathleen on Lorian's passing. It's the loss of life that is truly unbearable during the fires.

Stay safe! We're still not yet completely out of the woods. But thank heavens for all the first responder support that has poured into wine country.


Unknown said...

Happy Birthday Ron.

I'm glad you and Kathleen are safe. We put out a post asking for supplies for those affected by this tragedy. The outpouring of support has been overwhelming. In one day we filled a tractor trailer with supplies that were delivered on Friday. The donations keep coming and another truck will be delivered this week. Stay safe my friend. Our thoughts are with you all.


Julie Pedroncelli St. John said...

As usual Ron you described the situation so many are or were in last week with great eloquence. So much was lost, so much to do in the future to rebuild. Glad you made it through virtually unscathed. Many of us are asked to use our talents as we rebuild and I hope you use your writing skills to document all or part of the story. A belated happy birthday too.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Marcia Love,

I'm glad to hear you're safe, too. There are far worse tragedies and outcomes than mine and my wife's. Enough loss to last a lifetime around here. A fearsome reminder that we are a small part, and maybe the worst part, of Nature.

Cheers, my friend! The outpouring of support from the wine community all over the state, all over the country, all over the world, has been astonishing, and, believe me, everyone here feels the love and needed the kindness. This wasn't just some little brush fire. It was a fire no one has seen the likes of before in California. I told my silly little story just to try to come to grips with the disaster myself, not for any other reason really. My wife and I were lucky. Not smart, not prepared, not deserving--just lucky. Thanks for all of your help to our community. The need here is overwhelming at the moment.

Those are kind words. I didn't feel eloquent, I felt small. Writing helped. I don't know if I'll write more about the subject. I have no idea. Right now, like you, I'm living hour by hour, trying to see if "normal" even exists anymore. And feeling lucky to have been relatively unscathed. Thank you for being a common tater, and I hope you were equally as unscathed.

Jim Caudill said...

So sorry to hear about the horse, but glad you're hanging in. Ironically, we snuck back to our place in Bennett Valley, but because the National Guard is barricading all the roads in, I can't leave or I wouldn't be let back in. Oy Vey. Early Monday morning we evacuated for the first of three times, faced with the realization that we have four horses and a three horse trailer. Luckily, a friend came with another trailer and we evac'd to her farm in Petaluma, where we stayed most of the week. Thinking about having to choose three of four was haunting, to say the least. And yeah, happy birthday, too. About lighting those 65 candles....

Aaron said...

Well, happy birthday!

I've been keeping an eye on the news of the fires, and some emails from various wineries/wine merchants, and it's simply horrible. And today upon waking up there's been a bit of a smell of smoke in the air, even down here in LA I can't help but think a fair bit of the smoke has made it's way down the coast to here, simply incredible. This year is definitely going to be a vintage to remember, for those that had their grapes in and don't have their facilities damaged.

Such an unprecedented fire, and moving so fast with those terrible winds. I can't imagine, just stay safe!