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Sonoma County from the Ashes

I'm one of the lucky ones
The California wildfires have devastated the Sonoma County town of Santa Rosa.
Photo by: Gabrielle Lurie/Polaris
The California wildfires have devastated the Sonoma County town of Santa Rosa.

Posted: Oct 14, 2017 11:30am ET

Serene becomes surreal faster than you think.

Sunday, Oct. 8, was a pleasant day in Sonoma County. Harvest was winding down. Dry leaves shuffled like cards in the trees as the wind picked up late in the day. After dinner in Sonoma, my wife and I drove north, back home to Santa Rosa, just before 10 p.m.

The winds as we drove were stronger than any I'd experienced in my nearly 30 years living here. Highway 12 north toward Kenwood was a minefield of tree limbs and debris, and as we approached Pagani Ranch, far off in the mountains to the east, we saw the first signs of the Nuns fire.

My daughter called later. Her husband is a second-generation firefighter born in Sonoma Valley, now working in San Francisco. I walked outside as we were talking and saw an ominous glow scowling beyond the mountains to the north of us, a different fire from the one we saw in Kenwood.

As we hastily packed, the power blinked out, and we rushed to our cars and drove to a safe place.

That was just the beginning of the Northern California wildfires that have been scorching Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino, Lake Counties and beyond. I've spent the week on edge, and believe me, I was lucky. My son is a freshman in college and 10 of his best friends lost everything. Nearly 6,000 Sonoma County homes and businesses are now ash; many of those folks have jobs related to the wine industry.

The devastated neighborhood you've seen most often on TV is Santa Rosa's Coffey Park. My family lived there for five years. It was a middle-class neighborhood, and my kids rode their bikes there. They trick-or-treated there, and we walked along with wineglasses that were often filled at a friendly house.

Our old house survived, as did nearby warehouse wineries like Carol Shelton and Siduri. But again, amid loss of this scope, luck feels shallow.

Santa Rosa, a city of nearly 180,000, has been my adopted hometown for decades. We live in the eastern outskirts of the city, just a few miles from the Sonoma Valley wine region. I drive through Kenwood so often that the beauty of the place was often lost on me. The fire has reportedly taken a huge toll there and in nearby Glen Ellen.

Sonoma's wine and food community has stepped up. Native boy Guy Fieri—yeah, he's really a decent guy—brought in his food troops to feed responders and the newly homeless. Restaurants like Zazu in Sebastopol and Valette in Healdsburg unselfishly supplied food.

Living in the heart of this disaster, it has been difficult as an old-school journalist to think about wine seriously. I worked at the local paper years ago and have admired the reporting and photography of old friends; and I'm also proud of the focus and dignity of Wine Spectator's coverage.

In the end, it has to be about people. And for me, that's my son-in-law, Nick. His family has been in Sonoma Valley for generations; he has been on the frontlines of the fire in Sonoma Valley since early Monday.

Godspeed Nick, and come home safe.

David Ramey
Healdsburg, CA —  October 14, 2017 4:45pm ET
Hard to write eloquently about a tragedy of this magnitude, Tim—but you did.
Tim Fish
Sonoma County —  October 14, 2017 11:15pm ET
Thanks David. It was therapeutic for me. Be safe my friend
Jeffrey D Travis
Sarasota, FL —  October 15, 2017 10:27am ET
I’ve never met you, but I hope I do some day. How do you know the words that capture the feelings so well; “but again, amid loss of this scope, luck feels shallow”? Thank you for caring. Thank you for sharing.
Tim Fish
Sonoma County —  October 15, 2017 12:51pm ET
Thanks Jeffrey. Hurricanes where you are, fires here. Oy.
Tom & Nancy Brown
Louisville, KY —  October 15, 2017 3:50pm ET
Tim, my wife and I stay at the Jack London Lodge in Glen Ellen each time we visit wine country. It is close to our hearts. Any news about that motel and other downtown Glen Ellen establishments?
Tim Fish
Sonoma County —  October 15, 2017 5:38pm ET
Tom and Nancy

A few days ago I heard there was some damage but it was relatively intact. Reports from that part of the valley have been vague and sometimes conflicting.
Tim Fish
Sonoma County —  October 15, 2017 7:31pm ET
Saddened to report that while Carol Shelton's winery survived, Carol and husband Mitch lost their home. Such great folks.

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