Reflections on the Glass Fire — one month later

I walk a lot these days — not because I need to , but because it keeps me close to the land

You see, a month ago I lost my land along with my home and everything in it.

It was the eve of Yom Kippur and when I woke that morning there was the familiar smell of smoke in the air. Living in rural Sonoma County I’ve become accustomed to the environment we now live in — Threats to health and welfare lurking all around us — unseen but still palpable and very real.

I checked the source of the smoke and found that the fire was just outside of Calistoga a town of 5000 about 20 miles due east of me. That was concerningly close, but the wind was blowing south and in between it and me lay the town itself as well as miles of forest and Hood Mountain , a 2700 ft peak at whose base my 8.5 acre homestead lay, nestled against a spring fed creek that runs all year and up which salmon still swim.

Throughout the day I kept track of what was going on near Calistoga. Soon the fire had been named, and while that meant it had become a major problem, the news was still relatively encouraging in that Cal Fire was making this one a priority and was deploying an enormous amount of resources to containing it and limiting its impact on the people who lived in Napa county where the fire was centered. I had been through this too many times before, including in 2017 when the Nuns Fire came within a mile of my property and so I was concerned but not overly so. I was confident that I and my neighbors would not have a problem with the fire itself though there was always the possibility that PG&E would shut off our power to prevent it from spreading. I was half-expecting that soon I would be getting a “prepare to evacuate” or even an “evacuation warning” text, but my phone is filled almost to capacity with those messages received over the last few weeks since fire season began, so while I don’t ignore them, I had, unfortunately, gotten too used to false alarms and was therefore wholly unprepared for what came next

Some time in the middle of the afternoon, things took an ominous turn. A light dusting of ash started raining down on us and the quality of the air began to deteriorate badly. It took some time for us to figure out that the wind had shifted and that the fire was getting closer. This is when I made my next mistake. I assumed that since Calistoga was between me and the fire that if there was any danger, I would get plenty of warning because all those residents would need to evacuate first and that would give me plenty of time to get ready. It never occurred to me that the fire might simply go around the town and head straight for Hood Mountain.

Feeling worried, but in need of some grounding I attended my temple’s online Kol Nidre service — in some ways the most important holy day of the Jewish year. The service ended at 7:30 and by then the evacuation warnings were creeping closer.

I went to find my contractor Patrick, a brilliant and resourceful ex-football player from Georgia who was staying on my property while working on adding a bathroom and an outdoor kitchen to one of the out-buildings on my property. Having only been in Sonoma since June (he had come to visit my caretaker and find some work in the area), this was his first California fire season and even though I warned him that a wildfire was nothing to mess with, he seemed supremely calm and in control. I told him that the fire seemed to be headed our way and as he surveyed the property he said that he thought that we would be ok, but he was going to start cleaning up the job site “just in case”.

Then things began to both speed up and to move in slow motion. A little after 8:30 an evacuation warning came through and I knew it was time to act. And here is where I made my final and most costly mistake. Instead of gathering stuff and packing, I spent the next precious 20 minutes walking through my house trying to decide what I would take if and when an actual evacuation order came. I asked Patrick if we had any boxes so I could start packing and he said that he thought there were some around, and while I started poking around, my mind fruitlessly started evaluating and prioritizing, mentally packing and trying to estimate what would fit into my pick up truck and what I would have to leave behind because it was too bulky.

Then suddenly I was out of time.

At 9pm the evacuation order came, and now there was no mistaking what was happening. The fire was climbing up the back side of Hood Mountain and if it came down the other side we were in real trouble — right in the fire’s path backed up against a thick forest so tangled and overgrown that even walking through it on a normal day is a struggle. I couldn’t imagine how Cal Fire could possibly stop it if it ever got that far.

I was freaked, but at least I was now moving and acting. I had frittered away all my margin, and now could only grab and go. I got my passport, birth certificate, my will and a few other documents laying loose on my desk. I grabbed as many pictures of my family I could throw into the one large suitcase I’d found and threw a few clothes into a gym bag that was lying on my bedroom floor. I made sure I got my laptops and some notebooks containing notes for my unfinished book manuscript, and on the way out I was able to pick up a couple of pieces of memorabilia like an album of my 1960’s baseball cards and a couple of Grateful Dead relics, but that was it.

I texted a friend in Berkeley to make sure I had a place to go and then asked Patrick help me load the truck. At 9:15 I was driving down our private dirt road and eventually onto Los Alamos, then across 12 onto Melita road taking the back way to 101 to avoid the rush. I got onto the highway just in time to get a frighteningly urgent follow up call from Sonoma County telling me to run for my life and as I headed south towards Berkeley I passed a huge line of fire trucks coming up from Marin to fight the fire.

Meanwhile, despite my pleas that he evacuate as well, Patrick stayed to try and save my house. Why he risked his life to save the home of someone he had only met a few weeks ago is still one of the great mysteries in my life, but stay he did. For hours he fought desperately to save my house, hosing down the deck, digging fire breaks and moving equipment and lumber out of the way of the flames that were now on the land burning my stables and the redwood deck next to it. He worked side by side with the Cal Firefighters until after midnight when even he had to surrender to the overwhelming awesome power of nature’s fury. At the last minute he threw some tools into his little Mazda and drove through the flames right behind Cal Fire who themselves had just abandoned my home to fall back and fight the fire from Los Alamos a mile down the road.

It was only days later that I got the full story from Patrick. It seems that the fire came roaring down the mountain and then vacuumed through the little valley around the creek exploding into a firestorm that consumed everything along our dirt road only slowing down when it hit the pavement where Wildwood Trail becomes a public road. Patrick never had a chance, and yet some combination of courage, heroism and bull-headed stubbornness kept him fighting a hopeless battle against impossible odds until it was truly a question of living or dying. I am profoundly grateful he chose life, as otherwise I could never forgive myself for letting him stay and try to save my home.

Now three weeks later, I finally have a little space to call my own — a tiny studio apartment near downtown owned by Marta, the kind woman who runs a vintage clothes store in Railroad Square. She and others like her are what makes this community what it is and why I call it home. There is Linda who is an old Deadhead like me and still sells antiques out of a barn near town and there is her friend Leo who lost everything he had in the fire as well but somehow still smiles and offers help to anyone who needs it. They had me over for a hot meal in her backyard the other night and even though they have each suffered grievous losses this year, they opened their house and their hearts to me. There is something uniquely wonderful about this town and the people who live here. Probably it comes from the fact that most of these folks have deep roots in Sonoma County and the catastrophes that keep visiting this place simply bring us all closer and make us more committed to look out for each other.

Wherever it comes from, Santa Rosa is a very special place and gives me hope for the future.

I walk a lot these days, not just because it keeps me close to the land, but also because it keeps me close to the people of this town and of this county. Even though COVID has made it dangerous to get too close, we are finding our way — to joy, to gratitude, to curiosity and to connection. Maybe we are even moving toward something a little lighter than the stormy darkness that surrounds us. Only time will tell.

I wanted my property to be a sanctuary — I’d even opened up a bank account to make it so. Valley Oak Sanctuary is the name I gave it in honor of the dozens of centuries old Oaks that lived on my land. Happily, many of them survived. My vision was for the property to become an island of peace and safety amidst the anger, conflict and danger that seems to surround us. That vision will now have to be deferred — at least for a while

And yet I know that Valley Oak Sanctuary will emerge once again, and while I don’t know when, how, or in what form it will take, I do know where it will be — at the end of a dirt road by a creek at the base of Hood Mountain. Hopefully it will happen soon, and while I can’t yet focus on rebuilding, when it happens, you will know. I won’t keep it a secret

Actuary and author | www.peterneuwirth.com