The Wine Country Fires

by Marcel Siegle
It's been a week now that we are back home and are slowly getting back to normal, what ever that normal will be. Many stories have and will be written about this unprecedented event, here is our take on the night when all hell broke loose in our beloved Wine Country. On October 8th, still jet lagged from a recent trip to Europe, I had gone to bed early, around 8pm. My wife Meher and my daughter Ava were still watching a TV show while I fell asleep to the tinkling sound of our wind chimes serenading the wind. At 11:15PM I woke up to the insistent buzz of my cell phone and the wind chimes screaming. It was our neighbor and friend Megan, a former bride of ours, and the main reason we ended up living in the wine country (long story short). Normally Megan never calls me directly, I also do not normally have my phone turned on at night and normally the wind chimes don’t sound like they want to murder someone, but there was nothing normal about this night.
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The red glow as it could be seen from our house. Enhanced iPhone image.

“There is a fire, it’s coming fast and you need to evacuate,” were the first things Megan said, then she hung up. I immediately woke up Meher and ran outside. The wind was howling and branches were flying everywhere. Towards the North the dark sky was an unforgettable blood red. We could tell that the fire was still relatively far away and the winds seemed to be in our favor, which gave us some time to collect our thoughts.

While we were coming up with an evacuation plan, Megan was driving up another country road, further up our hill, at 30 miles an hour to wake up friends, Cristy and Jeff who weren't answering their phones. 30 mph may not sound fast, but if you are driving a Mini on a dirt road, during hurricane force winds, with trees and branches falling all around you, you might think differently. She got there in one piece and after yanking them out of bed, headed back on the same dirt road towards the horse ranch.

Around 11:20PM, minutes after Megan’s call, once dressed, we sprang into action. The first thing we did was get the headlamps and flashlights, we knew power loss would be imminent and we did not want to be fumbling around in the dark. 

Second, we called the head of our neighborhood alert system, as it turned out he was already on top of it trying to get the automated emergency telephone calls to all our neighbors. 

Third, wake the neighbors . . . so this is where things went a little sideways for us. While we could reach some people by phone, others would not answer. Not being able to get a hold of a neighbor two houses down Meher took one of our cars, while I was running over to our other neighbor to "knock" him out of bed. When I came back home, Ava was already packing her things and was asking where Mom was. I told her that she had left to check on one of our neighbors, when she yelled at me: “You let Mom drive?!!?  Didn’t she take a sleeping tablet?” It’s never fun to be scolded by your 16 year old daughter, especially when she is right.

Meher is a lightweight, she does not drink and when she does a glass of beer gets her loopy. She also never takes sleeping aids, but on this night she had, and I just found out.

“She will be fine”, I thought grabbing bags out of the garage when I got the call:  “You did what?” I yelled before jumping into the Prius with Ava and heading down the road. Trying to get back from the neighbor, Meher decided to go to check on Megan who lived at the horse ranch further down.  When she got close to the stables she saw a commotion on the road around the barn entrance (more about that later), so she decided to turn around on our narrow country road, and in doing so placed her front two wheels perfectly into the newly cleaned up drainage ditch.

The scene in front of me was utter chaos. There were several trucks with horse trailers on St. Helena Rd, patiently waiting to get into the stables in order to evacuate the horses. Close to the entrance our car was blocking half the road, and in addition, cars were stopped in both directions trying to pass. At this point we were starting to really smell the smoke and we could hear explosions in the background. Luckily, thanks to our great neighbors it only took us a few minutes to get the car pulled out and the lane opened up again. (Thanks Scooby and Jeff)

After pulling out the car we immediately went back home to continue with our evacuation. Living in fire and earthquake country we always had a rough plan of what to do. I happened to have a ladder close to the house and climbing on the roof I was able to get a better sense of the fire. It looked like we had some time and that the winds were blowing westwards away from us for now. So we quickly established a priority of what we should pack. 

Here is the order we took things. Meher was in charge of documents/passports, photos and art, and other valuables.  She had everything packed up in less than 15 minutes. I was in charge of everything work related. Photo equipment, iMac, back up drives. Once those first items were packed we checked again on the fire and started with the next round of items. Clothing, laptop, workstation, couple more drives, chargers, clothing. Once that was packed, a quick check on the fire, next up some fly fishing gear, yes, I could not leave my fly fishing stuff behind, and last but not least we packed up our chickens. Evacuating the chickens was last on the list as that could could have been time intensive. Luckily chickens are night-blind, and pretty docile and we got them into a cardboard box without a problem. We were all packed up within an hour from Megan’s call, including waking up some of the neighbors and subsequent car trouble.

Meher was in communication with our friends Will and Carol, who lived in the Mark West area, just above Safari West. They had already evacuated and where headed to Will’s mom Lynn in Oakmont. Since Meher was still loopy from the sleeping tablet, Ava had to step up and drive our car to Oakmont dodging high winds, falling branches and even a fallen tree.

The Horse Barn

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Last horse trailer leaving at Mark West Stables as flames are coming close. Enhanced iPhone image.

Before joining up with Meher and Ava in Oakmont I headed down to the Horse Stables down the road. When I got to Mark West Stables, a crew of women were busy loading horses. In total they had to evacuate 26 horses, some of which had to be gotten from pasture. When Virginie (owner/trainer) had gotten the call around 11PM that there was a fire she immediately called Alicia Robinson, a professional horse hauling service in Cotati. Within 20 minutes they had several horse trailers at the ranch ready to be loaded. Twenty minutes from Cotati to the Horse Ranch is impressive with a regular car, with a truck pulling a large horse trailer that is mind blowing.  The women had a plan, they patiently waited on the road in order not to block the drive way and loading zone. They did not even show any signs of panic when we got our car stuck, which cannot be said for some other folks. The women had a clear plan in place as to which horses went first and which ones would go last. Duncan, a big draft horse was last, and seeing the trouble he gave everyone it was clear why. Most of the other horses, sensing the danger, evacuated beautifully, without problems. While the women where loading, the men tried to make themselves useful by staying out of the way; and do what ever else needed to be done. After the last horse was loaded and the last saddle packed the horse trailer convoy left for the Sonoma County Fairgrounds. When the convoy was leaving flames could now be seen, as explosions and trees falling could be heard in the distance. One can only imagine how terrifying it must have been driving these loaded trailers down the steep Calistoga Rd. grade with the fierce winds (up to 70mph) and a fire on your tail.  When they arrived at the fairgrounds they were the first barn in. They unloaded the horses in record time and within less than half an hour drove off to evacuate two more barns that night. It must have been quite a sight to see that convoy of horse trailers driving towards the path of the fires while most people were driving the other way!


After Meher and Ava left the barn, I got a text saying that they arrived safely at Lynn’s and that I should watch out for a fallen tree on HWY 12; and by the way, she saw fire there too. I made a few more calls and then stopped at Megan’s who was still packing her car. She had been so busy helping others that she had no time to evacuate herself. Scooby was hosing down the house as we frantically packed up some stuff and got out of there. Seeing Scooby putting a hose on the roof, I decided to head back home and do the same for our house. The ladder to the roof was already set up, so putting the hose on the roof was no problem, but once on the roof I realized I had no sprinkler. Fortunately, living in the country, I always carry a pocket knife and punctured the hose every two feet or so. The water was spraying all around me and I got somewhat wet, which felt surprisingly good. I remember staring a the red sky in awe listening to the wind chimes, and wondering if I would ever see our place again.

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Fire along HWY 12 one mile east of Oakmont.

Since Meher had warned me about the fallen tree on HWY 12, I drove the back way through Oakmont to get to Lynn’s. For those who do not know, Oakmont is a well known retirement community on HWY 12 just east of Santa Rosa. Driving the back way, I got to some higher elevation and I saw that it was burning towards Kenwood. I was dumbfounded, this was a completely different fire. When I got to the house Ava was the only one still awake and opened the door for me, everyone else was fast asleep. On the radio I heard talk about the Kenwood fire, so I, unpacked a camera and Ava and I drove up the road, towards Kenwood, to assess the situation. Not even a mile up HWY 12 we were met with  
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The scene just one mile from the community of Oakmont. You can somewhat get a feel for the ferocity of the fire and the wind.

flames blowing across the road. I took some quick pictures and video and we headed back to the house. It was clear we needed to evacuate again and this time we were taking Grandma Lynn as well. Getting Meher up was not easy, she had settled into a deep sleep and was not wanting any of it. Since we had already unloaded the chickens in Grandma Lynn’s enclosed porch, trying to capture them was now out of the question. We packed up, made sure the chickens had some water and food and made our way outside. In a futile attempt to wake up the neighbors we put on our car alarm, but neither that, nor knocking on doors would get anyone up. We didn’t really know what to do when we heard the sirens, and on the radio came the news that Oakmont was being evacuated. “Let’s get out of here, before we get stuck in traffic,” our friend Carol shouted while we were still standing outside trying to figure out what to do. Carol used to be a school principal, so you don’t mess with her when she makes a decision.

The Fairgrounds.

The view of the Santa Rosa Veterans Building. That red glow is not a sunrise.

One of the communication lifelines during this event was our local station KSRO. The newscasters,  were giving live updates and relaying information to the public as fast as it came in. From what we gathered the Veterans building as well as the Sonoma fairgrounds were being setup as evacuation shelters, so we decided that going there would be our best and only bet. At around 3:00AM we found parking under the highway 12 overpass between the fairgrounds and the Veterans building. We all regrouped and then fell asleep trying to be comfortable in our fully packed cars. At this point we were still not fully aware of the extent and devastation of the fires and just glad to be at a safe spot.

At around sunrise we started loosing our cell phone service and reality started to sink in that this event was far worse than we could have imagined. Listening to the radio the news started pouring in, Fountain Grove burned, the Hilton in flames, Kaiser and Sutter evacuated, the neighborhood of Coffee Park burning, Mountain Ranch gone and so on. Those were just the fires to the North, to the east, parts of Kenwood area was burning. To the South fires were also out of control and then of course the fires in Napa Valley and Mendocino County, the scope was just unimaginable.

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Our second evacuation spot. The black sky is smoke from burning buildings.

There was also something else that was happening, something that would shine some light into the dark days to come. Something we saw in the night of the fire when neighbors where helping neighbors. A beautiful community spirit emerged, that could be felt throughout the entire wine country. Even before first responders from all over the state and out of state started arriving, private citizens and businesses stepped up. You could see people delivering food and water to the fairgrounds, local coffee companies set up free coffee stations, businesses and individuals alike would make hot food for first responders and evacuees. Others were handing out free breathing masks and water. At the fairgrounds where most large farm animals were evacuated to, barns and individuals that were not effected by the fire sent truck loads of horse supplies. People from all over the Bay Area and beyond donated to relief efforts and came as volunteers. And most importantly many people opened their homes to those in dire need. It was beautiful and reassuring to see the community support.

There was a brief period where we thought we lost our house, but we were very lucky. We ended up being evacuated for a total of 11 days and stayed for most of the time with a good friend who’s parents Wendy and John lost their house. We laughed, we cried, there was some dancing, but most importantly we made new friends. There were still some scary days, where Red Flag warnings were issued and we were afraid we had to evacuate again.  But fortunately the high winds that were forecasted never materialized.

One thing that kept our sanity was our love for cooking. We cooked a lot of comfort foods, nourishing body and soul. The rest of the days we spent volunteering, annoying the cops trying to get back to our house, and helping wherever we could. Oakmont ended up being evacuated for 9 days and our chickens tore up Grandma Lynn’s back porch, but they survived and are happy to be back home.

In total 42 people would lose their lives, more than 8000 structures burned, 5000 in Santa Rosa alone. Many people had to flee the fast approaching fire with just the shirt on their backs. In Sonoma county alone 70,000 students had to leave their homes during the fires, many did not have a home to come back to. In fact 11% of the students in my daughter’s school have lost their homes. Many of our friends did too, including Will and Carol who we evacuated with (here is a link to a story on Will and Carol in the Mercury News). There will be heartache for many more years to come as a new post-fire reality settles in. There also will be a lot of questions as to what made these fires so catastrophic. But one thing has become utterly clear is, that we live in an incredible community with an incredible spirit and that we are proud to be part of it.

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Signs of appreciation can be seen throughout the wine country

In closing we want to thank everyone, that wrote to us, offered a place to stay or were just checking in. We did have some communications issues, so sorry if we could not respond.

Kim and David thank you for taking us in that first day and taking care of our friends who were total strangers to you. Mary Beth, Abbot, Wendy and John, thank you for letting us "squat" at your place, we owe you 😉

And of course a big Thank You to all the first responders, National Guard, firemen and women, police and sheriff’s department. ——————————————————————————————————

Some more pictures of the Wine Country Fires.

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Sunrise at the Santa Rosa Veterans building - black smoke and wind


National Gard coming in.

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First evacuees arriving at the Fairgrounds. A lot of elderly had to be evacuated.

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Road block at Calistoga Rd. Cops were very patient with all the residence trying to get back into evacuation zones.

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Rincon Valley


Ash and particulates on a car hood


Road block, one of many


Fire Engines as far away as Los Angles and Washington State came to help out.


Road block toward Oakmont


Smoke covered sun at spring lake.


This fireman has been going for more than 12 hours straight.


Outskirts of the Rincon Valley neighborhood still burning. This is not even half a mile from two Santa Rosa schools.

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Fireman filling up water

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Fireman checking on a open gas line.

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Neighborhoods became war zones.


Fire in the hills of Santa Rosa.

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Staging area in Santa Rosa. Over 10,000 Fire fighters from all over the western states came to help fight the fires. There was even a team from Australia.

Devastating view from HWY12 towards Santa Rosa


A helicopter getting water from a vineyard irrigation pond near St. Helena.


Ground zero of the Tubs Lane Fire.

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The smoke was so thick you could stare directly at the sun.

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The Oakville Grade fire near St. Helena on the Napa County side.

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A tanker helicopter approaching to refill.

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