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Aerial view of Santa Rosa after Sonoma County wildfires (from the Press Democrat)

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Bill  On The Road

 by: Bill Oetinger  11/1/2017

Indian Summer, one year later

On Saturday, October 8, I went for a solo ride around some of the pretty backcountry of Sonoma County: through the suburban fringe of Larkfield and Wikiup and north over Chalk Hill to Alexander Valley, then south along the gorge of Mayacama Creek into peaceful, remote Knights Valley, tucked in under the shoulder of Mt St Helena. 

It was a perfect autumn moment, just the sort of day I had in mind when I wrote my November column last year in praise of Indian Summer. That late-season, honey sunlight shining down on vineyards and cattle ranches, all hedged about by pine woods and old oaks. I stopped by a little lake along Franz Valley Road for a bite, sitting on my top tube and letting the beauty soak into me…just about perfect.

Next up was the lumpy, stairstep climb out of Franz Valley: a nice bit of work to get the blood moving around. I stopped again at the summit to take in the view off the far side of the ridge, down into the canyon of Mark West Creek. Back in sheltered Knights Valley, there had not been a hint of wind. But as I stood on the top of the ridge, facing west, I could feel a breeze wafting up the canyon below. I pictured Mark West Creek meandering down its draw to the outskirts of Santa Rosa, then joining the Russian River for its run to the sea. I could sense that wind off the ocean following the path of least resistence: up the river valley and on up into the hills along the creek. Watersheds aren’t just about moving water; they channel the wind as well.

So…down the snappy descent and back west along Mark West Springs Road toward Santa Rosa. I escaped the traffic on the main road as soon as I could via winding Reibli Road, squeezing through the quaint old barnyard and then descending along Brush Creek. All good stuff and all part of this wonderful back road paradise we call home.

Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past month, you can probably figure out where this story line is headed next.

Twenty-four hours after my ride, those cool breezes off the ocean backed around 180° and blew up into hot, fierce Diablo winds out of the NE. Over in Napa County, just north of Calistoga, the winds knocked down some power lines and transformers near Tubbs Lane (right along the route of our Terrible Two double century). That ignited fires in the tinder-dry grass, and with the wind at their back, the flames gathered force and headed west. Within six hours on Sunday night, the fire exploded and raced up and over that ridge I had just visited, then stormed down the wooded canyon of Mark West Creek at up to 50 mph, incinerating everything in its path.

By midnight it was on the outskirts of the bigger city of Santa Rosa, already raging through the outlying neighborhoods of Mark West Springs, Larkfield, and Wikiup. The winds were pushing the fire forward at an almost unbelievable pace, blowing hot coals right across the wide concrete river of Highway 101 and into the densely packed suburbs of Coffey Park  and up into the hillside homes of Fountaingrove. Meanwhile, almost simultaneously, a dozen other fires broke out across the North Bay, from Atlas Peak outside the city of Napa to any number of nasty fronts along Sonoma Vallley, and also up into Mendocino County near Ukiah. Some were started from more downed power lines and others from embers blown from the earlier fires. It was Murphy’s Law on steroids. Everything that could go wrong did. The fire was a voracious omnivore: wood, brick, asphalt, concrete, tile, stucco…this fire didn’t care. Whatever was in its path, it chewed it up and spit out ash and rubble.

You know the rest. It was the top news story of the week, pushing the hurricanes in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico right off the front page and out of the evening news churn. Now, as I write this on October 26, the fires are almost all contained or entirely out. Over 200,000 acres burned. 8000 homes and businesses destroyed. 42 dead so far with still at least a dozen unaccounted for. Many thousands of people lost everything they owned, or if they didn’t lose their homes, they may have lost a job at one of the many businesses destroyed. But it could have been even worse. After the first couple of days the winds abated and backed around again to blow in from the coast and the heroic firefighters finally got on top of it. 

More than 10,000 firefighters from all over the country worked themselves to exhaustion battling fires on many different fronts in extremely rugged terrain. Over 600 engines on the ground and the largest fire-suppression air fleet ever deployed in US history…it was a war zone full of everyday heroes. At one point when I couldn’t find a current update on the local TV news, I switched to CNN just in time to see footage of worn out firefighters sleeping on the ground…not on cots or in tents; just face down on the ground in their gear, wherever they happened to collapse. And the announcer said, “These are the volunteer firefighters of Sebastopol.”…my little home town. After days of heartbreak and trauma…after fighting to save our own home…after opening our home to folks from Coffey Park who lost everything…it finally caught up with me. I was so proud of those Sebastopol firefighters and so blown away by all of it, I just started to cry. 

Once, many years ago, I spent one very long day and night working a big wildfire as a volunteer. It was hot, hard, and occassionally dangerous, and in spite of my being a very fit 25 years old, I don’t think I’ve every been so tired at the end of one day. That tiny snippet of firefighting helps me appreciate what these people do for us. As Winston Churchill said about the fighter pilots in the Battle of Britain: never have so many owed so much to so few.

We know so many people who have lost their homes and everything in them, including many members of the Santa Rosa Cycling Club…our riding buddies and fellow volunteers at so many bike events. (The Levi’s King Ridge GranFondo had just run the previous weekend and many of our folks were out there working the rest stops.) But the club itself suffered as well. Our warehouse on the north edge of the Coffey Park neighborhood burnt to the ground. Every single thing the club owned is gone. “Warehouse” hardly describes our facility. It was a large, sturdy barn down a quiet country lane, surrounded by walnut groves, oak trees, and vineyards. We called it the Mother Ship…a vast space filled two stories high with everything you can imagine needing to put on a bike event: hundreds of ice chests and water coolers; dozens of canopies and folding tables and chairs; first aid kits and sag boxes; camp chairs, tarps, road signs, barbecues, buckets, brooms, garbage cans, big box trailers, bike racks, shelving, lockers…not to mention an almost endless list of improvements to the building itself made by volunteer club carpenters…thousands of hours of work provided by handy members over 20 years, including a full-service kitchen. It was more than a storage facility. It was our clubhouse where we had summer picnics under the oaks and New Year’s Day revels around a fire pit. It was the heart and soul of the largest bike club north of the Golden Gate. Now it’s just another of the thousands of piles of toxic ash and debris dotting the North Bay, awaiting clean-up. All of the equipment that underpinned our Wine Country Century and Terrible Two Double Century—that helped make them the best-supported rides in the Bay Area—kaput. Now what?

Those in charge have vowed to rebuild the warehouse and to host the Wine Country Century and Terrible Two and all the other events on our annual calendar. Other clubs in the region are offering to pitch in with their supplies. Bike shops and tour companies are offering assistance. Fund-raisers are planned. Personally, I have committed to designing graphics built around a Phoenix, the mythical bird that rises from the ashes of a fire. In the first body-slam of shock after the event, many wondered if the will was there to get back up off the mat and fight on. But apparently that will does exist. We’ll keep you posted as the big recovery picks up speed.

And then there’s the natural world around the towns. Given the overwhelming scope of this catastrophe, with so many homes and businesses destroyed and so many people dead or displaced, it may seem like a small sidebar, but eventually we will ride our bikes back out onto those once wonderful back roads to discover what burned and what escaped. No one I know has done much of that yet. Many of the most affected areas are still closed to public access and anyway, until a few days ago, the air was too foul for any sort of exercise. But we have seen quite a bit in satellite images or on the news. It’s going to be grim, coming around a corner and discovering a favorite grove of trees now burnt over. 

I may have been one of the last cyclists to enjoy the beauty out along Knights Valley and Franz Valley and little Reibli Road. I saw one especially dramatic clip of film from the dash cam of a sheriff’s car, speeding through a terrifying firestorm along Franz Valley on Sunday night and I recognized the trees and fences I had just cruised past the day before, now engulfed in flames. It made it feel so…personal. This news isn’t about some far away disaster that we see for a few minutes on TV and then forget about. This is here. This is now. And it’s going to be our new reality for years to come. However…

In the week before the fires, I had been helping some cyclists from Colorado lay out a week-long tour through the North Bay for next summer. (Great route!) Now they are asking me: should we cancel the trip? The answer is an emphatic NO. Do not cancel. Do not stay away. Please come. The fires, as bad as they were, didn’t take out everything. Most of what you’ll see on a typical back road ride will still look fine. Also, nature abhors a vacuum: where the tree canopy is burnt out, wildflowers move in. You will see lupine and owl’s clover in vast, colorful carpets come springtime. These may be the worst fires we’ve ever seen but they are far from the first. The urban devastation will be the hardest to fix, with the most heart-breaking sort of healing, but the natural landscape out along the creeks and meadows and valleys will recover more seamlessly. With the rains that begin this month, the healing will commence.

All best wishes and profound sympathy to everyone who suffered any sort of loss in these firestorms and all best hopes for all of us that we can find the grit and resilience to get past this.

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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