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‘Thought we were safe’

THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Jim Doerksen passed the first night of the Glass fire watching anxiously as the blaze burned to the east of his longtime St. Helena Road home, turning the sky an unsettling, deep red as the wildfire crossed the Mayacamas Mountains on its march toward east Santa Rosa and Highway 12.

The fire was close but moving south and southwest, on a path away from the refuge on Mark West Creek that Doerksen and his wife, Betty, have shared for nearly 40 years. Their 120-acre property, now owned by LandPaths, is home to the nonprofit’s Owl Camp, attended each year by hundreds of school-age children who immerse themselves in the landscape Jim Doerksen, 81, has stewarded since 1967.

Their 1851 farmhouse had been spared repeatedly from fires that burned to the north and south in years past. As dawn approached the morning of Sept. 28, Doerksen and three neighbors who stayed to defend the property began to think the fire might have passed them by once again, that they might breathe a little.

“We thought we were safe,” Doerksen said later. “We thought we were home free.”

Instead, a spot fire that ignited on Diamond Mountain, on the north side of St. Helena Road near the county line, unleashed a furious new offshoot of the wildfire that had been tearing through southern areas of the Mark West Creek watershed for hours already.

“It came with a vengeance and in a hurry,” said Sonoma County Fire District Battalion Chief Rob Bisordi, who had been trying to save homes on nearby Tarwater Road when he saw fire burning on the north of the steep-sided canyon.

A chaotic blur ensued. Stragglers who did not heed warnings to evacuate scrambled to flee encroaching flames. Ranchers who stayed behind were flung into

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unexpected battle. And dozens of firefighters already dispersed along the St. Helena Road corridor confronted a new fire front that would contribute to some of the most concentrated ruin in Sonoma County.

Four civilians, including a just-retired veteran firefighter, were injured that morning. Dozens of hillside houses were incinerated as flames spread out from Diamond Mountain, advancing west and dropping south below St. Helena Road and back up again, moving in directions dictated by wind and topography until the fire seemed to be coming from everywhere at once, witnesses said.

Fire crews themselves were forced to fall back as flames and embers flowed across St. Helena Road, engulfing the corridor and imperiling their life and safety.

The events of that morning underscore the unpredictable nature of fire, which can change direction without warning and will exploit every opportunity to burn into new areas, especially ones untouched by wildfires in years past. Though Sonoma County is all too familiar with the threat of wildfire, residents of St. Helena Road and firefighters alike were stunned by how quickly the Glass fire turned on them the morning of Sept. 28, trapping people along a narrow, country road with no safe path to escape.

“I think it caught us all a little bit by surprise,” Deputy Sonoma County Fire District Chief Ron Busch would say later.

During the hours on either side of dawn, the inferno destroyed nearly 100 structures in the area, most of them homes.

“It was almost like a nuclear bomb went off in there. It was such aggressive fire that went through there,” said Cyndi Foreman, Sonoma County Fire District division chief and fire marshal.

Untouched by fire

Landowners around St. Helena Road, part of what’s known more broadly as the Alpine Valley, historically have been lucky where other parts of the region have not. They’ve escaped the wrath of wildfires that have swept through the Mayacamas dating back a century, including the devastating 2017 Tubbs fire and the 1964 Hanly, which traveled much the same path from Calistoga to Santa Rosa, though at a substantially slower rate, with far less destructive results.

Knowing that decades of unburned fuel in the area only made the potential for wildfire more explosive, most residents cleared out as embers from the Glass fire apparently leaped across the Napa Valley the night of Sept. 27, igniting flames on the valley’s west side that quickly spread toward Sonoma County.

The first spot fire was reported near Spring Mountain Road, which turns into St. Helena Road at the Sonoma-Napa county line. It burned south, through steep, wooded terrain crossed by curving roadways that snake south of St. Helena Road. By late Sunday, the wildfire already was razing remote homes along Langtry Road just east of the county line, as well as Tarwater, Neal Creek and eventually Erland Road in Sonoma County.

The wind was aligned with the Santa Rosa Creek drainage, hastening its drive toward Los Alamos Road, the Valley of the Moon and, across Highway 12, Oakmont and Trione- Annadel State Park, as well, Busch said.

Many of those who call the Alpine Valley home already had sought safety elsewhere. But a small number who stayed through the night and into the next morning watched in horror as Sonoma County was once again ravaged by wildfire. Like Doerksen, they nervously tracked the flames that lit the sky to their east, torching ridgelines and casting a red glow.

They hoped fortune might be their friend once more — that the fire might bypass their community of remote homes as it moved north to south.

Even emergency officials, who ordered thousands of residents to flee east Santa Rosa and the Highway 12 corridor Sunday night and Monday morning, left the north side of St. Helena Road alone until it was clear a spot fire was firmly established on the northern side in the wee hours of Monday.

It was that fire that triggered the 4:34 a.m. evacuation of the area north of St. Helena Road, between Calistoga Road and the Napa County line, Sonoma County Emergency Management Director Chris Godley said.

Residents in the zone west of Calistoga Road and south of Porter Creek Road had been ordered to clear out more than five hours earlier, at 11:10 p.m. Sunday, while those south of St. Helena Road got the “go” order at 8:27 p.m., according to county records.

Alpine Club alert

Many already had departed, however, the result of a communitywide phone alert system created more than a decade ago by the Alpine Club, a nearly 80-year-old social benefit club focused in no small part on emergency response and fire prevention. Like most of Sonoma County, they had been aware of a growing wildfire in neighboring Napa County that erupted around 3:50 a.m. Sunday on the northeast rim of the Napa Valley. When two new fires ignited on the opposite side of Napa Valley, shortly before and after 7 p.m., the club notified its members to be ready to evacuate, president Karen Passafaro said.

Though her recently renovated home — rebuilt with fire-resistant materials and technology — would survive the blaze, she and her husband “got the hell out” right away, she said.

They ran into Foreman, well known to them through years of collaboration on community fire preparedness work, at the Safeway store at Highway 12 and Calistoga Road, which was being used a firefighter staging area. Gazing up at flames spreading across the hills above them, Foreman drove home her message. “She said, ‘Get your people out,’“ Passafaro said.

The club warned about 400 households to prepare to evacuate at 7:42 p.m. and, at 10:11 p.m., said they should leave. The fire already was burning rapidly through the hills in the southeastern part of the corridor when the Diamond Mountain branch made its run, sweeping west and flushing firefighters out of the eastern end of the canyon, Busch said.

Engine crews had planned to make their way to the Doerksens’ to hunker down. Located in a widened area of the canyon with long driveways and a fire hydrant, along with access to a reservoir that started with more than 200,000 gallons of storage, the property was the perfect shelter — temporarily, at least.

The fire was moving fast, however, sweeping west toward Monan’s Rill, a 414-acre community near Mattei Road and Puff Lane. The residents of Monan’s Rill would lose 12 of 13 cherished homes in their nearly 50-year-old Quaker-inspired community.

Among those who had been watching and waiting on the same side of the canyon was Rachelle Brooke, who had just closed out 27 years of service with the Santa Rosa Fire Department, retiring two weeks earlier from her post as an apparatus engineer. She also had spent nine years with Cal Fire, including time on a helitack crew.

The youngest two of her four children, ages 17 and 20, had been sent to stay with friends on Sunday afternoon, just in case, though there wasn’t even smoke in the area at the time, Brooke said. Luckily, when they were told to “pack up anything you want to keep that you absolutely can’t lose” her teenage son included his mother’s fire helmet, dress uniform and recent fire service photographs, though she didn’t know at the time. They also took two of the family’s four dogs.

On fire watch

Brooke, meanwhile, would eventually assume watch from the back deck of the family’s two-story log house off Mattei Road, which winds steeply uphill on the north side of St. Helena Road across from the Doerksens’ Rancho Mark West.

From her perch midway up the north side, she could see across the canyon, over the top of the Doerksens’ place, the old Christmas tree farm they had operated at the edge of Mark West Creek, and the mixed redwood and Douglas fir forest rising behind it. Above the ridgeline, the fire was visible as it overran the upper reaches of Los Alamos and Holst roads, west of Hood Mountain.

But the wind was blowing the fire south, toward Oakmont and the Skyhawk subdivision, keeping it from coming over the ridge toward the north, said Brooke, 57. She made that ridge “our trigger point: if it comes over that ridge at all, we’re leaving,” she said.

Brooke, like her husband, Chris Edy, thought it would stop there. Edy even went upstairs to bed.

Brooke stayed out on the deck, watching the fire blow away from them, when suddenly, “I started hearing popping … from a completely opposite direction.”

She grabbed a broom and banged on the ceiling to alert her husband, calling, “We gotta go.”

Their property, which runs alongside an unnamed creek, includes nine buildings. All but one, a rental unit, would burn down that night.

Their home was not on fire yet when they decided to leave, and the flames were still low, coming down hill toward the creek from the northwest. Brooke and Edy made quick work of trying to knock back some low spot fires with a hose and some sprinklers until their water tank melted in the heat.

They were running to their vehicles when Edy sucked in toxic smoke from a tarp-covered wood pile that had caught fire. He would later learn he had smoke inhalation injuries and carbon monoxide poisoning, requiring brief hospitalization.

Brooke sprinted past a venting propane tank that suddenly ruptured its line, shooting flames across the driveway that ignited her sneakers. She instinctively pulled the right one off with her left hand, injuring it, and had burned her left foot by the time she used a rock to remove the other shoe. She would land in a burn center for a week.

But they managed to get their SUVs down Mattei to St. Helena Road, only to be blocked by a fire engine whose crew was still running across the Doerksens’ flaming field. Two more engines were heading toward the first engine, resulting in a near crash, Brooke said. It was clear the roadway, with flames blowing across it, would not offer safe passage to passenger vehicles.

Brooke remembered receiving her official order to evacuate around that time and thinking, “I hope everybody’s evacuated, because anybody who evacuates now, is going to die.”

She and Edy instead turned around with a large cleared field in front of their house as their goal, racing the flames they saw already burning up the creekbed toward their house, fearing it could cut them off at the hairpin turn in the road, which veers close to the stream bank.

Once they’d reached the field, Brooke found her way to a decorative stone wishing well nearby containing a small pool of spring water, where she cooled her burns. Edy climbed aboard a small bulldozer and scraped the field down to dirt to minimize any chance the fire could surround their vehicles.

How long they waited there in the dark is unknown. At some point, fire that was coming from two directions was coming from three, and Edy was looking increasingly gray, his wife said. They watched as flames from the largest of their four barns slammed into the home they had been remodeling for 17 years and were finally about to finish. Flames were visible in every window of the house before they drove away.

For the second time, they made the trip down Mattei Road, this time turning onto St. Helena Road and maneuvering around downed trees and through the fire, though it was less intense than it had been. At some point, approaching Memorial Hospital, they realized it was light outside — that the sun had come up without their realizing, obscured by thick smoke.

Terror before dawn

For Doerksen, there was never a question about staying to defend the property, his historic home and Sonoma County’s oldest barn, built from handhewn timbers around 1842. Sheriff’s deputies and firefighters urged him throughout the night to leave, but his choice was clear.

“I stayed because I have been the steward of this land for 53 years,” said Doerksen, a retired city engineer and real estate agent who sold the development rights for his land to the county in 1993 and sold the property to LandPaths in 2012.

Doerksen had spent years preparing the land and structures for fire. That work included limbing trees and reducing ladder fuels, and building shaded fuel breaks, which helped limit damage to the property, though mostly what seemed to work was frantic effort and luck.

It helped that Doerksen had a high-pressure fire hose on the premises, many sprinklers running — five alone on the deck of his house — and abundant water.

A tenant on his property, John Laraway, 70, chose not to evacuate and agreed to help Doerksen, though he admitted to being “terrified” until he started attacking the flames. They were joined by a third man, one of Brooke and Edy’s renters, who chose to stay behind, as well. It was about 1 a.m., and for hours the fire continued moving south, until Doerksen went to lie down around 5 a.m. and Laraway took a shower.

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Only minutes had passed, however, before Laraway was alerting Doerksen to the flaming hillside across St. Helena Road. Then the mowed field across Mark West Creek, on the opposite slope, lit up. “It wasn’t long before fire was just coming up everywhere,” Doerksen said.

Amid a storm of flying of embers, the field around the old barn flamed up, as did the Christmas tree farm, the trees torching en masse. On the hill behind, across Mark West Creek, the old pig barn used for storage caught fire, and embers caught on wooden archways and decking at four rental units, though the men scrambled to put them out.

While Laraway ran the fire hose, the others just ran from fire to fire for hours, dousing what they could, using a chainsaw to part burning fences from structures where necessary. They watched flames consume LandPaths’ gardens and outdoor kitchen, paddling gear and rain catchment equipment. An antique fire truck from 1939 was destroyed. But somehow, they saved every residence and the historic barn, which appeared like magic out of the smoke well after Doerksen thought it had been lost.

‘It surrounded us’

Atop Mattei Road, 1,600 steep feet above Doerksens’, Vinny Martin had spent the night watching the blaze from the 300-acre ranch he manages. Martin, too, thought he and his wife, Diana, were out of the fire’s path. The property’s owner, Matt Berler, and his wife already had left their house on a knoll among some trees and a vineyard that fanned out around it.

Martin, 58, remained in close touch with others, including neighboring rancher Tom Graham, an old friend and father figure who lives at the end of Gates Road to the north. Both have police and fire radio scanners and had worked together for decades when Graham, now 80, drove a bulldozer for Cal Fire. They later worked in construction together, too.

Graham, who has lived on his family’s 350-plusacre ranch since 1950, also has been a volunteer firefighter and still has an old wildland fire truck scarred from the 1964 Hanley fire.

“He’s 80, but he’s out there every day, clearing brush on his tractor and trying to make it fire safe,” Martin said of Graham. “His whole life is fire. He’s listened to a scanner 24-seven the last forty years.”

Fire, fuel breaks

They manage the land similarly, as well, criss-crossing them with roads that can serve as fire breaks and provide emergency access, and building shaded fuel breaks by strategically clearing out underbrush in designated wooded areas. Graham also shares his four bulldozers — very handy in a

fire.

As the first night of the Glass fire turned to morning, Martin saw the Diamond Mountain branch coming toward him, burning behind the hill at Monan’s Rill and eventually coming over the hill and torching the trees on the slope facing his home.

“I know everybody uses the freight train analogy, but I finally heard it close up,” he said.

The fire would still have to clear a vineyard before reaching the house, but it was coming his way. He only had to wait.

It had occurred to him a short time earlier that he and his wife might “have to bug out,” so they loaded a few “key things” in case the time came.

Then another old friend, Charlie Newbold, who works for Graham, arrived. The three had also been together the night of the Tubbs fire and tend to decide things together, Martin said.

Newbold, he said, thought they could defend Martin’s and Berliner’s wood-shingled homes, and they all decided to stay.

For Martin, the key factor was the bit of blue sky he could see beyond the smoke to his north, and the knowledge he could use ranch roads to reach Graham’s property and Gates Road, and escape via Petrified Forest Road, if it came to that.

But his wife said she was going to stay if he did, and that meant his decision would haunt him once the fire came, as it eventually did. While he waited for it to come down the hill from Monan’s Rill on the east, it was sneaking around behind him, igniting the trees and edging into vineyards on the west – likely the same flank of the fire that had burned its way toward Brooke’s house while she was looking across the canyon.

“It surrounded us,” said Martin. “This fire is sneaky.”

Too big to tackle

What pains him now are the homes he couldn’t save, despite what was a dayslong effort that had Martin and his partners chasing the fire as it hit different structures and areas of the hillside in a frantic, high-stakes game of Whac-a-Mole.

At one point, he had to train a hose on a propane tank off the edge of Berliner’s driveway to keep it from exploding among the flames creeping up toward the house. He succeeded in keeping the house from catching fire, despite many nearby trees.

Martin spent hours on Monday evening, with Graham’s help, bulldozing a 2-mile stretch of ranch road that Cal Fire crews would eventually tie into Calistoga Road, though the work Martin already had done had helped keep the fire away from Gates Road and about 40 homes there.

Deputy Fire Chief Busch was the last firefighter out of St. Helena Road early Monday as fire crews fell back to Calistoga Road, which they held. The whole Mark West Creek drainage was ablaze, on both sides, when he left.

But crews soon returned, pushing their way back into every driveway to see what could be done to fortify homes that were defensible, he said.

Heavy losses

He and Foreman said heavy losses in the area were nonetheless especially hard to take, given the fire-savvy people who live in the area and their dedication to working on fuels reduction, fire prevention and preparation.

“You’re talking about a community that, probably more so than anywhere in Sonoma County, has such a depth of knowledge about fire history because they have been so proactive and they have such a knowledge about what a threat fire is to them,” Foreman said. “They’ve worked so hard on their homes and community building and making their community fire safe. But you still can’t tackle that monster of just that existing fuel and the topography of that area.” You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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