Geyserville area resident Tom Higgins bolted out of bed around 4 a.m. Monday, like so many others across Sonoma County, to the unmistakable smell of smoke filling his home at the bottom of mountains lining eastern Alexander Valley.
His first instinct was to check online for information about a possible fire in his area. Nothing.
So Higgins stepped outside to investigate, and saw in the distance what appeared to be Santa Rosa aglow with flames. But Santa Rosa is a more than 20-mile drive from where he lives.
“It doesn’t necessarily make sense that that’s what we’re smelling,” Higgins recalled thinking. “Something was off.”
Eventually, Higgins came to realize the almost unimaginable situation unfolding around him: In addition to the blazes assaulting Sonoma County’s largest city and the Sonoma Valley, as well as other areas in Napa and Mendocino counties, the smaller Pocket fire was burning in the Mayacamas Mountains east of Geyserville.
The fire, which initially meandered slowly toward the Geysers and Calpine’s geothermal power plants, shifted with the wind. By Wednesday afternoon, fire had charred about 4,000 acres and was uncontained, fueled by strong northerly winds blowing a thick plume of smoke down the valley. As planes and helicopters circled overhead, repeatedly dropping loads of flame retardant and water, the flames jumped the containment lines, moving south toward Moody Lane and Highway 128, Geyserville Fire reported on Facebook.
A mandatory evacuation order was issued by the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, extending from River Rock Casino off Highway 128 north to Geysers Road. Numerous emergency response vehicles rolled in waves through Geyserville, heading toward the scene of the fire.
Having returned from a trip to collect belongings from his home inside the evacuation zone, Higgins stood on the Highway 128 bridge over the Russian River, watching the aircraft wrestle with Mother Nature.
“This fire’s now getting attention,” Higgins said. “But this fire’s been a sleeper for days.”
As of late Wednesday afternoon, Geyserville Fire Capt. Joe Stewart had not seen the Pocket fire claim any structures that day, although one building burned Monday, he said. He described a successful effort from firefighters to prevent flames from getting any worse, despite winds making their efforts more difficult.
“A couple crews made some good saves,” Stewart said in an interview, referencing “spot fires, heavy smoke, real low visibility, embers getting scattered across.”
Geyserville’s small strip of downtown stores was largely quiet Wednesday afternoon, save for a few local residents out taking photos or simply observing the smoke billowing from the mountains across the valley, one of the premier spots in the North Coast for wineries and vineyards.
Among those residents was Domenica Catelli, the owner of Catelli’s, a hugely popular Italian restaurant in the heart of Geyserville. Catelli, who lives in Windsor, said she had made several batches of food to donate to emergency responders, evacuees at shelters and others. It was the best way she could think of to help her flame-besieged community.
“It’s surreal. It feels like it’s been going on for over a week,” Catelli said. “Anybody who’s lost their home, I will feed for free. And anybody who’s helping.”
Just down the street from where Catelli was surveying the fire from afar, a chalkboard on the front of her restaurant advertised an Oct. 22 event called “Harvest for Hope,” billed as a fundraiser for disaster victims.
Catelli said she initially organized the event as “Harvest for Harvey,” to benefit victims of the hurricane that overwhelmed Houston. But then disaster hit Sonoma County, forcing Catelli to rebrand the entire event at her restaurant — assuming it survives the Pocket fire — as a gathering to help her own community rebuild.
You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or email@example.com. On Twitter @thejdmorris.