Scott Lane walked his dog down Kenwood’s Treehaven Lane Sunday afternoon, surveying one home after another reduced to ashes and twisted metal by the Nuns fire two weeks earlier.
His own home closer to the town center had survived and, as a plumbing contractor and retired volunteer firefighter, he already had seen a good deal of the destruction wrought by the recent firestorm during days spent trying to help others in the fires’ wake.
But something about all the loss hit the 62-year-old Sunday afternoon, causing him to weep. That his own home made it through somehow made it worse, he said.
“I’m just overwhelmed,” Lane said apologetically, wiping tears from his face with his hand. “There’s a lot of people (who) can’t get home.”
As public safety officials allow more and more people back into hard-hit communities like Kenwood, a growing number are confronting a reality that’s hard to fathom, despite continued news coverage of neighborhoods decimated by what some call the Wine Country fires.
The vast destruction of the Tubbs fire is well known. Whipping through the Mayacmas Mountains from Calistoga to Santa Rosa in a matter of hours Oct. 8 and 9, it took out thousands of homes by itself, killing at least 23.
The Nuns fire, which erupted around the same time, starting as five separate fires that eventually merged into one, has been overshadowed. The 56,556-acre fire laid waste to neighborhoods largely along the Sonoma Valley, killing one Sonoma County resident and a water tender operator in Napa County.
Residents allowed limited re-entry to communities such as Kenwood, Glen Ellen, Sonoma and Bennett Valley this weekend were forced to confront their losses. Many arrived with hopes of finding some small treasure only to see there was little to rescue from the ruins.
“The reality is there’s very little you can actually salvage,” said one man, who declined to give his name as he sorted through the debris of his parents’ home on Sylvia Drive in Glen Ellen.
He said his 83-year-old dad, a longtime collector like his mother, had stayed with the house through the night of the fires, fending off flames that popped up here and there until well after light, when the woodpile caught fire and he had to flee. The heat was such that practically everything melted, the son said.
In another part of town, Mike and Jane Witkowski returned to their O’Donnell Lane home hoping to find a ring that had belonged to her grandmother.
But even though they knew where to look, the search became so disheartening she turned her attention to bits of china, charred metal gadgetry, flatware, and some salt and pepper shakers.
Their home was among more than 50 destroyed when flames tore through a swath of Glen Ellen roughly along the paths of Warm Springs Road and O’Donnell Lane — on O’Donnell, taking “a sort of zigging, zagging” route that left some structures untouched next to others incinerated.
There was a one-day window when Don Millikan, 85, thought he and his wife, Flavia, were among the lucky ones.
A next-door neighbor had pounded on the door of their home just down from the Witkowskis’ to awaken them as flames descended toward their tree-lined street, and they escaped to safety in time as fire swept through their community.