My colleagues here at The Press Democrat have done a phenomenal job of telling the story during the past week of the greatest natural disaster to ever hit our home. They have told in detail the battles to save homes, businesses and lives from Sonoma to Geyserville to Calistoga. But what they haven’t done well — journalists rarely do — is tell their own story. In a nutshell, here is how this community nightmare unfolded for them.
As usual, any fire story begins with one person — PD photojournalist Kent Porter, known for his remarkable fire coverage, especially during the Valley fire two years ago.
Porter was hanging pictures with his wife in Windsor Sunday evening when he could hear the winds picking up. “In the back of my head I was thinking, this is not a good situation,” he said. Around 10 p.m., he turned on his scanner and heard crews talking about a vegetation fire off Tubbs Lane on Highway 128 in Calistoga. In no time, he had grabbed his gear and was off.
As he passed over Mark West Springs and Petrified Forest roads, he could see the glow of fire and when he arrived, “the wind was just going crazy,” he said. “Grass was burning. Vineyards were burning. Power poles were going back and forth, and electrical lines were sparking,” he said. “It was pandemonium.”
The fire soon spread over Franz Valley School Road and began consuming landscape and homes along Mountain Home Ranch Road. “This thing is going all the way to Santa Rosa,” a fire official told him.
At 11:19 p.m. Porter was on the phone to Managing Editor Ted Appel.
“He said, “Ted, this is going to be bigger than the Valley fire,” said Appel. “I said, ‘All right, Kent. I’m with you.’ ’’
Still in his pajamas, Appel started putting together a story for pressdemocrat.com from home. Over the next hour, he filed several updates and by 1 a.m. he was heading for the office. “I could see the glow from the hills, and it was the eeriest thing. There were all of these cars on the street,” he said. Many didn’t know where they were going.
Having headed back over the mountains from Calistoga, Porter could see firefighters were having a hard time getting out ahead of the fire.
“There were so many fires at once,” he said. He decided to head out to Glen Ellen, “and I was met with just a blast furnace of heat there.”
He soon began hearing scanner talk about Fountaingrove and headed back, coming up through Skyfarm Drive. Houses were going up everywhere. “I ran into a (firefighter) friend and he said ‘This is my worst nightmare come true. We all figured that this might happen some day.’ ”
After getting off the phone with Appel around this same time, Executive Editor Catherine Barnett also headed for the office but found her path blocked by a fallen tree on Westside Road. She and her husband, former PD reporter Tim Tesconi, backtracked to Hacienda when they got a call from Sonoma Media Investments CEO Steve Falk, who had already been on the phone with Barnett about the fire, telling them that southbound Highway 101 at Bicentennial Avenue was closed.
“Of course, now we all know that was when the fire was jumping the freeway,” she said. “But at the time we had no idea.” So they went the back way on West College Avenue only to encounter bumper-to-bumper traffic heading for the evacuation center at Finley Community Park. “There was a man in a vest out front refusing to let more people into Finley,” she said.
“And at that point the severity of what was happening was beginning to dawn on us,” she said. “You could see the glow on the whole ridgeline and we both said, ‘It’s like 1964 all over again.’ ”
Around that time, reporter Julie Johnson was awoken by smoke and then received a text from Appel calling in the troops. She quickly arranged to leave her nearly 4-year-old son with his father and headed for the office.
“I just remember hitting the phones and calling every source I had,” said Johnson, a veteran breaking-news reporter.
“I talked to Jack Piccinini (fire chief for the Rincon Valley and Windsor fire protection districts) who just made it so clear. I remember him saying ‘Where is the backup? We need more Cal Fire (support) here. We are on our own.’”
The message was the same from all of her other firefighting sources. “Everyone that I reached was saying, ‘We need help. We need help.’ ”
By that time, Porter had dropped down out of Fountaingrove and was capturing photos of Santa Rosa’s Round Barn, a landmark for 118 years, engulfed in flames.
By now, more people had started arriving at the newspaper. Reporter Bill Swindell came in from Sebastopol and then headed out to Kenwood. Robert Digitale, who lives in the center of town, came in and started handling the phones.
Editor Brett Wilkison canceled his flight to Montana for vacation and came in to help on the desk. More photographers hit the field, and reporters started feeding information to Johnson, who was doing the first write-through.
Deputy Managing Editor Eric Wittmershaus, who also was supposed to be on vacation, had been up all night at his home outside Petaluma concerned about the wind. He was texting and emailing editors and reporters, making plans for our print edition, which he and the paper’s copy desk, many of them working on their day off, would start putting together that afternoon.
At about 3:30 a.m. Appel was notified that his house, not far from Coffey Park, was being evacuated. His wife and daughter came to the newspaper. About that same time, I showed up as well with my family, having been forced out of Rincon Valley.
Both families came with pillows and dogs in tow. Our older kids would later join forces and go volunteer at the Elsie Allen High School evacuation center.
Around 4 a.m., Porter went over to Kaiser Hospital, where he connected with Staff Writer Martin Espinoza, who had dropped his 10-year-old son off with his sister and gone to cover the evacuation of Kaiser Hospital.
“But when I got there, that’s when I could see on the other side of the parking structure this orange glow,” he said. It was the fire that was consuming the Journey’s End mobile home park. As he captured live video from the roof of the Kaiser parking structure, “there were a bunch of people who lived there who were watching it with me,” he said.
From there, he could see flames on the west side of Highway 101 and embers falling on the highway. So he and Porter headed west, passing by the burning Fountaingrove Inn on the way over. He was shocked at the level of devastation at that corner. “It was like seeing the mouth of hell,” Espinoza said.
He and Porter soon were in Coffey Park, where Espinoza captured horrific Facebook Live video of the neighborhood in flames. “It was just a firefight that you wouldn’t believe,” said Porter.
“You could see fire across entire blocks,” said Espinoza. “That was really disturbing.”
At that point, the enormity of this firestorm was beginning to sink in for all of us.
Porter said he thought about all of the friends he had who lived in the neighborhood. “We used to put our son, Mac, in our wagon and walk him around the Coffey Park neighborhood when he was little,” he said. Having grown up in Lake County, the Valley fire felt like it was in his backyard, he said. “But this one was personal … This was my home, and I felt about as helpless I have ever felt in my life.”
We all did.
This was a fire that left no neighborhood, no business and nobody unscathed. Before the day was through, we had learned that 10 employees of Sonoma Media Investments, the parent company of The Press Democrat, had lost homes and dozens of others were under evacuation orders and were with friends or family member, at hotels or in shelters.
Editor Steve Levin, an evacuee from Sonoma, spent the week sleeping on a newsroom couch, unable to return. Copy editors Elissa Torres and Becky Brisley became temporary roommates, after Torres evacuated her apartment in Rincon Valley.
In the days ahead, many would have power and no gas. Others would have gas and no power. But we all felt a sense of powerlessness that we couldn’t do more — more than what we do and that is to report, edit, write and take photos and videos.
So many departments have stories that I have not been able to include here. Stories of employees who have gone above and beyond the call of duty — advertising people who have helped at evacuation centers, business department folks who have donated food and clothing while keeping us, well, in business.
Circulation folks who distributed 3,000 copies of The Press Democrat to the shelters every day and those at our printing plant in Rohnert Park who, despite deep concerns about the status of friends and family, came in at all hours to make sure the presses kept rolling.
And there are the many heartwarming stories of people in and outside of the community who have shown their support, including our friends at the Deseret News in Salt Lake City, the Harvard Business Review and other businesses that sent meals and other treats.
But as I look back on this week, there’s one image that stands out to me most, and it’s this. On Tuesday morning, when I drove back to my evacuated neighborhood to check on my house, I had no power. I had no mail and I had no neighbors. But there in my driveway was my newspaper.
And it arrived every morning on every day. That is what we do.
And I couldn’t be more proud of all of those who make that happen.