Ramona Nicholson was awake late on Oct. 8 listening to the wind blow. Upon hearing that fires had broken out in Napa, she drove from her Sonoma-area house, on the grounds of her family’s Nicholson Ranch Winery, over the hill to Old Sonoma Road to get a better look.
By the time she turned around to head back, the fires were menacing her property.
“I grabbed my pets and wallet and wanted to find our photo albums, as well, but I just didn’t have time,” she said. As she raced out the driveway, the flames had reached her house. A firetruck was pulling in, but the captain told her he had no backup — all the other trucks had been sent elsewhere.
Nicholson, who owns the property, lost her family home, her father’s house, her treasured Corvette convertible, 10 other small buildings and several rail cars on the winery property that first night of the fires. The winery itself was spared and reopened in mid-October.
A United Policyholders survey conducted this spring found that almost 70 percent of those affected by the fires believe they do not have enough insurance to replace or rebuild their homes, with an even larger share still resolving their claims. Nicholson found herself “adequately” insured. She estimated that her insurance will cover about three-quarters of her rebuilding costs.
The architect leading her rebuilding efforts, Vic Conforti, hopes to pour a new foundation next week. Hers is one of four fire rebuilds he is working on.
Nicholson is using the opportunity to build a better version of the 1940s ranch house lost in the blaze.
“I grew up in that house and it’s actually great to be able to reconfigure the space more logically,” said Nicholson who, since the fires, has been roughing it with her teenage daughter in the property’s old bunkhouse.
Nicholson, 54, and her ex-husband, Deepak Gulrajani, who leases the winery and vineyards back from her, are well-known in Sonoma and she is thankful for the support she has received, particularly from such organizations as the Sonoma Valley Rotary club, Seeds of Learning and Habitat for Humanity. Volunteers have spent countless hours picking up nails and metal from the grounds and have even helped build a new hothouse for the property.
“I’m in good spirits,” she said. “I lost a lot but it has been nice to live life a little sparer.”
Housing driving policy
A report issued in late April by the city of Sonoma provided the most precise accounting to date of Sonoma Valley homes lost in the fires. It found a total of 407 destroyed homes, plus 487 additional structures burned across 29,000 acres. Glen Ellen lost 183 homes, 140 were destroyed in Kenwood, 48 in the Mayacamas Volunteer Fire District, 33 in the Schell-Vista area at the southern end of the valley and three in the northern end in Eldridge.
The losses deepened a housing shortage that was already acute before the fires. Countywide, the five-year need could be as high as 30,000 homes, according to a May 10 report released by the Community Foundation of Sonoma County.
Based on the rush of recent applicants for affordable housing in Sonoma Valley, Supervisor Susan Gorin, who represents the region, estimated that at least 3,000 additional units are needed in Sonoma Valley to house families and the future workforce.
This story is part of a monthly series in 2018 chronicling the rebuilding efforts in Sonoma County’s four fire zones: Coffey Park, Fountaingrove, the greater Mark West area and Sonoma Valley. Read all of the Rebuild North Bay coverage here.