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A Lake Sonoma inlet between Little Warm Springs Creek and Picnic Creek, Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

As drought-parched summer vanishes in a shroud of wildfire smoke, so does peace of mind

In the face of an epic drought, our spiritual and emotional retreats are increasingly out of reach

It was a sweltering day — almost 100 degrees. The midday heat radiated off the pavement at the Santa Rosa farmer’s market, where a Cotati mother named Dawn recounted how much her 1½-year-old son enjoyed frolicking in the yard months earlier.

That was before the severity of the drought had become clear to her. Before she and her husband stopped watering the lawn. And before she put away the Slip 'N Slide.

During warm spring days, the boy she now screened from the sun delighted in splashing around on the plastic sheet and running in the supple wet grass.

Now, along with being forced to cut back on water for everything from landscaping to washing dishes, the drought has eliminated letting the hose run for simple summer fun.

It’s not their biggest problem. Dawn said she “freaked out” when her toilet tank recently stopping filling all the way. “Oh, no!” she thought. “What’s going on?” Her mind immediately turned to their groundwater well. She’s tried three well and pump companies, but no one has time to come check it.

Even that, she said, doesn’t compare with what others are going through. She said her heart “goes out to all the farmers and growers who have to worry because they don’t have any water.”

Like many Sonoma County residents, she has found that some of life’s simplest and most satisfying pleasures have gone the way of the region’s water supply. As Labor Day approaches and ushers in thoughts of fall, an accounting of summer comes up short.

Like the backyard sprinklers and park splash pads that were off limits this year, many of the diversions that distinguish the languid days of summer have been altered or flat out torpedoed by drought.

And as those diversions have fallen by the wayside, so has the sense of freedom, awe and serenity, that go along with spending time outdoors and out-of-touch.

With lakes and rivers shrinking and parched forests breeding wildfires on an unprecedented scale around California, opportunities to explore, experience and return to nature have continued to narrow, upending plans and subverting expectations.

A cross symbol on the drought parched Yorty Creek, Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021, at Lake Sonoma. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
A cross symbol on the drought parched Yorty Creek, Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021, at Lake Sonoma. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

Camping trips have been scheduled, rescheduled and canceled; boating, scaled back; fishing refocused or put on hold because of shriveled streams.

Many have scratched plans for a “last hurrah” of summer over the long holiday weekend, as wildfires exploded around the state, clearing out the Tahoe Basin, closing national forests and filling vast areas of California with caustic smoke.

And there’s a sense of déjà vu, as each year’s fire season becomes more extreme. Anxiety mounts as air quality declines and people catch shower water in buckets and let lawns grow brown at home.

Can’t decompress

After a pandemic year that shattered all norms and underscored the critical need for time surrounded by nature and the elements, even the most outdoorsy among us don’t feel entirely at home outside these days.

“I like to go float out on the lake and decompress,” said Santa Rosa resident Paul Lusnia, 56. His family’s annual trips to Donner Lake near Truckee were canceled last month even before the start of the massive Caldor fire that threatened Lake Tahoe’s southern shore.

“I can’t decompress if I’m looking up at the sky and it’s like an L.A. air quality alert,” he says.

Celeste Thomas, 70, usually seeks serenity closer to home, using her Sonoma County Regional Parks pass liberally to hike through the area’s scenic landscapes.

Celeste Thomas of Santa Rosa often walks in Crane Creek Regional Park where she has seen the creek beds dry up earlier than usual and fears for the wildlife with the lack of water. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)
Celeste Thomas of Santa Rosa often walks in Crane Creek Regional Park where she has seen the creek beds dry up earlier than usual and fears for the wildlife with the lack of water. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

These days what had been a source of inspiration and relief instead sparks anxiety, and her photography yields images of crackly, dried trees, bare creek beds and extended shorelines.

She said she’s “never really recovered” from the hit her sense of personal well-being took when she was evacuated from her Santa Rosa home during the 2017 Tubbs fire, and now every dry wind brings up haunting memories.

“I can’t decompress if I’m looking up at the sky and it’s like an L.A. air quality alert,” ― Santa Rosa resident Paul Lusnia

And the waterways? “It’s just kind of scary when you’re used to seeing the creek with some kind of water in it, and it’s just dry, dry, dry, dry. It’s just a big jumble of rocks in it.”

It worries her more when she sees neighbors overwatering their lawns or appearing to dismiss conservation mandates. And she’s deeply concerned about wildlife.

On her walks, “there are fewer birds,” Thomas said. “I imagine the fish in duress. Trees and bushes are dying.”

Michael Ellis, a Santa Rosa naturalist who leads tours around the globe, said the health benefits of time spent in nature have been shown through studies documenting decreased anxiety and a sense of peace in subjects exposed to the sound of rushing water and exposure to leafy trees. He noted also the crush of visitation in public parks during last year’s COVID-related shelter-in-place restrictions, as people sought escape in the outdoors from lives of isolation.

“Nature is essential to our well-being, so it’s mandatory for people to have somewhere to go,” said Ellis, 69.

Forestville grape grower Tim Reuling, an avid angler, knows something about that. He’s “sort of a double-A guy” who works hard on the ranch and looks forward to opportunities to recharge along the banks of a mountain stream or lake.

Organic grape grower Tim Reuling usually finds enjoyment and relaxation through fly fishing. With fish habitat impacted by the drought, Reuling wouldn't consider fishing at this time. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)
Organic grape grower Tim Reuling usually finds enjoyment and relaxation through fly fishing. With fish habitat impacted by the drought, Reuling wouldn't consider fishing at this time. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)

Low rainfall and snowmelt over the past two years means river and creeks are running at lower levels than usual and are subject to higher temperatures in the afternoon sun, which puts the fish that live there under significant stress.

Experts and fishing groups like Trout Unlimited have urged anglers to fish only during the cool morning hours — a requirement this summer in many Oregon waterways — because catch-and-release fishing, combined with the heat, puts more pressure on some fish than they can handle.

For the environmentally conscious, the whole discussion “kind of begs the question” of whether it’s worth going fishing at all this year, Reuling, 72, said.

Add to that, the widespread smoke, and “maybe you just don’t do it this year, or you go on the ocean and you fish, or you surf fish, or something like that.”

“A large part of the enjoyment I derive is just the tranquility and just looking around and appreciating the natural visual beauty that’s there — not to wax too romantically — but just seeing the water and listening to the stream and things like that,” said Reuling, who is rethinking a planned fishing trip in an area of Lassen National Park that’s right outside the Dixie fire zone. “Everybody has their own experience, but for me, as my wife characterizes it, it’s sort of a Zen moment for me.”

Painful memories

For many in Sonoma County, the link between dry weather and wildfires is painfully evident both in their memories and outside their kitchen windows. More than one-fifth of the county has burned since the Tubbs and Nuns fires of 2017, and thousands of homes have been destroyed in deadly fires.

Add smoke from monster blazes around the state to the mix, and the emotional impact is more daunting yet.

“It’s anxiety,” said Nancy Skinner, 67, of Santa Rosa. “And you wake up every day to anxiety. It’s like you don’t want to watch the TV. You don’t want to watch the news. You’re just waiting for our thing to start up.”

That concern about where fire may start next is a key reason U.S. Forest Service officials decided recently to first close all national forests in Northern California, and then the entire state. With the exceptionally dry conditions, firefighting resources are already stretched with wildfires raging out of control.

Officials hope reducing the number of individuals among the trees will lessen the likelihood of a fire igniting, as well as the potential for people becoming trapped — or worse — if one does.

The closures will last until at least Sept. 17.

It’s the second year in a row the federal agency has closed California’s national forest to the public to counter the threat of wildfire. The state Department of Fish and Wildlife also has closed 34 wildlife areas and preserves adjacent to Northern California forests because of the fire threat.

Bob and Suzan Murnane, their kids and friends enjoy camping when their trips aren't canceled by wildfires. (Bob Murnane)
Bob and Suzan Murnane, their kids and friends enjoy camping when their trips aren't canceled by wildfires. (Bob Murnane)

For avid camper Bob Murnane, whose family heads off to the woods most holiday weekends, life is starting to be increasingly dictated by the vagaries of fire.

“It’s like the whole second half of summer, there’s smoke covering different halves of the state,” the west Santa Rosa man said. “Last year we were in Yosemite on Labor Day weekend, and it was just raining ash on us one whole day.”

He and his extended family are among those staying put this weekend. After three attempts at a mini-family reunion over the past year were canceled due to the COVID pandemic and finally, wildfire, they are opting for a “scaled back plan” and some “scaled back fun” this weekend at home, where he lives with his wife, Suzán, and their three offspring. His dad, 80, and mom, 76, live in a house on the same property. His sister and her husband will be joining them.

Bob and Suzan Murnane will host a mini family reunion with his Bay Area family members at their home in west Santa Rosa, with local activities planned. Previous plans had to be canceled twice due to the coronavirus pandemic and a third time by fire. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)
Bob and Suzan Murnane will host a mini family reunion with his Bay Area family members at their home in west Santa Rosa, with local activities planned. Previous plans had to be canceled twice due to the coronavirus pandemic and a third time by fire. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)

Two earlier gatherings were canceled by the pandemic, most recently when Yosemite’s White Wolf Lodge closed down for the year, canceling their reservation. Then a planned stay at Kit Carson Lodge on Silver Lake was scuttled because of the rampaging Caldor fire.

“It’s a first-world problem, for sure,” said Murnane, who owns a flooring company, “but it’s a strange situation.”

He’s just glad the family got to Lassen National Park twice this summer — on Memorial Day and July Fourth — even if they had hoped to go to Yosemite on one of those occasions but couldn’t get in.

Their favorite campground at Lassen’s Summit Lake was recently burned through by the 800,000-acre-plus Dixie fire.

It’s an experience with which Jennifer Frengel, 43, can identify.

Jennifer Frengel has camped since childhood with about 100 family members at Rock Creek Campground near Mammoth Pool in the Sierra National Forest on Memorial Day weekends. Recent wildfires have driven the group from their beloved spot, which was burned over last year by the Creek fire. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)
Jennifer Frengel has camped since childhood with about 100 family members at Rock Creek Campground near Mammoth Pool in the Sierra National Forest on Memorial Day weekends. Recent wildfires have driven the group from their beloved spot, which was burned over last year by the Creek fire. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

Since childhood, she has spent part of most summers at a rustic campground near Mammoth Pool in the Sierra National Forest, surrounded by family and friends taking part in an annual camp-out started by her parents and their high school friends decades earlier.

Over three generations, the gang at Rock Creek Campground swelled to about 100 people, many of them seeing each other only once a year over Memorial Day weekends, partaking in games and traditions year after year as the families grew.

Then came the French fire in 2014, which started in that very campground, one of several strung along the road up to Mammoth Pool. That turned Frengel and the extended group into “nomads,” as they sought new places to camp in a desperate effort to reclaim their traditions.

A year ago, the more dangerous Creek fire burned what was left of the ancestral campground, trapping more than 200 campers at Mammoth Pool, resulting in a dramatic, high-profile airlift by the California National Guard as forest burned around them.

For Frengel, a piano teacher, the loss is painful and personal, but also a loss she feels for her 14-year-old daughter and 12-year-old twins boys, who grew up revisiting certain waterfalls, hiking well-known trails and monitoring the growth of certain trees.

“It’s almost like a grief right when you see something that is so treasured to you burn,” she said. “And there’s nothing you can do. You can’t stop it. That fire is so powerful.”

Environmentalist and author Wallace Stegner wrote of the critical role of preserving wilderness, “because it was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed,” and the need to be reassured that it remains unspoiled, undomesticated and whole.

“It’s almost like a grief right when you see something that is so treasured to you burn. And there’s nothing you can do. You can’t stop it. That fire is so powerful.” ― Jennifer Frengel

Those who want to spend time in it also need to find places that aren’t burning, which has become a growing challenge.

“To me,” Frengel said, “the shocking thing is that the Tubbs fire felt like a once-in-a-lifetime thing, and now every year there’s another, bigger one, and we’re breaking a record every year. And at some point, you wonder what is there left to burn?”

The constant barrage of smoke, said Lusnia, is uncomfortable and unhealthy. As a cyclist who likes to ride most mornings before heading to work at Amy’s Kitchen, he now has to gauge the pollutants in the air before deciding whether to go. Between fires and drought, he misses most having “peace of mind,” he said.

An algae sheen on the west shore of Clear Lake, Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
An algae sheen on the west shore of Clear Lake, Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

For a year, Santa Rosa residents Laurie and Paul Hastings found balance through weekends on their sailboat on Clear Lake, where they found refuge from the stresses of work and built a family of the friends they met through the local sailing club at Buckingham.

They bought the 28-foot vessel in 2006, a few years after they moved north from Texas. The boat has been their oasis, Laurie Hastings, 56, said, and tooling around on the water, at the whims of the wind, meeting up with friends for meals, bringing visitors aboard, a great life.

There’s a simplicity to it — almost like camping, living mostly outdoors, she said. “It’s our getaway.”

But the boat has been trailered since last year, after a season shortened by the pandemic — the water level is too low this year to support launch — and five other attempts they have made to get away have been aborted because of COVID or wildfires.

“This year it’s been super hard, because we’re stuck inside,” she said.

Monae Isley, a self-described “water person,” is also frustrated. Whipping out her phone, she showed image after image displaying in stark terms how desperately low California’s lakes are after two years of drought.

There was a photo of friends kayaking through an abandoned railroad tunnel exposed by historically low levels in Lake Shasta; another of a beautiful waterfall at Lassen Park she thinks has been burned over. Lakes Sonoma and Mendocino, meanwhile, started the season at their lowest levels ever, with the smaller reservoir now holding so little water there’s worry it could run dry without substantial rain this winter.

Avid outdoor people Monae Isley, left, and Jovan Vanderhorst haven't been able to spend as much time pursuing the activities they enjoy due to the drought and fires. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)
Avid outdoor people Monae Isley, left, and Jovan Vanderhorst haven't been able to spend as much time pursuing the activities they enjoy due to the drought and fires. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)

The motorized, inflatable raft that Isley and her boyfriend, Jovan Vanderhorst, bought last year isn’t getting the use they had hoped, and they are distressed in general about the state of the region’s landscape.

One of the pictures on Isley’s phone was taken during an attempted outing from the Yorty Creek Boat Launch at Lake Sonoma back in April, when the water already had retreated about 200 yards away from the dock, leaving a broad expanse of cracked, dried mud. The distance is now more than half a mile, acting Lake Manager Josh Burkhead said.

“It was bad,” said Isley, 34.

Lake Sonoma Manager Josh Burkhead said the distance is now more than half a mile.

An egret flies over the shallow water level of the Rodman Slough on Clear Lake, Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021  (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
An egret flies over the shallow water level of the Rodman Slough on Clear Lake, Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021 (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

Isley and Vanderhorst, 41, also find the drought has hampered customary adventures like backpacking, now restricted to short trips by water resupply limitations, and even mushroom hunting, Vanderhorst said.

They’ve noticed signs around their home in a rural area off Calistoga Road of unusual wildlife visitors like black bear and wild boar, likely coming in from more remote areas of the Mayacamas in search of water.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Isley said.

And they can tell that there’s less water seeping from the natural spring near their home than is usual.

The overall situation is disconcerting enough, said Vanderhorst, that he’s been investing increasing amounts of time researching where he might rather live in the future — looking north, as far as Seattle and beyond, and south all the way to the Patagonian region of Chile.

“Just follow the water,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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