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Close calls and grace notes: Tracing the wake of the Kincade fire in Sonoma County

The fire lines held and the gravest danger passed, thanks to the labor and valor of thousands of first responders - and the vagaries of the Diablo winds.

A week after the Kincade fire erupted 2,365 feet high in The Geysers geothermal field, mere hours after its southwestern momentum was repulsed by firefighters and redirected by the wind, we visited Geyersville in the western lee of the Mayacamas Mountains where the blaze began.

Working our way south, in the wake of the inferno - at 120 square miles, the largest in the history of Sonoma County - we heard the stories of those who saw it up close and reckoned with its fury.

The air was still heavy with smoke Wednesday, as most evacuated county residents got the green light to go home. It also was charged with relief, and gratitude - often coupled with an abiding anger at a certain beleaguered public utility.

“Check this out,” said Stefanie Freele, seated at the bar of the Diavola pizzeria in Geyserville a little after noon. On her phone was a nighttime photo of a nearby PG&E office, brightly illuminated.

That office, she said, “is the only place in town that's had power.”

Though seated at the bar, Freele wasn't drinking. She and her friend, Jennifer Kettmann, and several of their children had moments early meandered into this restaurant, the only Geyserville establishment to keep its doors open during most of an anxious, sooty week.

“They asked us if we wanted pizza,” said Freele, like Kettmann a Geyserville local. “Now they're bringing us pizza.” With a note of incredulity she added: “He's feeding everyone who walks in the door.”

He is Dino Bugica, the buff, genial man rocking a dark beanie and posted up behind the wood fire oven. Bugica, his wife Sonia, and this restaurant they run together became one of the feel-good stories from this inferno, a grace note to a grim week.

Dino Bugica spent a decade volunteering for the Geyserville fire department. As he said, “I know all those guys,” which is why, once the fire broke out, there was no question in his and Sonia's minds that they would be feeding the first responders.

‘This is what we do. We feed people'

Choosing an elastic interpretation of “mandatory evacuation,” and taking advantage of Geyserville's semi-permeable checkpoints, he would drive to his restaurant, powered by a large generator, then get to work preparing three meals a day for a group that began as firefighters. Soon it expanded, once the word got out, to any first responder, and then any local in need of a sustenance and a strong dose of community.

“Everybody's suffering. What else am I going to do?” said Dino, who also fed first responders free of charge during the 2017 Tubbs fire. “It's like my wife says, ‘Knock on our door, we're here for you.'”

“I'm Italian,” said Sonia Bugica, who hails from Cinque Terre, on the northern coast of that country. “This is what we do. We feed people.”

Among the week's MVPs, by all accounts, were their friend Tim, and their 15-year-old son Valentino, a sophomore at Windsor High School. Combining Tim's Hulu account with Valentino's Nintendo Switch with an iPhone hot spot, they were able to watch World Series games on the large screen TV behind the bar.

Some locals brought their own victuals, which were then prepared and served with each day's spread. Freele, for instance, contributed 10 pounds of elk meat from her freezer.

How did she come to be in possession of 10 pounds of elk meat? “My son's father,” she replied. “He's in Idaho hunting right now. I should probably get a message to him: All the elk went to the firefighters, so you'd better (bag) another elk.”

Catty-corner to the pizzeria is the Geyserville Market & Deli, whose proprietor, Sunny Singh, put out coffee and doughnuts each morning for first responders. To heat the water for the coffee, he would boil it on his outdoor barbecue. While he couldn't keep his store open all day, Singh did the next best thing, posting a sign informing customers that, although the store was closed, “I live nearby.” If they really needed something, they could call him - he posted his number - and he would walk over and open the store. He made numerous trips every day.

Thousands of dollars into the dumpster

The power was back on, the mandatory evacuation lifted. But Kim and John Lloyd stood grim-faced in the parking lot of Big John's Market in Healdsburg. Their 10-year-old poodle mix Pops, by contrast, was in excellent spirits.

PG&E had restored the store's power around 7 the previous evening, which sounded like good news, but to them it wasn't.

The Lloyds, who own Big John's, had told staff to pack the freezers with ice before the power went out. “If they had just left the power off,” said Kim Lloyd, “we had some things that probably could've been saved.”

“We have to throw everything out now, because we don't know what went bad and what didn't.”

Asked how much this might cost them, Kim Lloyd could only guestimate, “Tens of thousands of dollars.”

Working with Scott Levi, the store's general manager, they'd ordered dumpsters for the spoiled food. Vendors and employees had been contacted and were ready to roll.

If all went well, she said, Big John's would reopen Friday morning.

On Thursday, she sent a text. While they lacked deli meat, for the time being, the market had opened at 3 p.m., thanks to Clover, which came through with an emergency delivery of dairy products, and the Herculean efforts of her staff.

“We have wonderful employees,” she texted.

Defending Fitch Mountain

A mile and a half south, on the sidewalk in front of the Healdsburg police station, San Francisco patrol officer Olivia Mullins accepted a chilled white mocha from Joe Medeiros, owner of the mobile coffee stand named for him: Jittery Joe's.

“Oh my God this is so good,” she said.

The stand is Medeiros' side hustle: he's also a deputy in the Sonoma County Sheriff's office. After working the graveyard shift, he'd grabbed a nap and towed the stand from his Windsor home. Even though the evacuation order had been lifted for more than an hour, nearly all of his customers were first responders. Downtown Healdsburg remained, essentially, a ghost town Wednesday.

If its citizens took the evacuation orders seriously, said John Haviland, a Healdsburg police sergeant, perhaps it was because they'd had the bejesus scared out of them.

He pointed to Fitch Mountain, a densely wooded eminence at the eastern edge of the city. If Fitch Mountain ever caught fire, it would act as a vast Roman Candle sending a jet stream of embers directly over Healdsburg.

If the flames jumped the Russian River and ignited Fitch Mountain, Haviland said, “the firefighters said they wouldn't have been able to stop anything.”

In the small hours of Sunday, the flames made an unwelcome appearance in the hills above Bailhache Avenue (pronounced bull-OSH), and Toyon Drive, dangerously close to Fitch Mountain - close enough, recalled Haviland, “that we were almost going to secure the police department and leave.”

‘You could see the fire rushing down the hill'

Devin Medrano lives on the south side of Bailhache Avenue, a few hundred yards before the road starts rising, then curves left and intersects with Toyon Road. An ex-Healdsburg volunteer firefighter now engaged to a firefighter, she respects evacuation orders. Usually.

But when the county sheriff's deputies came around once, twice, four times, ordering people to get out, she wouldn't leave her 66-year-old father. And he wasn't leaving, period.

Their family has been on this land eight generations. “He's just very old school,” Medrano said. “He said, ‘We're staying here; we're gonna fight it.'”

When a firestorm is bearing down, she explained, there is no fighting it. Still, he wouldn't budge.

The winds were vicious, she recalled. In the pre-dawn hours, the fire ignited “Adam and Eve,” a grove on the ridgeline beloved by locals. Then the flames started coming down the hill. Family members and friends drove their cars to middle of the field behind her house.

“You could see the fire rushing down the hill,” she said. Dawn broke, help arrived from the skies. Tankers arrested the flames with drops of retardant. Choppers dropped water. The Medrano spread - and Fitch Mountain to the north were spared, unlike many world-famous vineyards in the Alexander Valley that were scorched by wildfire for the first time in memory.

As Medrano recounted those tense hours, a plume wafted from behind a stand of trees halfway up the hill. A hot spot had ignited.

Her neighbor, Randy Cargill, walked over to let her know he'd called the fire department, that a bulldozer was on the way. Cargill, for his part, was headed back to Santa Rosa, where he and his wife were staying. He'd driven out to feed and water their horse, which had been tended to in their absence by a helpful volunteer.

“There's a lot of people working together here,” he said. “But I'll tell you what, these firefighters are a special breed. To do what they did at (Highway) 101, to stare a dragon in the face and say, ‘You're not crossing this road.' Well, it almost makes me start to tear up.”

As he spoke, his eyes already were wet.

Perilously close to Highway 101

Joe Valera came tearing down a dirt road on an ATV bearing a burned, ruined section of fire hose. The scorched traffic cone on the vehicle's hood protruded like a rhino horn.

He'd spent Wednesday cleaning his 30-acre ranch on Los Amigos Road, which parallels Highway 101 about three miles north of Windsor. Around 10 a.m. Sunday near this very spot, at the northern edge of Valera's property, crews had battled furiously, and successfully, to keep the flames from overleaping the freeway.

“You're talking 150 yards from 101,” Valera said. “That was as close as it got.”

He and his crew of 10 workers were up at 3 a.m. Sunday, getting water on the house, water on the perimeter of his property. In the days previous, they'd put tools and equipment from his barns and shops in bins, which were covered in the middle of the vineyards.

In addition to growing merlot, syrah and zinfandel grapes, Valera has 400 ewes, many of whom - heedless of the inferno - were “lambing” as the Kincade fire approached.

Thus Valera and his ranch hands have been dividing their time between cleaning up after the fire and transporting newborn lambs from the pasture to the barn.

At one point, Valera interrupted his account of battling the blaze to urge fellow county residents, or anyone for that matter, NOT to follow his example. When the fire is coming, he said, it's time to leave.

Do as he said, not as he did. In the end, Valera and his crew saved the ranch.

“Didn't lose a blade of grass,” he said, “though I did get some hoses burned in half.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Ausmurph88.

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