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.”