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Community of Venado known for its heavy rainfall ravaged by Walbridge fire

(Originally published Aug. 26, 2020)

VENADO — Joy Ann Solem is 84 now, but her memories of the one-room schoolhouse she attended from first through eighth grades remain vivid and clear.

That was the Daniels Schoolhouse, around nine miles west of downtown Healdsburg, on Mill Creek Road. Solem still can see the light that streamed through the northwest-facing windows. She can smell the cedar sawdust used to clean and brush the floors. “I loved that smell,” said Solem Tuesday, from her home in Granite Bay.

She takes mischievous pleasure in the memory of the illicit pulley system set up under the deep sills of the windows older students used to pass notes. She remembers the piano, and the potbellied stove that kept the occupants warm on chill mornings.

There was the stove Tuesday afternoon, reposing in a bed of ash and melted rebar. A valiant stand by firefighters had not been enough to save the structure from the marauding Walbridge fire.

The scorched, ruined stove lying on its side in the rubble was not the same one that warmed Solem in the 1940s, but a replacement provided during a restoration by the Venado Historical Society. Among those leading that renovation were Joy Ann’s younger sister, Bonnie Cussins Pitkin; her husband, Richard; Cheryl and Steve Caletti; Sue Campbell; Gloria Eggers; and Holly Hoods, executive director and curator of the Healdsburg Museum and Historical Society.

Hoods said in an email she was “grieving the loss of the Schoolhouse,” which from 1883 to 1951 “served generations of rural students at the upper end of Mill Creek Rd., known as ‘Venado.’”

In truth, Venado is less a community anymore than it is a ghost — a memory of the once-vibrant lumber mill that began thriving around 1850 and faded a century or so later. Venado borrowed its name from a nearby ranch called El Venado, Spanish for deer.

These days, Venado is best known for the automatic weather station perched on the ridge a few miles west of the Schoolhouse. That rain gauge, oft-cited by Bay Area meteorologists, gets a serious workout. According to a 2019 report derived from the California Data Exchange Center, Venado has averaged 59 inches of rain a year since the early 1980s.

During the west Sonoma County flooding in February 2019 when the Russian River overflowed its banks, Venado was pelted with 20 inches of rain in 48 hours.

That system was an extreme example of a so-called “atmospheric river,” said Grant Davis, general manager of Sonoma Water. Such systems “come in low carrying huge volumes of water, and stall out over portions of the coast.”

Over the last few years, he said, those atmospheric rivers are “where we get a majority of our rainfall.”

One or more atmospheric rivers, on top of the steep hillsides denuded of vegetation by the Walbridge fire, could lead to serious problems, including mudslides.

As county Supervisor James Gore said, peering over the edge of precipitous drop above Mill Creek Road on Sunday, “If there’s a heavy rainfall on this slope” before new vegetation has a chance to spring up, “it’ll melt.”

The steep, bluffs, which drain into tributaries that feed the county’s water system, are a source of concern to Davis.

“We are worried about the constituents that would come down — the ash, the carbon, any of the ingredients that are coming off the hillside so quickly,” he said.

As of Tuesday, he was pushing a request to the state of California for a watershed emergency response team, which upon arriving will assess the situation and determine priorities.

Recent years have seen a rebound in Mill Creek of the endangered Coho salmon. “With all of that run-off and silting and ash,” said Melissa Pitkin, who lost her home on Mill Creek Road, close to the Daniels Schoolhouse, “this is going to be tough on the fish.”

“The redwoods will come back,” said Pitkin, who works for Point Blue Conservation Science. “The birds will come back. But it will be hard on the fish.”

She and her husband, Dan, and their 4-year-old daughter, Rose, had evacuated Tuesday, along with her neighbor and mother, 77-year-old Bonnie Cussins Pitkin, who’d fallen off a step at their rental home and broke a bone in her femur.

Resilient and redoubtable, Cussins Pitkin found good news in that fracture.

“I broke the femur where it attaches to the ball of the hip, but the ball of the hip is not broken.” And that is why, she said, it was an “easier surgery.” She expects a “fast path to recovery.”

She sounded remarkably chipper, for a woman who’d just broken a leg and lost a home. “Well, we treasure the property,” Cussins Pitkin said of the fifth-generation spread. “And we’ll always have that.”

Staff Writer Austin Murphy can be reached 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com.

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