Evacuation orders create agonizing decision for Sonoma County residents

Many left in daylight, hopeful the evacuation was an extraordinary preparation for a disaster that would not arrive. Others stayed behind.|

The menacing glow of the Kincade fire loomed behind the rugged hills edging the Alexander Valley darkened by the power shutdown.

For days since the fire ignited, Lisa and Rob Stewart kept watch over the Mayacamas ridges near Sausal Creek that feel like an extension of their backyard.

They had a generator keeping the refrigerator cold and the well pump working and Rob Stewart had a 30-year career fighting fires. They were determined to stay, sure the vineyards surrounding their home at the base of Pine Flat Road would help protect them.

But something changed. It got dark. The wind started lifting the leaves and authorities had called for mandatory evacuations from their valley all the way to the coast.

“It’s in someone else’s hands now,” said Rob Stewart, breathing heavy and backing up their pickup truck to hook it up to a packed trailer.

The Stewarts represented both sides of what for some in Sonoma County was a difficult dilemma: Heed evacuation orders and leave behind your home? Or stay behind and fight or hope for the best?

Public officials on Saturday were unified in their messaging.

“You cannot fight this. If you are under an evacuation order, you must leave,” Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick said at an evening news briefing.

Door to door, street by street, law enforcement carried the message to residents from quaint Healdsburg to rural enclaves: Get out. They kept track of those who refused and used chalk to mark the driveways of those who had left.

In daylight, the evacuation felt like an eerie exercise.

On Hembree Lane near Foothill Regional Park, Mike Buegeleisen and his family had rushed home from a classic car event six hours away to pack their belongings and get out again.

A friend who lost his home in the 2017 fires already had come to their home to take to safety one of their 1930s model Fords.

He and his fellow travelers eyed the thick smoke to the east and the nearby vines abutting the neighborhood.

“That’s your best chance of defense, that vineyard,” family friend Mitchell Carter said.

“And that’s a metal roof,” Buegeleisen said.

With so many residents gone, the emptied neighborhoods were ghost towns of neat yards and Halloween decorations.

But birdsong was interrupted by hi-lo sirens from sheriff patrol cars and the rumble of low-flying air tankers.

And on the eastern outskirts, these neighborhoods were guarded by legions of fire engines and patrol cars forming defense lines should the Kincade fire send embers into the neighborhoods.

These sentinels were a profound contrast to 2017 when few had warning that fires had broken out across the region, even hours into the futile firefight.

This time, neighbors left in daylight and with time, many hopeful it was all an extraordinary preparation for a disaster that would not arrive.

In the Lakewood Hills neighborhood to the south, Bob Casanova packed his two cats in the car. A marriage and family therapist, Casanova had been calling clients while packing important belongings because the profound, lasting trauma for so many after the 2017 fires was reignited by the current threat.

“People will put themselves right back in that traumatic event,” Casanova said.

But some remained unwilling to go.

Rock and roll classics echoed through Haydon Street in south Healdsburg.

Loren Mead, 66, held court from the porch. Police had come earlier and he told them he wouldn’t go.

“I’m not going, not until the other side of town is burning,” Mead said.

He said he’ll keep watch, and if it looks bad he’ll get his favorite guitar and go.

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