Jim Doerksen passed the first night of the Glass fire watching anxiously as the blaze burned to the east of his longtime St. Helena Road home, turning the sky an unsettling, deep red as the wildfire crossed the Mayacamas Mountains on its march toward east Santa Rosa and Highway 12.
The fire was close but moving south and southwest, on a path away from the refuge on Mark West Creek that Doerksen and his wife, Betty, have shared for nearly 40 years. Their 120-acre property, now owned by LandPaths, is home to the nonprofit’s Owl Camp, attended each year by hundreds of school-age children who immerse themselves in the landscape Jim Doerksen, 81, has stewarded since 1967.
Their 1851 farmhouse had been spared repeatedly from fires that burned to the north and south in years past. As dawn approached the morning of Sept. 28, Doerksen and three neighbors who stayed to defend the property began to think the fire might have passed them by once again, that they might breathe a little.
“We thought we were safe,” Doerksen said later. “We thought we were home free.”
Instead, a spot fire that ignited on Diamond Mountain, on the north side of St. Helena Road near the county line, unleashed a furious new offshoot of the wildfire that had been tearing through southern areas of the Mark West Creek watershed for hours already.
“It came with a vengeance and in a hurry,” said Sonoma County Fire District Battalion Chief Rob Bisordi, who had been trying to save homes on nearby Tarwater Road when he saw fire burning on the north of the steep-sided canyon.
A chaotic blur ensued. Stragglers who did not heed warnings to evacuate scrambled to flee encroaching flames. Ranchers who stayed behind were flung into unexpected battle. And dozens of firefighters already dispersed along the St. Helena Road corridor confronted a new fire front that would contribute to some of the most concentrated ruin in Sonoma County.
Four civilians, including a just-retired veteran firefighter, were injured that morning. Dozens of hillside houses were incinerated as flames spread out from Diamond Mountain, advancing west and dropping south below St. Helena Road and back up again, moving in directions dictated by wind and topography until the fire seemed to be coming from everywhere at once, witnesses said.
Fire crews themselves were forced to fall back as flames and embers flowed across St. Helena Road, engulfing the corridor and imperiling their life and safety.
The events of that morning underscore the unpredictable nature of fire, which can change direction without warning and will exploit every opportunity to burn into new areas, especially ones untouched by wildfires in years past. Though Sonoma County is all too familiar with the threat of wildfire, residents of St. Helena Road and firefighters alike were stunned by how quickly the Glass fire turned on them the morning of Sept. 28, trapping people along a narrow, country road with no safe path to escape.
“I think it caught us all a little bit by surprise,” Deputy Sonoma County Fire District Chief Ron Busch would say later.
During the hours on either side of dawn, the inferno destroyed nearly 100 structures in the area, most of them homes.
“It was almost like a nuclear bomb went off in there. It was such aggressive fire that went through there,” said Cyndi Foreman, Sonoma County Fire District division chief and fire marshal.
Untouched by fire
Landowners around St. Helena Road, part of what’s known more broadly as the Alpine Valley, historically have been lucky where other parts of the region have not. They’ve escaped the wrath of wildfires that have swept through the Mayacamas dating back a century, including the devastating 2017 Tubbs fire and the 1964 Hanly, which traveled much the same path from Calistoga to Santa Rosa, though at a substantially slower rate, with far less destructive results.