Time to say goodbye? In the wake of the Kincade fire, some in Sonoma County are saying yes
Erica Gelsey is reminded of the 2017 Tubbs fire with every breath she takes. Trapped two years ago for more than an hour behind a wall of flames near her Santa Rosa home, just west of Fountaingrove Parkway, she suffered burns to her legs, her mouth and sinuses.
She escaped in a Lexus driven by a man who, unable to see in the thick smoke, had backed his car into her - luckily at a low speed.
Lingering damage to her gums led Gelsey, who now lives in Rincon Valley, to have four teeth extracted in October. Surgery to pull a fifth tooth was postponed by the arrival of the Kincade fire, which didn't torch her home.
It did, however, push her closer to a momentous decision.
Nagged by wildfire-related health issues and concerned about her 13-year-old daughter who is, like her mother, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder triggered by another inferno, Gelsey is looking at leaving Sonoma County - and California altogether.
She appears to have plenty of company in the wake of both the largest wildfire and mass evacuation in county history.
While the Tubbs fire took a higher toll than the Kincade, the latter disaster made itself immediately felt to more people across the county. Firefighters believed that blaze, in its most threatening moments, might scythe down homes and towns from the Mayacamas Mountains on the county's eastern border to the coast 30 miles away. Healdsburg, Windsor, Larkfield, the northeastern outskirts of Santa Rosa - again - and even Guerneville and Bodega Bay were in danger of being wiped off the map, according to fire officials and Sheriff Mark Essick, who last month ordered the largest mass evacuation in county history, displacing nearly 4 out of every 10 residents.
Amid it all, the power was out for even more of the county, part of PG&E's move to curb fire risk tied to failing, wind-battered equipment.
These hardships, each compounding the other, brought many residents to a kind of critical mass, or much closer to it, at least - “one more and I'm done,” said Bob Hunnicut, a retiree in Rincon Valley - a tipping point past which the beauty and blessings of this area, this state, are outweighed by the chronic danger, inconvenience and anxiety. “The new abnormal,” is how former Gov. Jerry Brown described it.
Perennial threat of wildfires
From retirees to young families, from folks who lost a house to those who never lost power and weren't even asked to evacuate, the yearly siege is wearing people down, as we learned in interviews and email exchanges with more than 20 ?area residents.
“We already have the place listed,” said Bob from Larkfield-Wikiup, who preferred not to give his last name. “Current plan is to move north to Washington, or even Vancouver, Canada.”
Many of those who say they are leaving or thinking hard about it described the perennial wildfire threat - and the attendant pains-in-the-butt of blackouts, evacuations and bad air - as the crowning insult, the issue that finally has forced their hand. After fires, however, they were quick to catalog the county's other problems, including homelessness, high cost of living and lack of affordable housing, to name a few.
Michelle from St. Helena, who preferred not to give her last name because her employer doesn't know she's leaving, will be moving with her husband to Boise, Idaho, in the next three to six months.
Between “astronomical” costs for housing, food and utilities, as well as the increased stress and disruption of blackouts and evacuations, living in California is “not sustainable,” said Michele, who added that she knows six other couples or families who are leaving the state in the next six months.
No place is completely safe, pointed out a reader named J.C., who added that she'd leave in a heartbeat “if only I didn't have pets or a husband who has a good job here with the county. If only I didn't have elderly parents” in love with the area. “If only all my friends would move with me so I wouldn't have to feel lonely in a new place.”
The truth, she concluded, is that the world she knew as a child growing up in Sonoma County “was an illusion,” and the world she knows here now is “a nightmare of instability.”
Some are already gone
Andrew Erwin and his wife, both born and raised in Santa Rosa, aren't just planning to leave. They're already gone.
Erwin always loved autumn in Sonoma County. Now, he said, “when it's October and the wind picks up, it puts everyone on edge.”
Two months after the Tubbs fire, they visited family in Ohio. During that holiday trip, they decided to put their Santa Rosa home on the market. In July, they moved to a suburb of Cincinnati, where they live on half an acre in a house more than twice the size of their old one.