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The ashes of Dan Grout's home after the Walbridge fire destroyed his family's property on Mill Creek Road near Healdsburg on Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020. Grout is part of the Pitkin family that has lived on Mill Creek Road for five generations and was pivotal in restoring the Daniels School in the old mill town of Venado. (Alvin A.H. Jornada / The Press Democrat)

Walbridge fire tests resolve of Mill Creek residents, provides vision of future in forests parched by climate change

Stepping cautiously around the rubble that was his family’s home on Mill Creek Road before it was leveled by wildfire, Dan Grout carried a tub of alfalfa and started calling out for his sheep in a coaxing singsong voice, “Here sheep, here sheep.”

“I bet you are hungry,“ Grout said.

Two ewes, Chocolate Chip and Daisy, appeared from under the charred limbs of a fig tree, their once-white wool darkened with ash and soot. They survived the flames of the 55,353-acre Walbridge fire with instinct and luck, while so much else was reduced to ash.

Dan Grout calls his two ewes, Chocolate Chip and Daisy, over to buckets of water and a pile of alfalfa after they survived flames of the Walbridge fire, which destroyed his family's property on Mill Creek Road near Healdsburg on Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020. Grout is part of the Pitkin family that has lived on Mill Creek Road for five generations and was pivotal in restoring the Daniels School in the old mill town of Venado. (Alvin A.H. Jornada / The Press Democrat)
Dan Grout calls his two ewes, Chocolate Chip and Daisy, over to buckets of water and a pile of alfalfa after they survived flames of the Walbridge fire, which destroyed his family's property on Mill Creek Road near Healdsburg on Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020. Grout is part of the Pitkin family that has lived on Mill Creek Road for five generations and was pivotal in restoring the Daniels School in the old mill town of Venado. (Alvin A.H. Jornada / The Press Democrat)

These grazing creatures were meant to be key fire prevention tools for Grout, who spent the bulk of the last four years limbing trees, clearing brush and removing dead vegetation to protect and restore his wife’s family homestead in this rugged forest and historic logging community about 7 miles into the hills west of Healdsburg.

“This will be another chapter for Mill Creek,” Grout said. “It has been clearcut and burned, and it has come back. And it will come back again.”

Charred pears cling to branches on Dan Grout's homestead on Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020 after the Walbridge fire destroyed his family's property on Mill Creek Road near Healdsburg.  (Alvin A.H. Jornada / The Press Democrat)
Charred pears cling to branches on Dan Grout's homestead on Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020 after the Walbridge fire destroyed his family's property on Mill Creek Road near Healdsburg. (Alvin A.H. Jornada / The Press Democrat)

Turn off Westside Road, which ferries visitors past some of the county’s most prized pinot vineyards, and follow Mill Creek into the hills. Roughly 500 people live in this watershed of redwoods, Douglas firs, tanoak and madrone, secluded along roads that branch off onto ridges and into ravines.

The Walbridge fire brought some of its worst damage to homes in these densely forested parcels, destroying ranches, homesteads and cabins. It leveled a historic landmark, the one-room Daniels School that had stood for 137 years in Venado, once a thriving mill community that is still home to ranchers with fruit orchards and horses.

Those who live here have known that fire is an inevitable part of the landscape, despite Venado’s distinction as one of the rainiest spots in Sonoma County.

They are keen observers of the changing climate conditions that contributed to the fire’s explosive path through their forests. Springs have run dry. Rainy winters dissipated. Whole stands of madrone died off. Yellow starthistle took over south-facing slopes.

“This will be another chapter for Mill Creek. It has been clearcut and burned, and it has come back. And it will come back again.” ― Dan Grout, who lost his Mill Creek home in the Walbridge fire

There have been formidable efforts by some landowners to clear ground-level vegetation and restore healthy, native forests. The community came together after the 2019 Kincade fire and established evacuation routes, phone trees and detailed wildfire safety project plans certified by Cal Fire and county supervisors.

The Walbridge fire has tested that resolve. Some residents are determined to rebuild and continue stewarding the land. Others are asking whether they should rebuild given the increasingly dangerous climate for fires.

Dan Grout stands at the front steps of his home to document the devastation left by the Walbridge fire with his smartphone on Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020, after the firestorm destroyed his family's homestead on Mill Creek Road near Healdsburg. (Alvin A.H. Jornada / The Press Democrat)
Dan Grout stands at the front steps of his home to document the devastation left by the Walbridge fire with his smartphone on Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020, after the firestorm destroyed his family's homestead on Mill Creek Road near Healdsburg. (Alvin A.H. Jornada / The Press Democrat)

Frank Yates, 57, spent the last 15 years refurbishing a 1930s-era cabin built on stilts over the creek, which he felt made his home safe from fire in a lush forest and cool climate. But the fire ran roughshod even deep in the creek canyon, leaving behind an ashen moonscape under a redwood canopy. His home and possessions are gone.

Yates, founder of the Chiligods red pepper sauce, said he will not rebuild. Fires and economic pressures will likely force him to move out of state.

"Man plans and God laughs,“ said Yates.

Grout’s family, still full of grief, are among the ranks determined to rebuild. His daughter, Rose, is the fifth generation to live on the land. Their home was like a living museum of the milling days. They still had the old hand-forged tools, well-worn grinding stones and two-man saws called “misery whips,” as it’s said to take two men two weeks to fell a redwood.

Grout compared the loss of his family’s history to “a chunk of the Smithsonian being torn down.

Old tools on display at the Pitkin family homestead on Mill Creek Road in Venado before the Walbridge fire destroyed the property. (Dan Grout)
Old tools on display at the Pitkin family homestead on Mill Creek Road in Venado before the Walbridge fire destroyed the property. (Dan Grout)

His mother-in-law, Bonnie Pitkin, attended the historic Daniels School as a first grader. Pitkin cannot imagine giving up on the land her grandparents fell in love with in 1915. She described the forest as nature’s greatest gift, the world’s lungs.

"It’s is a place where you can find solace,” said Pitkin, her steadfast positivity briefly weighed with emotion. “As a child if you had any problems, my mother used to say, ’Why don’t you take a walk.’ And it always worked.”

There have been no large fires in the area for at least 60 years, and perhaps much longer. Grout researched fire history for the area and found records for a 360-acre blaze on his family’s property in 1964 and the 1,400-acre Palmer Creek fire in 1955.

The Daniels School pictured during a snowstorm in the 1920s or 1930s.  (Dan Grout)
The Daniels School pictured during a snowstorm in the 1920s or 1930s. (Dan Grout)

Two weeks ago, a punishing heat wave hit Northern California, baking the already drought-stricken landscape. Branches were cracking under the heat. Then a dry thunderstorm sent lightning strikes across the region.

More than 1.4 million acres have burned in Northern California since the lightning storm began Aug. 15. The next day, the Walbridge fire broke out in remote terrain north of Guerneville, eventually gaining momentum with ample fuel to burn in the dry landscape and overgrown forests in west Sonoma County.

A combination of drought conditions and warming temperatures have “stacked the bases” when it comes to the likelihood of a large-scale wildfire during times of extreme weather, said Noah Diffenbaugh, a Stanford University climate science professor.

The dry lightning storm is a rare yet natural phenomena that happened to arrive after a heat wave had baked the landscape. The types of simultaneous big fires that have burned for the last two weeks are likely to become more common, Diffenbaugh predicted. Increasingly hot and dry climate conditions magnify the risk any spark might lead to a big fire.

“We’re living in a climate where the probability of unprecedented events is increasing, and that’s particularly true for conditions linked to temperature — and wildfire is one of them,” Diffenbaugh said.

Embers jump from a spot fire in the Mill Creek watershed, Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020 below Venado.  (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
Embers jump from a spot fire in the Mill Creek watershed, Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020 below Venado. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

The simultaneous outbreak of so many major fires quickly depleted the state’s firefighting resources and left communities without sufficient defense.

Timothy Ingalsbee, executive director of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics & Ecology, said increasing fire danger means these simultaneous wildfire outbreaks are likely to occur again. He believes communities must prepare to defend themselves, maintain their forests and replenish the aging ranks of volunteer community fire companies.

“When you’ve got air temperatures over 100 degrees, day after day — that’s almost half the boiling point of water — everything is ready to burn,” Ingalsbee said. “The tiniest little ember sparks its own fire and these fires are just leap-frogging each other. They spread so fast firefighters can’t anchor, flank and hold.”

Low-intensity flames still burned through parts of the Mill Creek watershed last week, reaching down to the Barrel Springs redwood grove where fire crept along the forest floor, as fire is meant to do. Firefighters with hand tools dug around the flames but otherwise let fire do its work.

About one week earlier and further into the hills, the blaze was an entirely different explosive force, burning into the redwood canopy, toppling trees and reducing the lush green forest to black.

Dan Grout kicks fallen branches and other debris off the trail as he surveys damage left by the Walbridge fire on Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020.  (Alvin A.H. Jornada / The Press Democrat)
Dan Grout kicks fallen branches and other debris off the trail as he surveys damage left by the Walbridge fire on Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020. (Alvin A.H. Jornada / The Press Democrat)

Armando Montenegro, 73, has lived at the absolute end of Mill Creek Road for nearly 40 years on the Dodge family ranch north of the Austin Creek Recreation Area.

He recalls relentlessly rainy winters decades ago when he worked with his father and brother to prune vines and pick grapes at the Frei ranch on the other side of Dry Creek Valley.

“It’d be drizzling at least for three months,” Montenegro recalled.

Not so any longer. And summers are much hotter.

When Montenegro and his wife, Tammy, received a phone call ordering them to evacuate, he set the sprinklers on the roof and they left. The horses survived and would be rescued later.

A pot of burned succulents remain on a patio table on Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020, after the Walbridge fire destroyed Dan Grout's family homestead on Mill Creek Road near Healdsburg. (Alvin A.H. Jornada / The Press Democrat)
A pot of burned succulents remain on a patio table on Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020, after the Walbridge fire destroyed Dan Grout's family homestead on Mill Creek Road near Healdsburg. (Alvin A.H. Jornada / The Press Democrat)

“We lost everything: our house, the garage and the big barn,” Montenegro said. “We lost everything we own.”

Montenegro said his wife was already worried about fire in their one-road-in, one-road-out community and has concerns about returning. But he cannot imagine any other life than returning to the forest where they raised their daughters and where he has ridden countless miles on his horses herding cattle.

“It’s going to be hard on us,” he said.

Windsor Town Councilman Sam Salmon bought a dilapidated barn on Cloud Ridge Road above the juncture of Mill and Palmer creeks about 30 years ago.

Salmon didn’t think about fire danger when he purchased the forested property. The prior inhabitants had been a couple who raised their two children completely off the grid in the forest, leaving behind the modest barn living quarters and years of appointment calendars from the same auto shop in Oklahoma.

“It was pretty special and it will be special again. I think it would be not wise to build there again.” ― Windsor Town Councilman Sam Salmon, who owns property on Cloud Ridge Road

Salmon filled his weekends renovating the building, salvaging doors, collecting old windows. About 15 years ago, hundreds of madrone trees started dying on the property, which he took as a sign the water table was going down. He removed the dead trees. Meadows opened up.

He began cultivating an orchard with peach, pear, plum, fig and apple trees.

Salmon, who still lives in Windsor, always believed he would retire on the property. But the fire, which completely destroyed his decadeslong handiwork, has changed his vision for the future.

“It was pretty special and it will be special again,” Salmon said, pausing with a deep breath, then continuing. “I think it would be not wise to build there again.”

Dan Grout leaves food and water for his sheep beside a pear tree that was burned by the Walbridge fire, along with the rest of his homestead on Mill Creek Road near Healdsburg, on Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020. (Alvin A.H. Jornada / The Press Democrat)
Dan Grout leaves food and water for his sheep beside a pear tree that was burned by the Walbridge fire, along with the rest of his homestead on Mill Creek Road near Healdsburg, on Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020. (Alvin A.H. Jornada / The Press Democrat)

Mail carrier Ron Morgan marveled at the fox, rattlesnakes, golden eagles and red tail hawks sharing the ecosystem around his home of about one year, a restored cabin he rented with a composting toilet, solar power and wood-burning stove.

“I saw some of the most amazing bluebirds up there — absolutely beautiful,” Morgan said.

Each day after finishing his route on Fitch Mountain he felt overcome “with a sense of relief and a big smile came over my heart,” Morgan said. “This place was just magic.”

When the evacuation warnings went out Aug.17, Morgan asked a coworker to finish his route and rushed home, which was about 6 miles into Mill Creek and another mile up a dirt driveway.

He ensured the property owners in the main house were aware of the fire and preparing to leave, then he grabbed some belongings. But most of what he had was left behind, destroyed in the fire. He feels confident the forest will bounce back. At this point, he is preparing to move on.

“That’s what the earth does, it regenerates itself,” Morgan said. “It’s going to regenerate and it’s going to be more amazing than it was. There’s resiliency in the folks that live out there. And they’ll be back.”

Dan Grout surveys the tree line as he photographs the damage left by the Walbridge fire on Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020, after the firestorm destroyed his family's homestead on Mill Creek Road near Healdsburg.   (Alvin A.H. Jornada / The Press Democrat)
Dan Grout surveys the tree line as he photographs the damage left by the Walbridge fire on Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020, after the firestorm destroyed his family's homestead on Mill Creek Road near Healdsburg. (Alvin A.H. Jornada / The Press Democrat)

In June, the Mill Creek Community Wildfire Protection Plan was certified by Cal Fire and Sonoma County supervisors, outlining how residents will reduce fire fuels, build defensible space and harden homes against wildfire for a community across almost 20,000 acres.

When the fire started, Mill Creek's neighborhood emergency preparedness group was about to send a letter to county supervisors. They wanted the county to dedicate some of the nearly $150 million settlement it is receiving from PG&E because of the electricity-sparked fires of 2017 and use that money to help communities bolster their resiliency against future fires.

Grout shakes his head at the coincidence. He was helping revise the letter with others in his community just as a lightning strike was starting the fire that would destroy it.

Dan Grout and Melissa Pitkin’s home on Mill Creek Road in Venado pictured before it was destroyed in the Walbridge fire. (Dan Grout)
Dan Grout and Melissa Pitkin’s home on Mill Creek Road in Venado pictured before it was destroyed in the Walbridge fire. (Dan Grout)
Dan Grout walks around documenting the devastation around his home while holding his four-year-old daughter's butterfly net, which survived the flames of the Walbridge fire. Photo taken Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020. (Alvin A.H. Jornada / The Press Democrat)
Dan Grout walks around documenting the devastation around his home while holding his four-year-old daughter's butterfly net, which survived the flames of the Walbridge fire. Photo taken Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020. (Alvin A.H. Jornada / The Press Democrat)

Nevertheless, the forest will bounce back as will his family’s work to preserve the rich history of the watershed, where workers milled the trees that built Healdsburg’s first building, the Ohio House, and helped rebuild San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake.

Grout said he’s determined to push the county to put more resources toward helping forest communities prepare.

“Anything we can do to help others not relive our tragedy,” Grout said. “Fires are going to get more severe, more intense. All our efforts to prepare for fire need to be just as intense and frequent.”

Wednesday he walked through the property, taking photos for the insurance company. He heard an acorn woodpecker with its goofy Three Stooges-like call that always makes him smile.

A 3-foot diameter saw blade is seen among the ashes of an antique lumber mill after the Walbridge fire destroyed Dan Grout's family homestead on Mill Creek Road near Healdsburg. Photo taken on Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020. (Alvin A.H. Jornada / The Press Democrat)
A 3-foot diameter saw blade is seen among the ashes of an antique lumber mill after the Walbridge fire destroyed Dan Grout's family homestead on Mill Creek Road near Healdsburg. Photo taken on Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020. (Alvin A.H. Jornada / The Press Democrat)

He marveled at what was left unscathed by fire that destroyed all else: a butterfly net. His daughter’s red plastic wheelbarrow.

Much of the old steel farm equipment remained, albeit charred. An old dinner bell that still rang clear. Milk and kerosene jugs. The stone cistern.

Several huge and dead tanoak trees he had been working to strip of their bark had the audacity to still stand. He and a hired hand had cleared so many trees and limbs he estimated they had as much as 50 cord of wood in neat stacks. The fire needlessly left some of that stacked wood untouched.

A wading pool, rocking chair and porch swing remain where they were burned by the Walbridge fire after the firestorm destroyed Dan Grout's family homestead on Mill Creek Road near Healdsburg. Photo taken Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020. (Alvin A.H. Jornada / The Press Democrat)
A wading pool, rocking chair and porch swing remain where they were burned by the Walbridge fire after the firestorm destroyed Dan Grout's family homestead on Mill Creek Road near Healdsburg. Photo taken Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020. (Alvin A.H. Jornada / The Press Democrat)

Grout looked at the burned hillside and blackened fruit trees that once grew delicious Gravenstein apples, cherries, pear and other stone fruits. He guessed the roasted fruits probably helped the sheep survive. He pondered whether the fire might reveal more historical items dropped in the brush by prior generations.

His daughter, Rose, has already begun drawing red-crayon pictures of the new barn she imagined her family will build.

“She focuses on the positive, just like her grandma,” Grout said.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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