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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.