Gullixson: Meanwhile, here’s what went on inside The Press Democrat
My colleagues here at The Press Democrat have done a phenomenal job of telling the story during the past week of the greatest natural disaster to ever hit our home. They have told in detail the battles to save homes, businesses and lives from Sonoma to Geyserville to Calistoga. But what they haven’t done well - journalists rarely do - is tell their own story. In a nutshell, here is how this community nightmare unfolded for them.
As usual, any fire story begins with one person - PD photojournalist Kent Porter, known for his remarkable fire coverage, especially during the Valley fire two years ago.
Porter was hanging pictures with his wife in Windsor Sunday evening when he could hear the winds picking up. “In the back of my head I was thinking, this is not a good situation,” he said. Around 10 p.m., he turned on his scanner and heard crews talking about a vegetation fire off Tubbs Lane on Highway 128 in Calistoga. In no time, he had grabbed his gear and was off.
As he passed over Mark West Springs and Petrified Forest roads, he could see the glow of fire and when he arrived, “the wind was just going crazy,” he said. “Grass was burning. Vineyards were burning. Power poles were going back and forth, and electrical lines were sparking,” he said. “It was pandemonium.”
The fire soon spread over Franz Valley School Road and began consuming landscape and homes along Mountain Home Ranch Road. “This thing is going all the way to Santa Rosa,” a fire official told him.
At 11:19 p.m. Porter was on the phone to Managing Editor Ted Appel.
“He said, “Ted, this is going to be bigger than the Valley fire,” said Appel. “I said, ‘All right, Kent. I’m with you.’?’’
Still in his pajamas, Appel started putting together a story for pressdemocrat.com from home. Over the next hour, he filed several updates and by 1 a.m. he was heading for the office. “I could see the glow from the hills, and it was the eeriest thing. There were all of these cars on the street,” he said. Many didn’t know where they were going.
Having headed back over the mountains from Calistoga, Porter could see firefighters were having a hard time getting out ahead of the fire.
“There were so many fires at once,” he said. He decided to head out to Glen Ellen, “and I was met with just a blast furnace of heat there.”
He soon began hearing scanner talk about Fountaingrove and headed back, coming up through Skyfarm Drive. Houses were going up everywhere. “I ran into a (firefighter) friend and he said ‘This is my worst nightmare come true. We all figured that this might happen some day.’?”
After getting off the phone with Appel around this same time, Executive Editor Catherine Barnett also headed for the office but found her path blocked by a fallen tree on Westside Road. She and her husband, former PD reporter Tim Tesconi, backtracked to Hacienda when they got a call from Sonoma Media Investments CEO Steve Falk, who had already been on the phone with Barnett about the fire, telling them that southbound Highway 101 at Bicentennial Avenue was closed.
“Of course, now we all know that was when the fire was jumping the freeway,” she said. “But at the time we had no idea.” So they went the back way on West College Avenue only to encounter bumper-to-bumper traffic heading for the evacuation center at Finley Community Park. “There was a man in a vest out front refusing to let more people into Finley,” she said.
“And at that point the severity of what was happening was beginning to dawn on us,” she said. “You could see the glow on the whole ridgeline and we both said, ‘It’s like 1964 all over again.’?”
Around that time, reporter Julie Johnson was awoken by smoke and then received a text from Appel calling in the troops. She quickly arranged to leave her nearly 4-year-old son with his father and headed for the office.
“I just remember hitting the phones and calling every source I had,” said Johnson, a veteran breaking-news reporter.
“I talked to Jack Piccinini (fire chief for the Rincon Valley and Windsor fire protection districts) who just made it so clear. I remember him saying ‘Where is the backup? We need more Cal Fire (support) here. We are on our own.’”
The message was the same from all of her other firefighting sources. “Everyone that I reached was saying, ‘We need help. We need help.’?”
By that time, Porter had dropped down out of Fountaingrove and was capturing photos of Santa Rosa’s Round Barn, a landmark for 118 years, engulfed in flames.
By now, more people had started arriving at the newspaper. Reporter Bill Swindell came in from Sebastopol and then headed out to Kenwood. Robert Digitale, who lives in the center of town, came in and started handling the phones.
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