Rebuilding Sonoma County: Residents, landscape scarred by fire in Mayacamas

Nearly a third of the 150 homes built along the Mayacamas ridgeline that separates Sonoma from Napa County were burned in the October wildfires. Community strength is one of the byproducts of the disaster.|

Special coverage

This story is part of a monthly series in 2018 chronicling the rebuilding efforts in Sonoma County's four fire zones: Coffey Park, Fountaingrove, the greater Mark West area and Sonoma Valley.

Read all of the Rebuild North Bay coverage


High in the Mayacamas, the charred, spindly skeletons of knobcone pine reach in futility from the ash to the sky. The road is steep, narrow and winding, rising 2,000 feet from the valley floor to the ridgeline that separates Sonoma from Napa County.

It might be called inhospitable country, but 150 houses have been built up here since the homesteaders of the late 19th century first arrived. Nearly a third of the buildings were consumed during the October wildfires, which leveled 46 homes in the area and burned many other guesthouses, garages, wells and pumps.

At one, Lee Chadwick Rogers lost his life, fighting to defend his Cavedale Road home from the Nuns fire.

Allison Ash points out her house — 'the one with the arches,' she said, indicating a long ranch-style home on the far side of the canyon. It's surrounded by the barren landscape of the burn, and it seems a miracle the house survived.

'We call that Alopecia Ridge,' she said, comparing the appearance of the denuded hillside to the effects of a disease that causes baldness.

There's very little self-pity up here at the Mayacamas Volunteer Fire District annual meeting and community potluck, held earlier this month at the Ledson Mountain Terraces property off Cavedale Road. Ash, board president of the district, has lived in the area full time since 2009, but many at the potluck have been residents even longer.

'Our lives are divided forever, before the fire, and after the fire,' she said to the assembled neighbors. 'It's clear we are stronger and more resilient than we ever thought we could be.'

Community strength is one of the byproducts of disaster that Sonoma residents have discovered in their neighborhoods, in themselves.

'We know our neighbors up here better than we would if we lived in town, because we rely on them,' said Randy States, a 40-year resident. 'A lot of us are up here because we need a lot of room.'

States lived in one of the 47 homes taken by flames in October, a home he built himself. Now, he's staying with his wife, Linda, in a backyard cottage in Sonoma and making plans to rebuild. 'We used to take walks in the woods in the evenings. Now, we're 10 minutes away from a beer at Hopmonk.' He seems conflicted by the convenience.


Neighborhood captains

Though not a volunteer fireman, States serves as the district's 'neighborhood captain.' He meets with Supervisor Susan Gorin's field representative, Allison Kubu-Jones, every couple weeks at the Kenwood Depot, and often Gorin herself, along with a dozen or so other neighborhood captains in the First District from Riebli Road to Glen Ellen.

Gorin followed Supervisor James Gore's lead on the neighborhood captains concept, finding it a manageable way to stay in touch with the hundreds of people whose lives were turned upside-down and inside-out by the fires.

'Neighborhood captain meetings are intended as a place for captains to come together and talk directly with us and Permit Sonoma about challenges they and their neighbors are encountering,' said Kubu-Jones. 'These meetings also offer an opportunity to network and collaborate with other fire survivors and learn from one another. '

Guest speakers are often brought in to talk about subjects of common concern. On June 7, the subject was trees.

'I don't know trees, I'm an engineer,' said Johannes Hoevertsz, director of the county's Department of Transportation and Public Works. But he admits 'tree removal is a hot-button issue,' and he finds himself surrounded by inquisitors about county's policy on taking down fire-damaged trees.

'What happened to my view? I want my view back,' said one of the neighborhood captains, Lizbeth Wiggins. She shows pictures, before and after, of a stand of trees some 50 yards away from her house. The difference is striking and all too common in this group.

But the county is preparing to remove fire-damaged trees that pose a danger to roads, both private and public. That means first counting, evaluating and soon taking down the trees that might fall or drop a limb on a right-of-way, endangering lives or property.

Hoevertsz's department has counted 10,733 trees damaged by the fires along 90 miles of road. About 1,000 of them sustained high or extreme damage, and the trees must be removed in the next year. The rest are rated as moderately damaged and will be monitored over the next five years. If they don't show signs of significant recovery, they too will be taken down.

These numbers are separate, he said, from the trees that PG&E is trimming or removing to protect power lines.

The county will notify homeowners when the tree crews will be coming onto their property, and what trees are being monitored, Hoevertsz said. FEMA will take down the high-damage trees along public roads, but the county will do the work on private property. The right-of-way is determined as a 40-foot corridor along the road, 20 feet from the centerline, but if a large tree is farther away and would threaten the right-of-way, it too shall be felled.

These numbers do not include trees still farther away from roads, of which there are probably tens of thousands in the woodlands of Sonoma and Napa counties. If they haven't already disappeared in a heap of cinders and ash, they may be lightly or heavily burned. In that case, it's usually up to the property owner to decide how they deal with the damage.


More than burned trees

The Sonoma Ecology Center released a survey late last year that claimed 28.5 percent of the Sonoma Valley had burned, including significant percentages of Sugarloaf Ridge, Hood Mountain and Sonoma Valley Regional Park. And while that's inevitably a lot of trees, it's also a lot of brush and grasses. That, too, concerns Mark Newhouser, the restoration ecologist at the Sonoma Ecology Center.

Ninety percent of birds are low-level nesters — like towhees, finches and juncos, Newhouser tells the group.

'And their habitat is being removed by fear of fire,' he said, speaking of the landowners who find charred landscapes and plants just too depressing to look at, who want to clear it all and replant as quickly as possible.

Of the 30,327 acres of the Sonoma Valley that burned, only a portion was from high-intensity fire, hot enough to incinerate everything in its path. That meant houses as well as vegetation, markedly acres of knobcone pine and Douglas fir up on the ridges of the Mayacamas, and into canyons along Mark West Springs Road, Riebli Road and over into Fountaingrove.

States recalled trying to retrieve his cast-iron cookware from the ruins of his kitchen. 'It had either melted, or vaporized. Vaporized,' he repeated. 'That happens at temperatures of 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit.'

While the trees are gone, they are likely to come back eventually. Fire opens the serotinous cones of the Douglas fir and knobcone pines, releasing their seeds. Already, seedlings are found in the cemetery landscape.

'Yeah, we lost some trees, but most of the trees are alive,' said Bob Neale, stewardship director of the Sonoma Land Trust. 'Valley Oaks, live oaks, blue oaks — even some of the bigger firs. We expect a lot of those to live.'


Devastation from firestorm

The mixed-oak woodlands he describes was, like the chaparral of the Mayacamas, most heavily burned on the first night of the Oct. 8 fires as gale-force winds swept west across the county, bringing with them a firestorm that incinerated more than it spared.

'All bets are off in a firestorm,' said Newhouser, 'whether it's trees, plants or our homes.'

But while he acknowledges that 'it's horrible looking at a burned landscape; you want to plant again,' he and other ecologists fear that unchecked tree felling could destroy another third of the valley landscape.

If there's one thing Newhouser wants to tell people living in a fire-damaged landscape, he says it's this: 'I'm pleading with people to stop, take a deep breath, and consider the impact of chain-sawing every tree in their backyard out of fear.'

The Sonoma Land Trust has three properties in the Sonoma Valley that were hit by fire — Stuart Creek Ranch and Glen Oaks Ranch on either side of Highway 12 near Cavedale Road, and a third property high up Cavedale near the crest of the Mayacamas, called Secret Pasture.

Glen Oaks Ranch is adjacent to Bouverie Preserve, which was extensively burned in the first 24 hours of the fire. Glen Oaks, too, was hit hard by the Nuns fire. An adobe barn that could date back to the 1850s was all but destroyed, especially unfortunate as it had recently undergone an expensive renovation. It may be a total loss: 'It's on the National Register of Historic Places,' said SLT's Neale. 'It's a cultural resource — we don't have to repair it but feel a sense of obligation. It's a property bequeathed to us.'

Across Stuart Creek from the barn is the main Glen Oaks House, built in 1868, restored in 1952, and added to the national historic register in 1994. John McCaull lives in the Glen Oaks House as a caretaker while he does his job as the SLT's Land Acquisition Program Manager.

Late in the evening of Oct. 8 McCaull knew there were fires in Kenwood, but it wasn't until a smoky blast triggered motion lights around 1 a.m. that he knew he was in real trouble.

'One quick look to the north revealed a wall of treetop flames coming our way, curling around the vineyard into the wild hillsides of the Mayacamas. My daughter, Grace, my partner Emily, our cat Felix, and I were out of there in 10 minutes,' he recalled.

They could move back over two months later, once the smoke damage had been cleaned and fire debris cleared. McCaull considers himself lucky they were only displaced.

The fires hit the other SLT properties in the Sonoma Valley as well. Stuart Creek Hill, a 14-acre property of oak woodland and native grasslands directly across Highway 12 from the Glen Oaks Ranch, endured less destructive, cooler fires, with impacts that were 'what a fire ecologist would expect — a loss of grasslands, but it's recovering,' said Neale.

The third property, 340-acre Secret Pasture, adjacent to Bouverie, stretches up the Mayacamas. It's a chaparral zone higher in the hills, with manzanita and chamise, Douglas fir and knobcone pine. Ash and her husband, Marc Schwager, put an additional 60 acres into a conservation easement contiguous with the Secret Pasture. 'That lasts forever,' said Ash.

While the ability of the fire-adapted ecology of the Sonoma Valley to regenerate itself is his positive message, even Neale found himself taken aback by the high-intensity blazes that swept across the Mayacamas.

'Up at the top of Cavedale Road, it looks like a nuclear bomb went off,' he said. 'It might take 20 years, it might take 30 years … but it will come back.'

That's Mayacamas Volunteer Fire Department territory.

There are usually 10 active, trained firefighters in the department; when the fires struck, there were just eight. Five of them lost their homes even as they fought to save their neighbors' properties.

The volunteer fire department is now fully staffed; although former fire chief Will Horn has moved to Mendocino after losing his house to the fire. Former assistant Mike Jablonowski was made fire chief — a 'battlefield promotion,' he calls it.

Community interest has surged in the fire department, despite the fact that 98 percent of the Mayacamas burned, according to Ash. Some people still don't have their power back and many wells are compromised.

There are now 11 firefighters in the department. But Ash says it's too soon to tell how many of the almost 50 residents who lost their homes will rebuild.

'Several people I know personally won't be rebuilding,' she said. 'They're a little bit older, and the time it would take to rebuild could be years and years. Often 40 or 50 percent of people don't rebuild after a fire; we'll have to wait five years out to see if that statistic holds.'

Special coverage

This story is part of a monthly series in 2018 chronicling the rebuilding efforts in Sonoma County's four fire zones: Coffey Park, Fountaingrove, the greater Mark West area and Sonoma Valley.

Read all of the Rebuild North Bay coverage


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