Sonoma stays strong despite smoke, fire and uncertainty

The Sonoma Plaza was empty, save for signs of appreciation for firefighters on Friday, Oct. 13, 2017. (Hannah Beausang / For the Press Democrat)


As thick gray smoke obscured the sun midafternoon Friday and cast a red glow on the town of Agua Caliente, Ed Spotts sat on his porch with a glass of red wine. He was calm and accepting, despite the 46,000-acre Nuns fire a few miles away.

He’d just finished hosing down his lawn and the surrounding sidewalk, resting for a moment in a metal chair to stare at deserted Highway 12.

A plywood sign spray-painted with “Mahalo 4 your support #OneLove” leaned on his fence, a token of his appreciation for the thousands of firefighters battling blazes around Sonoma County.

“The firefighters are doing an awesome job,” he said. “There’s no doubt about it.”

Spotts was one of thousands of Sonoma Valley residents faced with uncertainty as fierce winds were forecast Friday and today, prompting concern for firefighters struggling to contain fires that for five days have wrecked bucolic landscapes across the heart of Wine Country.

The nearby Nuns fire was 10 percent contained Friday afternoon and had burned 46,000 acres, according to Cal Fire Deputy Chief Scott McLean. A portion of Agua Caliente was under mandatory evacuations Friday evening, while parts of Sonoma and Sonoma Valley were, too.

Pockets of apocalyptic devastation stretched along Highway 12, a route lined with popular wineries, as oppressive smoke in some places reached down to the still-smoldering charred ground, while some nearby vineyards remained largely untouched.

Earlier in the week, Spotts had frantically packed in the middle of the night, moving his wife and pets to safety.

“I just wanted to get out of town and keep calm,” he said. Since then he’s returned frequently to check on his home.

“It’s rough, but you realize what’s important,” he said, with his German shepherd, Kaya, by his side.

Just as deserted as Highway 12 was the historic Sonoma Plaza, which on most warm fall Fridays would be packed with tourists. Aside from the statue of General Vallejo festooned with signs appreciative of first-responders, only one or two people were in the park.

Despite the acrid smell of smoke and ash drifting from the sky, Patrick Favale of Sonoma sat outside the Basque Boulangerie Café on East First Street eating his usual lunch, a turkey sandwich on multigrain bread. Since his wife died two years ago, he’s become a regular at plaza eateries. On Friday, he sought a slice of normalcy.

“It’s like a ghost town here,” he said, looking at shuttered businesses around the usually bustling plaza.

At the nearby Murphy’s Irish Pub, Sharon Wolf took a respite from her volunteer efforts at Sonoma Valley High School, which has been transformed into an evacuation center. The makeshift shelter Friday was staffed with 100 volunteers and just as many evacuees, she said. “We want to help with whatever we can,” Wolf said. “There are families who have lost everything.”

The bar’s general manager, Buddy Chick, sat on a stool, leaning on the bar, drained. He lives in Calistoga, which is under mandatory evacuation orders, and has spent several nights in a Fairfield hotel.

“People have been here in good spirits,” he said. “It’s a little escape from all the crap that’s going on out there. They need that now.”

Contact Hannah Beausang at