The sad refrain of Sonoma County fire victims: ‘All you can do is move on’

Homeowner Arthur Dawson, left, gets a hug from his neighbor Steve Lee as he and his wife Jill, right, dig through the rubble of their burned home on Warm Springs Rd on Sunday, October 22, 2017 in Glen Ellen, California . (BETH SCHLANKER/The Press Democrat)


Scott Lane walked his dog down Kenwood’s Treehaven Lane Sunday afternoon, surveying one home after another reduced to ashes and twisted metal by the Nuns fire two weeks earlier.

His own home closer to the town center had survived and, as a plumbing contractor and retired volunteer firefighter, he already had seen a good deal of the destruction wrought by the recent firestorm during days spent trying to help others in the fires’ wake.

But something about all the loss hit the 62-year-old Sunday afternoon, causing him to weep. That his own home made it through somehow made it worse, he said.

“I’m just overwhelmed,” Lane said apologetically, wiping tears from his face with his hand. “There’s a lot of people (who) can’t get home.”

As public safety officials allow more and more people back into hard-hit communities like Kenwood, a growing number are confronting a reality that’s hard to fathom, despite continued news coverage of neighborhoods decimated by what some call the Wine Country fires.

The vast destruction of the Tubbs fire is well known. Whipping through the Mayacmas Mountains from Calistoga to Santa Rosa in a matter of hours Oct. 8 and 9, it took out thousands of homes by itself, killing at least 23.

The Nuns fire, which erupted around the same time, starting as five separate fires that eventually merged into one, has been overshadowed. The 56,556-acre fire laid waste to neighborhoods largely along the Sonoma Valley, killing one Sonoma County resident and a water tender operator in Napa County.

Residents allowed limited re-entry to communities such as Kenwood, Glen Ellen, Sonoma and Bennett Valley this weekend were forced to confront their losses. Many arrived with hopes of finding some small treasure only to see there was little to rescue from the ruins.

“The reality is there’s very little you can actually salvage,” said one man, who declined to give his name as he sorted through the debris of his parents’ home on Sylvia Drive in Glen Ellen.

He said his 83-year-old dad, a longtime collector like his mother, had stayed with the house through the night of the fires, fending off flames that popped up here and there until well after light, when the woodpile caught fire and he had to flee. The heat was such that practically everything melted, the son said.

In another part of town, Mike and Jane Witkowski returned to their O’Donnell Lane home hoping to find a ring that had belonged to her grandmother.

But even though they knew where to look, the search became so disheartening she turned her attention to bits of china, charred metal gadgetry, flatware, and some salt and pepper shakers.

Their home was among more than 50 destroyed when flames tore through a swath of Glen Ellen roughly along the paths of Warm Springs Road and O’Donnell Lane — on O’Donnell, taking “a sort of zigging, zagging” route that left some structures untouched next to others incinerated.

There was a one-day window when Don Millikan, 85, thought he and his wife, Flavia, were among the lucky ones.

A next-door neighbor had pounded on the door of their home just down from the Witkowskis’ to awaken them as flames descended toward their tree-lined street, and they escaped to safety in time as fire swept through their community.

By daybreak, while many, including the woman next door, had lost everything to the wildfire, the blaze had only licked the edges of the Millikans’ O’Donnell Lane lot. Their home of more than 20 years had survived.

But sometime during the next 24 hours or so, flames snaked their way into the house and up to the attic, running the length of the structure.

Sunday, Millikan was among those shoveling the ash and debris from inside the shell that remained.

In Kenwood, Susan Miron did not venture to the back of her Treehaven Court lot. Her adult daughter had warned her to steer clear of the yard where five rare chickens had lived.

But she pointed out the badly burned redwood planted in tribute to her father, and another she had planted in memory of her mom. The memorial garden she had planted when her husband died three years ago was burned.

Their home, his baby grand piano, his albums, her glass collection and hundreds of vintage valentines were gone with the rest of their home, as was her art studio and everything inside it.

But she was alive, thanks to neighbors who called and woke her up just as the fire leaped from a neighbor’s yard to her own.

“All you can do is move on,” she said. You can’t think of what you’ve lost.”

The Nuns fire was 90 percent contained as of Sunday night.

Nearly 3,000 firefighters were still battling remnant hot spots Sunday night and mopping up from fires that have burned through 142 square miles of Sonoma County in the past two weeks, destroying an estimated 6,800 structures and displacing tens of thousands of county residents.

The Tubbs fire, the most destructive fire in California history, has torched 36,807 acres and was 94 percent contained Sunday night.

The Pocket fire, at 17,357 acres, was 87 percent contained.

Fire officials said they hope to have all of the region’s fires fully contained by Wednesday.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.