Gullixson: A firestorm that was all or nothing



By day three of the Santa Rosa firestorm, the chaos, the frustration and the shortage of so many things was starting to take its toll. Many are tired of staying in shelters or on the couches of friends. Others are tired of being evacuated, some for the third or fourth time. Still others are just tired of the shortages, particularly of information.

For Dr. John Mackey, a Kaiser psychiatrist in Santa Rosa, Wednesday was another day of not knowing if he had a home.

“We thought for sure the first night that it was gone,” said Mackey, who lives off Bennett Ridge with his wife and three boys. But a neighbor reported to him on Tuesday that his house was still standing. Then the winds flared up, and the fire started to work its way back. As of Wednesday, it was unclear whether his residence had made it through the night.

“We still don’t know,” he said. “We can’t see it.” His area as well as the rest of Bennett Valley had been evacuated. And he found himself staying with friends in Santa Rosa, the third time he and his family had been relocated in three days. But he was keeping things in perspective. “It’s a hard time for so many people,” he said. “We are just grateful to have what we have right now.”

The Mackeys’ journey has been the story for many of us — moments of joy and hope interrupted by strong gusts of reality.

As the winds picked up on Wednesday, so did the evacuations — some advisory, some mandatory — in Bennett Valley, Geyserville, Oakmont and in pockets of Sonoma Valley. By late afternoon, a massive pillar of smoke could be seen from a slope above Annadel Heights, marking what appeared to be either a new fire or a new finger from the Nuns fire. It could be seen all the way downtown and caused some alarm, until it was reported to be part of a firing operation to slow the spread of the Bennett Valley fire. Either way, it was another reminder that this nightmare is far from over.

There has been little middle ground with this firestorm. I was reminded of this as I toured the moonscape devastation of Fountaingrove and Skyfarm on Wednesday. The contrasts could not be greater. Either trees were green or they were burned to the core. Either cars were scorched to their rims or they were on the curb ready for sale. Either people had a home or they did not. There was little in between.

On one stretch of Skyfarm Drive, all that remained of a multi-story house was a steel spiral staircase leading to nowhere and a sky-blue patio fountain. The house to the south was equally in shambles with the scarred hulls of two cars in the driveway. The same could be said of all the other houses along the ridge looking out over Fountaingrove Golf Course. But to the north was a two-story house that looked ready for a real estate magazine. No debris. No scars. Not a singe mark on the compost bin still upright on the back lawn. Bizarre.

Sanjay Dhar, a noted heart surgeon at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, and Mona Dhar understand the terrible randomness of this fire all too well. They experienced the short end of its selective fury late Sunday after Mona returned from closing her restaurant, Pamposh Restaurant in Mission Plaza in Rincon Valley, for the night. She smelled smoke and began trying to figure out where it was coming from.

By 11 p.m. the source was clear. From their hillside home, they could see a glow in the distance. A short time later, they soon could see cars coming from Calistoga and then they saw cars fleeing their homes along Mark West Springs and Riebli roads.

“That scared me,” said Mona. “I said, ‘No, that can’t be right.’ ”

But not long after, they also could see fire jump Mark West Springs Road and torch a house below them with towering flames. “We wondered how it could possibly get this far so fast,” Sanjay said.

They quickly alerted a neighbor and jumped in their car as large embers began falling all around them. “The wind was so intense, and it was so smoky, we couldn’t see our hands in front of our face,” he said. They got out just in time. He said he made the mistake of leaving a car at home thinking they would come back to get it later. But there would be nothing to come back to. “It is all gone,” he said. “There is nothing.”

He said their house had been built with steel girders to withstand an earthquake of magnitude 8.5. But it was not designed to withstand this. “The girders just melted away,” he said.

The same fate awaited the other homes on Clearbrook Court — except for one. At the far end, a stately home is tucked up on the hill. Even the trees appear unharmed. But despite all of these disparities it strikes me that there is no contrast in how the good people of Sonoma County are responding to this crisis. We agonize with those who have lost everything. And, like the Dhars, we celebrate with those whose homes are still standing. There is no middle ground. We’re in this together.

Paul Gullixson is editorial director for The Press Democrat. Email him at Call him at (707) 521-5282.