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 says, 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 and waits for the laugh, 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 tells 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 Stokes, a 12-year resident. “A lot of us are up here because we need a lot of room.”
Stokes 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.
Though not a volunteer fireman, Stokes 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.
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 here.