The Day You Run From a Wildfire (a mostly visual essay)

Moving to the Bay Area from NY to get married and start a family this past spring has led to the best summer of my life. Ashley and I were launched into west coast life via cross-country drive with our pooch companion, a rescue named Indy. As an aside, I’d heartily recommend to anyone who has ever had even an inkling of a nomadic wandering to pursue it. One of the reasons for this personal fulfillment has been because my wife Ashley and I have finally been able to help out on the family owned vineyard. Being from deep country myself, I spent much of my youth on farms. The process of farming grapes provides ample zen like activities, such as walking the rows and tucking the vines but are contrasted with lots of physical labor, especially when in search of a statewide problem of not having enough water.

The summer has proven that wildfires are an issue that the state of California continues to struggle with. Wildfires start and rage through thousands of acres throughout the state, sights we’d see from our couch. Concerned friends would reach out to confirm our thankful safety. By the end of this past Saturday, we’d become incredibly aware of just how severe wildfires can be. The drought has brought struggles to farms across the state and last week’s heat wave served as the tinderbox igniting a worst case scenario for many people.

Being a small family-run operation nestled in Napa County, the vineyard grows six acres of varying grape varietals. We are far from the multi-thousand acre Disneyland like wineries that operate in Napa proper. Ashley’s brother — Tom has taken on a majority of responsibility for which we were happy to help share the load for. Up until this past weekend, we had harvested Sauvignon Blanc and Malbec. We recently attended the release party for our ’13 crop’s designate (we don’t make wine, just grow the grapes and sell) which was delicious! Given the “resplendent” nature of the farm there was always ample opportunity for taking nice pictures.

Indy, especially loves the ranch and can often be found with varying shades of orange-ish dust and dirt on her coat.

It was with great enthusiasm we approached this past weekend’s pick because it signaled a rest period being the last of the season. We woke up dark and early to harvest. Throughout the day there would be odd little omens that we ignored as we scrambled to water the vines, eventually using a garden hose.

Rise and harvest!

Unfortunately, our pick team had conducted a night-time harvest the night before and became unavailable. Being a persistent issue for the ranch, this necessitated further watering which required

In the quiet moments of waiting during the workday, we would do our best pass the time. Later, the horses we’d been watching all summer, two starting as foals, finally became comfortable enough with our presence to approach us. We made fast friends.

When it came time to grab lunch we naturally chose our sandwich mainstay W F Giugni & Son Grocery Co in St. Helena. While driving over Howell mountain, we noticed the wind had pushed piles and piles of pine needles into the roads. Definitely an odd little occurrence but hey, there were sandwiches to think about.

Approaching the late afternoon, we were able to carve out some time for naps. However, not before we had to replace a battery in the fire detector for beeping every 15 seconds. Indy was shaking as she usually does when a thunderstorm approaches, the anxiety it causes in her was severe enough that we had purchased her a thunder shirt while living in NYC. Upon waking up, we groggily got ready and left but not before noticing a change in the sky.

Though we noted the sky as looking ominous, we’d been hearing about how we were finally going to get some rain and chalked it up to storm clouds, maybe. We drove to St. Helena and met Tom’s girlfriend- Jac and had an excellent dinner at Market. We witnessed fire engines drive by but knew that the nearby Butte fire was still raging and mentally assigned their efforts to that.

Upon leaving the restaurant, we took the time to appreciate the Halloween themed storefront of Woodhouse Chocolates.

With sugarplums dancing in our heads, the odd omens continued to stack up while we drove over Howell mountain. What was normally a fairly sparsely trafficked road was now seeing packs of cars passing us by. Further, burning wood slowly drifted to our senses as we drove the candy land style road.

Upon approaching Butts Canyon rd., a few country miles from the ranch, the reason for the commotion became extremely self-evident. There was a roadblock and they were not letting anyone pass through. With ash falling in the air, anxiety and dread pervaded our thoughts. Indy was still back at the ranch while an indeterminately sized fire raged. All we could think about is how our pup who is utterly anxiety ridden about my absence on a normal day, was now surrounded by smells and sights that were entirely alien to us, let alone her.

As ash continued to build upon the parked cars of our neighbors, many people were standing around awe struck. There’s an effect on the human mind in the event of an emergency that numbs time and emotion, hollow dread and helplessness was all we could feel. After serious consideration of sneaking around the roadblock, (former) Sergeant Chris Perry graciously volunteered to escort us to the ranch. We’ll be forever thankful to him for his aid.

We don’t yet know the extent of the damage at the ranch and are pretty sure that our remaining grapes will be dehydrated and covered in untold amounts of ash. We do know that this ”Valley Fire” has caused us harm that pales in importance to the people who have lost everything. Towns and communities are destroyed, horses and pets have been lost in the panic.

Local news failed to report for much of the day and national news was focussed on football, furthering the disconnect between people’s suffering and other’s “just an average Sunday”. New media like Twitter and their Periscope app stepped in to provide much-needed streams of information. With the fire currently sitting at 5% containment and having already scorched through 60,000 acres, no one knows when this inferno, let alone the several other active wildfires in the state will end. For the moment, our state is on fire. Our people are locked in dread and helplessness. All while people’s own personal microcosms continue to revolve. This is the case for most disasters we see on TV, until it happens to us. I’m guilty of the same behavior.

Here’s the point folks. Not every disaster strikes suddenly and ends before you realize what’s happening. It may just be a string of small “coincidences” building until it hits you right in the face. It’s on you to pay attention and act. Be safe out there.