Yesterday I got out of bed and took Finnegan for a short dog walk before heading to the gym. The air quality is really bad because of all the fires north of here. It was a crisp and cool morning and there was so much smoke in the air that it was easy to feel as if I was walking around a campground, but it didn’t feel like a vacation. It’s pretty serious here right now. The situation up in the Wine Country is dire. There’s no other word for it.
I’ve lived in California a long time and I’ve seen a lot of fires torch the hills. There’s been a couple of major fires up on Mount Diablo while I’ve lived in this area over the last 46 years. Back when Candace and I lived out in the country in Lafayette and Moraga we were always aware of the fire danger in summer and fall. But these fires, which are not so far away from here physically (Napa and the rest of the Wine Country is only about 40 miles from here) are very close emotionally. My brothers live up in Santa Rosa, and fortunately they have not been seriously affected as of yet, though they could be at risk if the wind shifts. My friend Larry who is president of two prestigious wineries in the Napa Valley had to evacuate his home (which has survived).
Over the years I’ve spent a lot of time in both Napa and Sonoma counties. While I’ve never lived there they always feel like home to me. Last Sunday night I was writing in my journal before bedtime and I was suddenly struck with what I can only describe as a sense of doom. I didn’t understand where it was coming from. I turn off all news input a couple of hours before I go to sleep. But I know something was up somewhere. I found out the next morning that my intuition was right and that the feeling appeared just about the time that the fires really got going up in Santa Rosa.
If you are following what’s happening here from another part of the country it may be hard to grasp the seriousness of what is taking place. It was even hard for me the first day. When you see tragedy on the television its easy to slip into an objective state and not really comprehend the fact that people are suffering. So yesterday after I got back from my workout I grabbed my camera gear and headed up north to witness the events that are transpiring. I had mixed feelings about doing that as I did not want to get in the way of any first responders, so I kept a low profile and didn’t go anywhere that might be problematic.
My brother had told me that the Clover Stornetta Dairy had burned down. That’s been a landmark in Sonoma County for decades. It was sobering to see what had happened. I had lunch in Napa near the Oxbow Public Market, which was deserted. That place is usually humming, but most of the vendors were closed up.
The air quality in Napa is the worst in the country right now. Huge palls of smoke are hanging over everything, and there are fires on both the east and west side of the Napa Valley. I drove up Highway 29 as far as I could. The only other vehicles on the road were fire trucks, police cars, utility vehicles and people heading south from the evacuation areas. As I got close to Calistoga I heard that there was a mandatory evacuation going on so I turned around. I could not have gone farther as the road was blocked by the CHP.
It was another world. I have been up that way countless times and the traffic is always intense. Not yesterday. As I passed familiar landmarks I kept thinking about how at risk they were, and how fragile civilization really is. The next couple of days are critical in regards to the resolution of this catastrophe.
By the time I got back down to Napa the sun had gone down and the wind had shifted. I stood alongside the Napa River on the western side just a little North of the Imola bridge. The hills were burning to the east at the same time as some men were fishing from the shore. There were sirens and sounds of traffic. When I drove through downtown there were people heading out of restaurants and getting on with life.
As I watched the fire I felt a great sense of loss, a feeling that is becoming familiar to me. So much of what we take for granted is so easily mislaid in a moment. No one knows quite yet how these fires started. We won’t know the answer to that for a while.
I put up a quick gallery of the images I made. You can see them here.