I avoided touring the scenes of the recent fire destruction as long as I could, wanting to preserve the memory of the places I knew as they used to be.
The scorched tops of Mount St. Helena and its foothills are easily visible from my house, but except in certain lighting conditions, the mountain doesn’t look all that different, so that hasn’t been a remarkable change to my eye.
Eventually, however, I couldn’t avoid visiting places where the destruction was more obvious.
I started out by driving down Silverado Trail, but that actually turned out to be a story largely of success. With a couple of notable exceptions, the buildings along the Trail were spared the flames. It was a near thing in many spots, with the fire reaching the road or licking within a few feet of houses. The hills are scorched and blackened, but most of the actual destruction is invisible from the road.
On Thursday, however, I needed to go to Santa Rosa for some specialized car work. No way to avoid traveling through the heart of the most destructive and deadly of October’s fires.
Burn maps and aerial photos are fascinating and horrifying, but there are things that they cannot tell you about the reality of a massive firestorm.
They don’t capture the capricious nature of fire, how a house here is burned while the next one over still stands. How flames ignore the boundaries and landmarks we humans set for ourselves, weaving with indifference across fields, fences and roads. We drive along 100 yards of road through a blackened moonscape only to round a corner into a stretch that is as green and lovely as ever, then back into another patch of total destruction.
They don’t fully show fire’s amazing ability to strip bare things that were hidden. With the bush gone, you can see the folds and swells of the land in a new way. With walls burned away, you can see the way the former residents lived in their houses – the mundane objects of daily life, washing machines, tools, fuel tanks, anything robust enough to leave a trace after the fire. And so many cars. In driving by these neighborhoods before they were destroyed, I would never have dreamed there were so many vehicles stashed away behind woods and walls, all now reduced to ghostly shells.
And they don’t convey the emotional impact of seeing entire neighborhoods leveled.
As shocking to the eye as the rural parts of the roads are, it is only as you get to the settled edges of Santa Rosa that you get the gut punch. As far as the eye can see, piles of ash, with chimneys and stone structures standing like tombstones.
It looks like, well…
“It looks like a nuclear bomb went off,” said one fellow customer at the auto shop, who said he himself lost his house, but managed to save one treasured car. He was in the shop to have a flashy new tricked-out exhaust system put in to celebrate.
Fire was all anybody was talking about in the shop, customers and staff alike. One mechanic’s father had been a volunteer firefighter on the 1964 Hanley Fire that burned almost exactly the same area as this year’s Tubbs Fire. Everyone had stories of houses lost and houses saved. They asked how we had fared over in Napa County and I had to admit we were incredibly lucky compared with what hit Sonoma County.
As I drove home, I deliberately cruised slowly through downtown Calistoga, savoring the fact that the town still stands. I looked at the houses with a new appreciation, noting the chimneys and stone walls that would have been the only markers left had the fire turned a different direction.
Had it not been for the fickle winds, brave firefighters, and a healthy dose of luck, the kind of horrific, all-encompassing destruction that was visited on Santa Rosa could easily have come to Calistoga, Browns Valley, or Alta Heights.
If our recent fire disaster teaches one thing, let it be not to take your home, your neighborhood, your entire city, for granted.