An old English proverb suggests: “It's an ill wind that blows nobody good.”
The recent fires throughout Napa and Sonoma counties qualify as Ill winds.
It is common practice for Cal Fire officials to name fires by their place of origin. Ergo, the fire that destroyed over 3,500 Santa Rosa homes and businesses began near Tubbs Lane in Calistoga. However, it quickly exploded into a firestorm driven by a 70 mph “Diablo Wind.” The name of the wind could not be more perfect: Devil’s Wind.
Devil Winds are atypical winds that result when high-pressure builds over the Nevada desert and causes air to move toward a low-pressure zone over the Pacific Ocean. As the wind rushes down the western Sierra Nevada slope, it is compressed and gets hotter, drier and faster. This condition is the opposite of prevailing westerly winds that typically blow moist, ocean-cooled air over hotter California climes.
Diablo Winds typically occur in the summertime when the combination of higher heat, higher wind velocity and extremely low humidity create a potentially disastrous formula for wildfires in California. In Southern California, they are known as the Santa Ana winds.
The Tubbs firestorm destroyed a several-mile-wide swath, devouring forests, vineyards, homes and ranches on its 15-mile rampage to the north edge of the city of Santa Rosa. Reaching the northeast outskirts of the city, it mysteriously veered south in a fiery inferno that consumed over 2,500 homes. Many residents had to flee with only the clothes they were wearing.
The fire is still active, and along with several other fires in Sonoma County, the number of homes, structures and businesses destroyed has exceeded 3,500. It has the potential of being the worst wildfire in California history.
Although Sonoma County lies west of Napa County, Napa Valley was covered in a thick blanket of smoke since the first Sunday night of the fires. The smoke was bothersome, but a trifling inconvenience compared to the total devastation that thousands of Sonoma residents and business owners are struggling to cope with.
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This all changed Wednesday, Oct. 11. We thought we were safe until a spot-fire erupted eight miles west of us, near the junction of St. Helena and Calistoga roads. It was headed in our direction and posed a threat to our home and the town of St. Helena. I drove four miles to the top of Spring Mountain Road where a Napa County sheriff’s deputy had blocked the road. He described the fire and said that it was rapidly approaching upslope. He went on to say that pilots were desperately trying to suppress it with fire retardant, but if they failed he would have to close Spring Mountain Road. He didn’t have to tell me that if the fire crested over the ridge, its downslope path led directly to our home and the heart of St. Helena.
I was confident that if this happened, we could pack up prized possessions and evacuate to our daughter’s home in Tiburon. My wife was not convinced, and so we packed up and fled, not knowing if we would ever see our beloved home again.
Although our Tiburon family welcomed us warmly, the night was long and sleep was interrupted with images of our house going up in flames. Finally, morning arrived and we were able to call our neighbor, who opted to wait for the mandatory evacuation order. It never came. Evidently, the amazing pilots were able to stop the blaze on the Sonoma side of Spring Mountain and possibly save our home and the town of St. Helena.
Upon returning home, walking through the house was a surreal experience. When we left, we had to concede the possibility that it would not survive the fire. But it did and we felt a bit like we were in a “Twilight Zone.”
The horrific event has created a schizophrenic dilemma. Of course, we are grateful that our home was not destroyed, but heartsick over the misery and trauma that so many have been forced to deal with.
Existentialists might dismiss the cause of the horrific conflagration as simply a capricious whim of Mother Nature. However, I suspect that poets, sages and seekers are more likely to describe the massive destruction as the result of the Devil’s Wind: “It's an ill wind that blows nobody good.”
Lowell H. Young