In a valley called Reeves Canyon just north of Ukiah, winds on Tuesday were shifting 10 to 15 miles per hour, fueling fires started by the lightning storms three days earlier up and down these steep, pine-covered mountains.
My family has a ranch with vineyards, orchards and olive trees about four miles down that canyon (called Linholme ranch, or House of Lindsey). My dad, Jim T. Lindsey, was a Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives back in the mid-'50s.
This family ranch of ours is part of the old Seabiscuit ranch that my folks bought back in the '80s. The peak directly across from our ranch is called "Eagle Peak." Right now, it and the other wooded and very steep peaks that stretch for miles all the way to the coast are smothered, almost lathered, in smoke. It makes the eyes water, the throat ache to cough continually and the nose go dry.
The first hints came last Saturday, a peaceful afternoon as I was reading my book, a science-fiction thriller. Then I looked out the wall-sized window from my bedroom and across the valley. Smoke was rising up over the ridge east of Eagle Peak from what looked like a pretty serious fire. I phoned the Ukiah Fire Department since tinder-dry conditions could explode that fire down our way given the right wind conditions -- and the wind was picking up.
The fireman at the firehouse said, yeah, they knew about it but that things were under control. They had several other fires they were tending at the moment of more importance. I thought that curious, but didn't ask why. So, I continued to read my novel.
My 19-year-old son who had come to visit from college had headed back Saturday night to visit his dad in Novato. I stayed but was increasingly concerned about the intensifying clouds of smoke. It was getting more dire. By the time my son came back Sunday evening, it was clear we must head back to my home in Santa Rosa immediately.
After dropping him off at the Sonoma County airport Tuesday morning, I got news that our vineyard manager and his crew were cutting down trees around our two houses and putting out more fire hoses. I raced back to the house, only to be told: "It's too dangerous for you to be here. You need to leave."
Everyone was gearing up to help. Our close neighbor Roger Howard and our vineyard crew were headed up with their bulldozers and chain saws to build yet more fire breaks around the homes there. They had to prevent the fires from gusting and jumping our way. The smoke was thick.
It was as if I could feel the heat in my face from the fire across the valley. Yet -- in some benighted way -- I thought "surely I'm far enough away," even though we've all heard the stories about how blazingly fast fires can thunder down and across valleys and canyons.
I gathered up my things and closed up the main house. The departure clutched at my chest, because my folks have spent most of their lifetime building that place so they could retire there. To think they just might lose it to these deadly fires that sprang up overnight (as if a wizard's wand made it so) just tore at my heart.
Trying not to panic but remain calm, I headed down the hill. As I drove down Reeves Canyon, I met and saw the first fire crews going up to the Three Streams Ranch across the valley from our place. These honorable fellows were caked with soot, exhausted, said they'd been up 48 hours already and were apologizing (apologizing!) that they hadn't gotten to our site earlier.
The fire crews were spilling in from Highway 101 finally because this fire -- out of so many -- was now a priority. All I could do was point the fire crews toward their next fight.
All it takes is something as simple as winds blowing to the coast that could easily pump up the fires, causing them to jump over several acres to our property to the north. It is indeed closer than I could have ever imagined.
The San Diego fires destroyed thousands of homes last fall. Now, here it is fire season again. Yet this time it's in a whole new terrible and gruesome way. It seems more intense even than those fires (and I happened to be there, too) because it covers almost half of the California coast going all the way towards the Oregon border, all ignited in one night. One night! And more lightning is predicted for this weekend.
How could firefighters ever beat those odds, especially when fires can ignite days later after they've smoldered? How can any of these fire crews and volunteers maintain any sanity or energy? Whatever you do and however you do it, my heart is with you and my hat is off to you. I'm sure I speak for thousands of people out there. Thanks for all your hard work. And may you be able to stem this vast tide of fires that have sprouted like Medusa's own head of snakes up and down our coast.
Now, on the Saturday after it all began, I'm desperate for information and have no idea how close the fires are to our treasured retreat that we somehow always thought would be a safe haven.
Leigh Anne Lindsey, 48, lives and writes in Santa Rosa. She is a former technology investor (living in Sebastopol, CA as of 2009)
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