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Date: 2024-05-18 Page is: DBtxt003.php txt00013957

Natural Disasters
Fires in Northern California

Elements / Where the Fires in Northern California Came From, and What Lies Ahead


Peter Burgess

Elements Where the Fires in Northern California Came From, and What Lies Ahead

The catastrophe has been compounded by the fact that many homes in California are situated in extremely fire-prone areas, right at the border between urban and wild.Photograph by Elijah Nouvelage / AFP / Getty

Since the fires in Northern California began, on a dry and windy night two weekends ago, they have charred nearly a quarter of a million acres of land, destroyed an estimated fifty-seven hundred structures, and killed more than forty people. Most of the immediate damage has been limited to wine country, especially Napa and Sonoma Counties, but the effects of the fires have been felt all over. Last week, the smoke and ash blew south, spreading over much of the San Francisco Bay Area, and stubbornly remaining there. Some school districts in the region have cancelled classes, declaring the air too dangerous to breathe. At sunset, the sun has often glowed pink through the heavy, choking haze. “This is truly one of the greatest, if not the greatest, tragedies California has ever faced,” Governor Jerry Brown said on Saturday. “The devastation is just unbelievable. It’s a horror that no one could have imagined.”

The view from the author’s home, near San Francisco, on a recent evening. Photograph Courtesy Jeremy Miller

Today, a dozen large fires are still burning. According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection’s latest summary, the Atlas Fire, near Napa, is seventy-seven per cent contained, and the Nuns Fire, east of Sonoma, is sixty-eight per cent contained. Like the Oakland firestorm of 1991, which was previously considered the most destructive in California’s history, the current conflagration has been abetted by an unusual weather pattern. The Bay Area’s typical conditions, iconically foggy and cool, are the product of moisture-laden air blowing in from the Pacific. This so-called onshore wind carries humidity inland, keeping vegetation damp and suppressing the risk of fire, even in Napa and Sonoma, where temperatures are often twenty, or even thirty, degrees warmer than on San Francisco’s waterfront. But, when the wind switches direction, surging from the east over the arid expanses of the Great Basin, conditions change rapidly. Humidity plummets. Vegetation dries. Fire risk soars.

Driven by gusting offshore winds, flames can spread rapidly and unpredictably. Preliminary findings suggest that blown transformers and fallen power lines may have started some of this month’s blazes, though virtually any ignition source—a lightning strike, an errant cigarette butt, even a spark from the undercarriage of a car—could just as easily be the culprit. My father, Mark Miller, a former fire chief in the town of Cambria, on California’s Central Coast, told me that he once responded to a wildfire touched off by, of all things, a hawk. The bird, he explained, had landed on high-voltage power lines, causing an electrical discharge. “The flaming carcass hit the ground and lit the grass,” he said. “When it’s that dry, almost anything can spark one of these fires.”

And once the fires get started, they are tremendously hard to stop. “With these firestorms, you’ve literally got tens of millions of embers flying through the air,” Chris Dicus, a professor of natural-resources management and environmental sciences at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, told me. These red-hot flecks aren’t like the “happy little embers” from a fireplace, he said. “They are being slapped against homes at forty or fifty miles an hour, almost like a sideways rain. Any sort of nook or cranny that water might be able to get into, those embers will also get into and ignite the home.” The reach and destructive power of these conflagrations were most evident in Santa Rosa, where fire spread rapidly from house to house, transforming entire neighborhoods into ashen wastelands littered with melted cars and standing chimneys.

The catastrophe has been compounded by the fact that many homes in California—among some two million in the West—are situated in extremely fire-prone areas, right at the border between urban and wild. The state requires that residents maintain a defensible space around their houses, a hundred-foot zone cleared of flammable plants and combustible debris. But, as Dicus noted, “that only works if it is enforced. And unfortunately we just don’t have the manpower, and sometimes the political will, to actually go out and enforce those laws.” To make matters worse, climate change has been intensifying fire behavior in California and throughout the West. In 2015, the U.S. Forest Service published a report stating that the fire season in large sections of the western United States had lengthened by more than two months since the nineteen-seventies. Another study, published in 2016 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that human-caused global warming, and the subsequent drying of forests, had nearly doubled the total acreage of forests burned across the country since 1984. The recent fires, in other words, have been a long time coming.

Late last week, I visited several communities in Sonoma County to get a sense of the mounting damage, and of how residents were preparing for what lay ahead. On the outskirts of the city of Sonoma, people in surgical masks cut back vegetation and soaked roofs with garden hoses, bracing for the high winds that were forecast for later that evening. In the central square, most of the businesses were closed, but the Boulangerie Café remained open and was doing a brisk business. A few patrons braved the air, sitting outside under the orange sky, sipping coffee and tea.

I drove up a steep, narrow road called Rancho Bonita Way, on Sonoma’s northern edge. It was one of the few routes leading into the hills that had not been cordoned off. As I got closer to the fire front, the air became heavier, then practically unbreathable—a miasma of grit and ash. Dozens of homes were set back in the woods and most, it appeared, had been evacuated. Several had hastily written signs propped up on mailboxes and ladders out front: 500k water tank and wharf hydrant in front yard all evac thank you first responders

At Sonoma Valley High School, one of several shelter sites taking in evacuees, a group of National Guard troops walked, carrying rifles, amid a crowd of residents and school staff. I met an exhausted-looking man named Steve Proell, a worker with the Sonoma Developmental Center. He told me that he’d spent two days straight shuttling severely disabled patients from the facility where they lived, in nearby Eldridge, to various shelters across the county. “It’s been a real challenge,” Proell said. “Our patients are very needy. We have all the necessary supplies at our facility. But at the shelters it’s been very difficult to get them everything they need. But at least we’ve managed to get everyone out and into safety.” Proell had recently taken a few minutes to check on his house, which so far remained intact. “I haven’t slept in two days, but I can’t complain,” he said. “The food in my refrigerator has gone bad, but at least I still have a house to go back to—for now.”

In the school’s courtyard, I met a fifteen-year-old named Alexis López and his parents, Maria and Arturo, who were seated on a concrete block beneath a surrealistic sculpture of a dragon. Two nights earlier, they had been evacuated from their home, near Agua Caliente Road, just north of Sonoma. “At night, we could see the grapevines burning around us and trees on the hills in flames,” López said. “There were big houses up there burning. We thought our house was going to burn for sure.” The evacuation order had been lifted the previous day, and the family had been relieved to find their home still standing. I asked López, a sophomore at Sonoma Valley High, about what it was like to take shelter at his own school. “It’s all right,” he said. “But the Internet is really bad here and I can’t get through to my friends to find out how they’re doing. I’ve heard some of them lost their houses.”

A couple sat in a Winnebago in the parking lot of Altimira Middle School, playing cards and watching the local news on a television powered by a small generator. (They declined to give me their names, saying that they preferred to be identified as “two local residents waiting to go home.”) They had evacuated four days earlier, from their home in Glen Ellen, and had no idea about its condition. “It’s happened before, you know,” the man, who had a thick gray mustache and large glasses, told me. “The fire is taking the same path as the one in 1964.” He was referring to the Hanley Fire, which reportedly started after a hunter flicked a cigarette butt into the woods; when the fire was over, a week later, it had burned more than fifty thousand acres and destroyed much of downtown Calistoga. “This is much bigger than that one,” he said, “but it’s something we’ve seen here.”

At Gundlach Bundschu Winery, on the southern outskirts of Sonoma, the staff had spent days clearing brush and digging fire lines. The previous weekend, embers from Atlas Peak, east of Napa, had set the southern edge of the three-hundred-and-twenty-acre property ablaze. The owner’s home had been engulfed, as had several outbuildings and vehicles. “That’s where I grew up,” Katie Bundschu, Gundlach Bundschu’s vice-president, said. “The fire came through quickly, in the middle of the night, and just levelled it.”

Minutes after I arrived, a huge Sikorsky helicopter emerged from the haze, descending and siphoning water from the property’s pond. “I bet they got fifty turtles on that one,” Jeff Uhr, the winery’s assistant winemaker, said with a tired laugh. After it had taken its fill, the water-gorged aircraft slowly ascended, a hose like an elephant’s snout dangling from its underbelly, and climbed toward the smoky ridgeline above. “That’s a good sign,” Bundschu said. “This is the first time we’ve seen the big helicopters.” (Two days later, she told me that helicopters were still siphoning water from the pond; at one point, she had counted as many as six.)

At a picnic table, Jeff Bundschu, the winery’s president, spread out a map of the site. He wore a trucker hat emblazoned with the year of the winery’s founding, 1858. Heavy smoke could be seen billowing ominously from the top of the steep ridge above the winery, but the air was calm and surprisingly cool. Ash floated down like snow. He traced a finger around the property’s perimeter, explaining how the fire had encircled it. “I’ve been up since 3 a.m., digging lines,” he said. We walked to a series of newly plowed ruts overlooking the rustic tasting room, the wine cave, and the wine vats, which were being kept cool by a large gas-powered generator. The plan for that night, Bundschu said, was to man the grounds with shovels, fire extinguishers, and hoses to battle the raining embers. “We lost the house, but we are not going to give up the winery without a fight,” he said.

Bundschu grew up riding his mountain bike in the oak-and-pine-covered hills above the vineyard. For years, he had suspected that a large fire was inevitable, though one of such scale and intensity had been all but unimaginable. “Anyone who spends any amount of time outside knows that you need a fire up there,” he said. “There was so much dead undergrowth that a fire is actually healthy for the forest.” The question, of course, was just what the flame-driven regeneration would mean for the winery, which, from where we stood, appeared to melt seamlessly into the landscape.

Bundschu noted that the winery itself has seen tragedy in the past. His great-great-great-grandfather, Charles Bundschu, moved his winemaking operations to Sonoma after the great earthquake and subsequent fire of 1906, which destroyed the family winery in San Francisco. “He got on one of the last evacuation ships out of the city,” Bundschu said. “Several days later, he wrote this incredible, heartfelt letter about seeing the city in flames.”

Bundschu directed my attention to an old truck parked near the winery’s entrance. “Not that I invited this maelstrom, but painted on the back of that truck is a quote from Charles Bukowski,” he said. Originally intended as a commemoration of the winery’s past, the quote had now morphed into an eerie foreshadowing of the present: “What matters most is how well you walk through the fire.”

Jeremy Miller is a writer in Richmond, California.

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