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Sonoma & Napa Firestorms: A First Person Account, Day 6

Posted by Craig Haserot on Oct 25, 2017 10:07:57 AM

Saturday, October 21st

By the time Day 6 came, everyone who was still in wine country was exhausted, sleep-deprived, and brutally sick of two things:  helicopters and sirens.  Both make you flinch, stop what you are doing, and pay attention.  We all want them to just go away.  But the Partrick fire had another agenda last night for Sonoma.


Image: A couple watches as their home burns in Santa Rosa. Happy to be alive. Source: ClickIttefaq.

I’m home alone, and the text messages start coming at 2:35am – great, 3 ½ hours of sleep.  Ellen’s phone call was, “What is going on up there?”  She was awakened in Menlo Park by a text and a phone call from a friend in Brown’s Valley, on the eastern edge of the Partrick Fire.  I had received the same text; just hadn’t looked at it yet.  Mandatory evacuation three blocks away from our house.  Well, isn’t that special?  Damn.  And within two more minutes the unmistakable corresponding sounds begin.


Image: A CalFire helicopter and truck on the job trying to save as many homes and lives as possible. Source: Press Democrat. 

At night, the standard operating procedure for mandatory evacuations is to fly a very large very large Army helicopter over the area that needs to be evacuated, then have squad cars with lights and sirens blaring speed through neighborhoods shouting over their bullhorns to “Get out now!”  Their goal is to panic you into instantly leaving.  Ok, you win.  This is before they go door to door and then seal off the area with roadblocks.  I understand they don’t want folks to sleep through the evacuation, but in reality you have absolutely no chance at sleeping within ½ a mile to a mile of a door to door evacuation.  Maybe farther.


Image: Members of the community watch as a fire grows along the ridge near Highway 12, getting closer to the Sonoma town. Photo Source: Carlos Avila Gonzalez, SF Chronicle. 

Like me, my friend Don and our winemaker Erich are just outside the mandatory evacuation zone.  And like me, we’re all awake and on our phones instantly.  I walk outside and see the familiar glow of the nighttime fire but it definitely looks closer.  Substantially closer.  I head over to Don’s house, and immediately the power goes off.  Maybe PG&E turned off the power in their neighborhood as a precaution?  That’s not a very comforting thought. Erich spends time with neighbors in his street watching the glowing fire get closer and closer.  Erich has been up all night, again, and says the wind is blowing 30 mph in the hills from the north fanning the fire towards just east of the square in Sonoma.  The question of course of how long will the winds blow …


Image: Nearly vineyard is in flames in the hills near Sonoma. Photo Source: Peter DaSilva, SF Chronicle.

I help Don with a few last things, and then we all head to my house for some TV/Internet.  At 4:30 am one of the local stations starts their news broadcasting from a residential area in Sonoma, and at 5:30 am an airborne ember drops in a neighborhood ½ mile from the square setting some residences on fire.  This is exactly how the Coffey Park fire started. We’re collectively super nervous and on edge – and thrashed from not getting enough sleep the entire week. As soon as daybreak comes, the winds die down, and seven helicopters start their all day assault on the Partrick fire. They use the large irrigation pond at the Gun Bun winery to reload and go.  Since the fires are close by, they can execute a staggering number of drops per hour per helicopter.  I grab a power nap around 8am for an hour or so.


Image: A helicopter pulls water from a pond by the Gundlach Bundschu Vineyard to reload and head back out to battle the Partrick Fire. Photo Source: Press Democrat. 

And by the afternoon, they have the fire knocked down and nearly out. TKO style. We’re not really sure how and we don’t really care either. And instantly, the mood in the town changes from despair to cautious optimism to elation. We know there are other fires burning out of control further up valley in Oakmont and Kenwood neighborhoods and also in Napa Valley, but for now for in Sonoma, we have the first piece of good news in 6 days.

As happy hour arrives, the news online for the Partrick fire continues to improve, and it’s time to blow off some steam.  Don and I get busy. Very busy. Don’s wife helps by drinking 2-3 glasses in total.  The tide is turning, and it’s time to dance in the end zone, if even for a brief moment.


Image: Saturday night wines. 

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Topics: napafire, pinot noir, napastrong, sonoma coast, sojourn, sojourn cellars, sonoma wine, sonomafire, wine, sonomastrong

Sonoma & Napa Firestorms: A First Person Account, Days 4 & 5

Posted by Craig Haserot on Oct 20, 2017 12:58:31 PM

Thursday, October 12th

Day 4. I rarely bring an electronic device into bed; I have enough marginal habits as it is. That all changed with the firestorm, where situations can and do change by the minute, and middle-of-the-night texts can mean life or death. I wake up at 5:45am and reach for my phone. It’s quiet and Nixle is quiet too. Curious. I call Erich, and he says the winds and potential new firestorm never came. They went elsewhere, but not right through Sonoma County as forecast. He’s tired, says he stayed up all night. Again.


Image: The love in the air is thicker than the smoke signs start popping up all over wine country, along with the hashtags #SonomaStrong #SonomaProud #NapaStrong #NapaProud and #CAWineStrong. This community is banding together like nothing we've ever seen. 

If you work anywhere in the winemaking world, you are most likely into weather. Never before did I meet so many weather junkies than those working for wineries. At the core we’re farmers and weather matters. A lot. It drives hundreds of decisions per year, especially during harvest. It’s been a long time since I saw a forecast miss by this much, and never before has a missed forecast mattered so much. Take that, fire.

Erich says the peak gust anywhere in the hills above the Sonoma square was 6 mph. That said, he informs me that winds are forecast to blow from the Northeast on Friday night (in 1 1/2 days) at 30 to 50 mph.  My first thought is we’ll see - although all of my major Internet weather sources are right in line with each other on their predictions. Erich notes the firefighters have two days with favorable weather conditions to get an upper hand before the warm, strong winds return – from the same direction as the first night firestorm.


Image: The ground and aerial attacks on these firestorms is like nothing we've ever seen. Over 11,000 firefighters on the front lines, not just from California, but from far away as Australia. The aerial deployment included 37 helicopters and 36 planes — both tankers and spotter planes — assigned to a complex of fires located largely in Sonoma and Napa counties, as well as Lake and Mendocino counties, Cal Fire officials said. The Press Democrat captured this photo of a plane working to dampen the Tubbs Fire. 


Containment is still at 0% on any of the 17 fires. Or 21 fires, depending on who is doing the counting. Burned acres are added in the 20k to 30k range per day. There are now 8,000 firefighters, 700 fire trucks and nearly 100 aircraft. And 0% containment. It’s unfathomable that with that level of resources, NO measureable impact on containment has been made. Zip. Zero. The slow moving train wreck moves on. And on.

I’m out of Menlo Park as fast as I can dress. I grab a coffee and drive the 80 miles back to Sonoma. My suitcase never even made it out of my packed full truck, along with my toothbrush. It was the right call to evacuate last night, but I’m just not comfortable being out of Sonoma. I’m a local Sonoma business owner, and it’s where I belong. It’s where I can manage and monitor and help those who proactively stayed or didn’t have the option to leave.


Image: This is from the Cal Fire Instagram page. It shows one of their nearly 100 aircraft that are actively fighting these fires. We've seen the helicopters, we've seen the planes, and we've seen the fire, smoke and ash. This is surreal. 

Back at the office and it’s very quiet in town. Smoky, but quiet, and the wind is dead calm. I’m the only one in the office, and it’s time to check in with all of my employees who are now scattered all over the Bay Area from Sacramento to Rio Vista to Inverness. At the winery we are still having access issues and the authorities are tightening the access points dramatically. Our wine team discovers a hole in the fence behind the facility, and Randy, Matt and Whitney continue the work on our wines until the sunset curfew kicks in.


Image: This is the Sojourn winemaking team's "access point" to stealthly get into the winery to check on our ferments, perform punchdowns and other necessary tasks to ensure that the 2017 vintage will be as spectacular as the past 5 years.  


Friday, October 13th

Day 5. Friday is sortie day. The fires are coming closer to downtown Sonoma. CalFire, in charge of the overall disaster resource management decisions (planes, firetrucks, crews), has had enough and decides to move the cavalry into the hills surrounding town. Planes and helicopters start dropping fire retardant and water, bombarding the hills above our town and flying mission after mission. Maybe 60+. Or 100+. All day. Finally. DC-10’s and even the one 747 tanker take their turns at their targeted drop zones ahead of the forecasted high winds.


Image: Helicopters are a key part of the aerial attack in saving homes. This image taken by the San Jose Mercury News trying to put out fires in the heavily populated city of Santa Rosa.

As evening approaches, town is eerily calm. Empty. Kind of creepy and ominous.


Image: The Sonma town square as evening approaches. The mood is dark, quiet and somber. The streets are mostly empty. Image source: San Jose Mercury News. 

I get together for an easy dinner at my friend Don’s house. We drink a 2001 village Dujac Morey and 2005 village Dugat Gevrey. They taste fine. It feels like it would be disrespectful to drink anything better given that we are under siege. Don’s wife advises us to put the wine opener away in case we need to evacuate in the middle of the night. It's probably good advice. 


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Sonoma & Napa Firestorms: A First Person Account, Day 3

Posted by Craig Haserot on Oct 19, 2017 5:54:09 PM

Wednesday, October 11th

Day 3. It’s Wednesday morning, and we wake up to a blanket of fog mixed with heavy smoke hovering over the town of Sonoma. Last night Ellen and I drove up Highway 12 as far as the road block going into Glen Ellen, where we witnessed rivers of flame that looked like lava coming down the canyon behind Hamel Family Winery. We know the fires are still raging to the north and east from TV/Internet but we can’t see a thing. The devil is out there, we just can’t see him at the moment. Misinformation and rumors are still rampant, so there is something to be said for seeing the fire yourself. Not anytime soon, though. Visibility is probably 1000 feet, and masks are required to go outside.


Image: NASA puts out an image on their Instagram account that shows the smoke trail from space. It can be seen as far down as San Diego! Source: NASA. 

A New York Times article breaks on how the wildfires will take a toll on wine country tourism. Yeah, no kidding Sherlock. I start to think about the future impact to Sojourn. No customers coming to Sojourn in the near to medium term is a really bad business thought, but it’s a reality I better start to think about and soon. October, in the middle of harvest is traditionally our busiest month of the year in the Sojourn Tasting Salon. Ouch. That sucks.

Fire maps dominate my Internet surfing along with weather conditions. They are calling for 30+ mph winds tonight from the north, and we are considering vacating town. There are fires up on Moon Mountain Road, Cavedale Road and Norrbom Road to the north, and above the Gun Bun and Scribe wineries to the east. Nice. Semi-surrounded. We have reasonably good intel that authorities are considering evacuating the entire town of Sonoma later today. Ellen’s car and my pickup truck are packed; we’re just sizing up if and when to vacate and where.


Image: Firemap from Sonoma County showing the acreage of each of these fires. These maps are constantly refreshed, as we watch to see how close the red outline gets to us. 

I am up in Santa Rosa with a plan of trying to access the winery, still behind barricades now manned by National Guardsmen with big guns. We decide to close the office in Sonoma and send everyone home. What to pack? Computers, employee records, contracts, licensing info. Check. Grab personal items from desks.

Lots of folks in Sonoma have already left town, and it’s time to get the kids out too. Ellen heads to Menlo Park to one of her friend’s houses, while I stay behind to quarterback operations from Sonoma this afternoon. As the afternoon wears on, the fog lifts and we can see a giant nuclear bomb style mushroom cloud rising straight up from behind the town square. Wow I think, as I snap a quick photo.


Image: Looking north up 1st Street West in the town of Sonoma. It is definitely time to leave!

Everyone is glued to their phone because we are now all subscribed to Nixle Alerts, which send us text messages seemingly every 30 minutes about a new evacuation order.   These come in two formats: Advisory, which is “keep a bag packed and be ready to go at any point,” and Mandatory, which is “time to go right now.” If you do leave and get outside of mandatory evacuation zone lines you can’t get back in. At 6:30 pm authorities issue an advisory evacuation for everything north of the Sonoma Square. Some areas north and northeast of town are already under mandatory evacuation orders.


Image: It's not just the people that have to be evacuated, it is also the animals. We live in farm country afterall. Whether it is a pet, livestock or your business, there is no great solution for the animals. Makeshift animal shelters are popping up at fairgrounds all around the county. 

Sonoma County Sheriff vehicles are driving through town with bullhorns blaring, “Fire is coming. Time to leave now.” Would authorities really let the town of Sonoma burn? The historic square? Many folks in town are flood watering their landscaping, raking up loose leaves and setting up elaborate sprinkler systems on their roofs to run 7x24 ahead of the forecasted winds and fires on the move. What should my strategy be? I quickly decide that time is money and this is why I have insurance. It’s just a house; if it burns I’ll deal with it later.


Image: Firefighters assess the current state of the Nuns Fire and strategize about their next move. Source: Press Democrat.

I decide to wait out the traffic jams watching Waze/Google Maps and leave just after 8pm to join Ellen in Menlo Park. As I turn right on Highway 29 headed south I see massive fires up on the hills straight to the East above the Coomsville Napa neighborhood. Once in Menlo Park I have 12 Explorer windows open on my computer to monitor wind conditions all over wine country. The major forecasted wind is delayed, I fall asleep in a chair around midnight feeling helpless and guilty for leaving Sonoma...

Oh shit.jpg

Image: This is an image that I have deemed the "Oh Sh@t" photo. Fires seemingly all around. 

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Topics: wine, sonomafire, napafire, napastrong, sonomastrong, pinot noir, sonoma wine, sojourn cellars, sojourn, winery, sonoma coast

Sonoma & Napa Firestorms: A First Person Account, Day 2

Posted by Craig Haserot on Oct 18, 2017 11:26:33 AM

Tuesday, October 10th

The lack of real information and hard facts is staggering.  Add to that the quantity of misinformation flowing freely, much of it circulated through social media.  But even professional news organizations simply get it wrong.  I know that in the middle of a disaster facts are hard to come by, as first responders and government officials are too busy to provide much hard information.  But the speed with which you can spread bad information on social media these days is crazy.


Image: Arial view of Coffey Park in Santa Rosa showing the complete devastation of this neighborhood. A neighborhood that is mere blocks away from the winery. Source: ABC7 News.  

A few examples from the first 24 hours:

1. Nicholson Ranch Winery burned to the ground (San Jose Mercury News).  Then I get sent a pic.  Nope.  It’s still standing.  But the historic Stornetta Dairy buildings across the street are gutted.

2. Gundlach Bundschu Winery – same bad rumor.  It’s OK, but Jim and Nancy Bundschu did lose their personal residence.

3. Downtown Glen Ellen is rubble.  Nope.  All standing, but there are many residences close by that burned, especially to the north of town.

And on and on and on.  I realize that when I hear something I really need to ask, “Did you see this personally?  Do you have a picture?”


Image: The historic Stornetta Dairy ablaze in the early morning hours Monday. Source: SF Gate. 


Image: The scene once day broke and we could see the damage. This was taken on Highway 121 at Napa Road. Off on the right is what used to be the Stornetta Dairy. It was completely destroyed. That's the Nicholsen Ranch Winery in the background, vineyard in the foreground.

Even with all the swirling rumors, the first aerial photos are coming in, and the devastation is surreal.  We get first reports of families we know who have lost their homes.  How could so much damage be inflicted in such a short period of time?  How did this start again?


Image: The hills of Sonoma Valley engulfed with flames in Glen Ellen. Image from The News Trend.

Since yesterday, we learned that the winery facility narrowly escaped total incineration.  There is no power there, but we have ordered up a generator to be delivered.  No power = no winery = no wine.  The problem in receiving the generator may be access.  Since we make our wine on Coffey Lane just a few blocks from the devastated Coffey Park neighborhood, authorities have restricted access.  The authorities are tightly controlling access points since there are folks reported to be missing in the Coffey Park neighborhood.  They are sending in forensic teams.

Coffey Park Image with Vinify in Lower Right from NYT Oct 13 2017.jpg

Image: The building circled in red represents our Sojourn Cellars winemaking facility in Santa Rosa in the Coffey Park neighborhood where 400+ houses were destroyed. Scanned from the New York Times newspaper. 

First piece of good news – the generator shows up this afternoon.  We can get the presses cranked up and get some wine out of tanks and barreled down.  If we can get in…

I have all of my Sojourn employees send me an email with their location and status.  Everyone is still Ok.  For now.


Image: Taken from Highway 12 in Sonoma in Glen Ellen. 


Image: Self portrait on Highway 12 in Glen Ellen, the road was closed due to the fires. The smoke was so incredibly dense it was hard to see and breathe. 


Image: Nicholson Ranch Winery somehow survives most of the fire, but this building on their property was not as fortunate. When we drove by Tuesday, we were surpised to see the main structure standing, since we'd heard so many reports that it was completely destroyed. Source: SF Gate. 

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Sonoma & Napa Firestorms: A First Person Account, Day 1

Posted by Craig Haserot on Oct 16, 2017 12:49:42 PM

Monday, October 8th

I’m sound asleep and my phone rings at exactly 3:00 am Monday from the kitchen where it is plugged in. You know that horrible feeling many of us have when the phone rings in the middle of the night – a family member must have a problem. A serious problem.

I miss the call before it goes into voicemail. The call is from Elias, my friend and trainer. Hum, I think, this must be a butt dial and I go back to bed. There is a faint smell of smoke in the air, but I’m half asleep and don’t think anything of it. The phone rings again at 3:36am and I miss it again. It’s Elias again. But we’re not training until 7am I think. Something doesn’t make sense so I decide to call him back. He calmly tells me to look out the window and turn on Channel 7. Ellen is now up and we quickly walk to the front door. Upon opening the door a rush of smoke enters the house, and the sky is glowing red in multiple directions. The fires don’t seem too close but who really knows. We race to the TV.


Image: Burning hills in Sonoma near vineyards from the Partrick fire. The entire sky was orange and gray. 

It’s fairly early on in the disaster and we are glued standing in front of the TV.  They are evacuating and trying to save the large Kaiser Permanente hospital in Santa Rosa. The parking lot is on fire and there are fires all around it, bushes, trees, etc. It looks like war, or what I envision war to look like. It dawns on me that the hospital is right on the 101 Freeway. How on earth can there be a problem here I think? The broadcast bounces around to Calistoga, Atlas Peak, and the Coffey Park neighborhood where 400+ homes have been incinerated in about 90 minutes. I Google where this location is. Exactly 5 blocks from the business park where we make our wine. Ouch.

My nervousness moves quickly to panic. In addition to not knowing what the hell was going on anywhere, I think about the red glow in the sky ringing my house and the rumors of devastation in Glen Ellen and Kenwood. The only thing I know for sure is that my own house and neighborhood are not burning at the moment. My mind turns to Sojourn and the 200 tons of fruit we have already brought in this year. What are the ramifications for Sojourn if there was a total wine loss? What are the details of my insurance policy again, you know the one I signed up for 9 years ago? I have no idea.  What would happen if we had a total wine loss and had to skip a vintage? What about our employees? It’s reported that there are no fatalities yet, but this seems very unlikely. Did anyone die in the Coffey Park fire? It’s hard to fathom that someone didn’t perish …


Image: The Hilton Sonoma Wine Country in Santa Rosa near Coffey Park was entirely engulfed in flames early Monday morning. The hotel was completely destroyed. Source: ABC7.

I call Erich Bradley (Sojourn Winemaker), he’s up and online. He tells me to get a Twitter account asap because the fires are very fast moving and that’s the best source of information. We chat about our winery location relative to the fires. He’s nervous too. The winds start to die down at 6am and this is comforting. Sort of I guess.

We spend most of Monday glued to the TV, Internet and our phones. What is unfolding is staggering. After the shock and awe firestorm on Sunday night/Monday early am the fires are now more like a slow moving train wreck. So what should I be doing now? Contact all employees, make sure they are safe. Check. Tell family we are Ok for now. Check. Go get breathing masks because of the heavy smoke from the fire. Check.


Image: Fires consumed much of the hills around Gundlach Bundschu winery in Southern Sonoma County. The winery remarkably is ok.

Click here to read Sonoma & Napa Firestorms: A First Person Account, Day 2

Topics: wine, sonomafire, napafire, napastrong, sonomastrong, pinot noir, sonoma wine, sojourn cellars, sojourn, winery, sonoma coast

Welcome to the Sojourn Cellars Firestorm Blog

Read Sojourn Founder Craig Haserot's periodic updates on the historic, devastating fires sweeping Sonoma and Napa Counties. Feel free to comment and ask questions below. Thank you for your continued support.

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