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Evacuations, ash and fear in the Sonoma Valley


On a Wednesday when four fires menaced Sonoma Valley communities socked in by noxious yellow smoke, thousands of residents fretted a fateful decision: Should I stay or should I go?

The fires burned across nearly 42 square miles in the lush, rolling landscape, impacting Oakmont south through the Valley of the Moon, to Agua Caliente and Boyes Hot Springs and into Sonoma, estates and vineyards as well as the working class communities, all home to thousands of people, many employed by the prized Sonoma and Napa wine industry.

Entire streets in Glen Ellen and Kenwood had been scorched to the ground since the fires started Sunday night. Since then, fire in Trione-Annadel State Park burned toward Oakmont, destroying at least two homes. Thousands of households in Agua Caliente and Boyes Hot Springs were urged by officials to leave. Deputies drove cruisers around Sonoma Plaza with sirens, loudspeakers blaring: “The fire is on its way, get out” as ash fell from the sky.

“I’m feeling it now, this is pretty grave,” said Todd Freeman, 48, of Sonoma, who with his son loaded groceries into his truck at the Sonoma Safeway parking lot at the corner of 3rd and Napa streets. “The scale of what happened in Santa Rosa. Seeing my neighbor with the sprinkler on his roof. The tightness in my chest from breathing the air...”

And still. So many questions. What to pack? Where to go? Should we go?

In Agua Caliente, thick smoke hung in the air around families rushing from their homes to their cars, loading bags and boxes. Most wore face masks against the pollution, the dirtiest air recorded for the region the third straight day. They hosed off roofs and gathered together to debate how soon to leave.

In front of Jennifer Garrison’s childhood home on Cedar Avenue, a friend drove up and called out the window, “Are we evacuated?”

“They haven’t knocked on doors ... but it’s getting close,” said Garrison, 50, of Sonoma.

She was loading belongings into two family vehicles while her 13-year-old daughter Kaprice Kelsay hosed down the roof, the grass and bushes. Now that Garrison’s mother had been sent to Petaluma, she was helping her sister pack. Inside, photographs showing generations of family still hung on the walls. It wasn’t possible to take everything.

At the Oak Tree Apartments next to the Sonoma Valley Fire & Rescue Authority station on Agua Caliente Road, a man ran out of an apartment, frustrated by the roadblocks and carrying two boxes of ammunition. The man said he didn’t want the ammunition to cause problems for firefighters if his apartment burned.

In the city of Sonoma at the Sonoma Veterans Memorial Hall, staff and volunteers were loading buses with supplies and preparing to bring hundreds of developmentally disabled residents of the Sonoma Developmental Center who have been sheltered there to Dixon, far from the fire’s threat.

From the Sonoma Plaza, the echoes of far-off bulldozer crews cutting into the earth in the rugged oak-studded lands north of the city could be heard. The lines of dry dirt were meant to create a firebreak and stop fire from entering the city.

Sonoma City Councilwoman Amy Harrington said in areas not under mandatory evacuation, the air quality alone was reason for people to leave if possible. Harrington was with her two young daughters Wednesday in San Francisco and planned to return to Sonoma late that night.

“If you do not need to be in Sonoma, you should probably go,” Harrington said.

And thousands did. Traffic heading south out of the valley was bumper-to-bumper.

But as the gray dinginess of day darkened to night, many families remained in place, having dinner, watching the news.

The same four fires were endangering the Sonoma Valley: the 7,606-acre Nuns fire straddling Highway 12 that destroyed parts of Glen Ellen and Kenwood; the 8,202-acre Adobe fire east of Boyes Hot Springs and Agua Caliente which Wednesday merged with the 1,831-acre Norrbom fire, just north of the city of Sonoma; and the 9,523-acre Partrick fire east in Napa County.

Dispatchers announced Wednesday night over the emergency radio frequency that the National Guard officers in town were all bilingual.

By 8:20 p.m., authorities ordered a rural residential community northeast of the city — on 7th Street East and Castle Road north of Lovell Valley Road — to get out immediately.