The smell of smoke, strong yet not altogether unpleasant, did not worry me too much. I’d smelled fires before at our vacation house in rural, northeast Santa Rosa, and they were always safely contained in someone’s fireplace or far removed from us, often somewhere up in Lake County. The wind, on the other hand, was unsettling; gusty, warm and frenetic. There was something strange about it that made me uneasy and reluctant to go to bed. So I stayed up, lounging on the living room sofa with my iPhone and a glass of chardonnay, long after my two daughters and a jet-lagged friend from England had turned in for the night. My husband had left after dinner and was back home in San Francisco.
At 12:30 am, I was still awake and on my phone, trying to figure out where the increasingly thick and noxious smoke was coming from. I wasn’t able to turn up any information Googling, but saw that a friend had just posted on Facebook about smoke in San Francisco from a “fire in Napa.” A few minutes later I got a text from our house cleaner in Sebastopol: “Just heard about fire out there. Reading on it . . . hope you’re ok. Let me know,” she wrote. For the past couple of hours, I’d had a vague sense that something was not right, but now I knew in my gut we were in serious danger.
I woke up my friend and then rousted my daughters out of bed, their sleepy smiles and cheerful gingham-checked bedding incongruous with the urgency of the situation. “There’s a fire and we have to go,” I told them. “Don’t worry about your stuff, we’ll get it later. Just get in the car. Now.”
We hurried outside to the car and were alarmed to see a narrow band of yellow flames lining the top of the hillside across the road, the sky above it blood red. Cars honked their horns as they streamed out of the neighborhood on the road below our hill, and embers rained down from the sky like fireworks. As we headed down the driveway, I noticed with slight annoyance that we’d forgotten to turn off the lights and close the sliding glass doors to the family room. Even then I did not believe this was the last time I’d ever see our house.
The fire had not yet descended upon the southern half of Mark West Springs Road, so we were able to make it out of our neighborhood and onto the 101 with no problems. From the freeway farther south, we could see a large conflagration burning brightly in the hills to the east near Kenwood, one of the many other fires that ignited that night in the wine country. With the radio cranking I drove as though our lives depended upon it, my single focus getting us out of there and back to San Francisco as fast as possible. We made it home in record time, waking my husband with the news of the fire.
After several days of agonizing uncertainty, we finally received confirmation that our house was gone, it and all but two of the over 80 homes in our area incinerated by the insane monster of a firestorm dubbed the Tubbs Fire; the most destructive and one of the deadliest wildfires in the history of California. Whipping its way south from Calistoga and through our lovely neighborhood of rolling hills and spreading oaks with ferocious, wind-fueled speed, the fire was well underway when we left our house early on the morning of Monday, October 9, 2017. The video footage from our outdoor Nest camera shows that Tubbs reached our house around 12:55 am, just five minutes after we drove off. We were lucky to have made it out of there when we did.
For the first week or so after our escape, I lay awake in bed at night feeling more terrified than I’d been on the night of the fire itself. I couldn’t stop replaying our final moments at the house over and over in my head and torturing myself with the “whys” and “what ifs.” Why didn’t I receive any kind of official notification of the fire? Why wasn’t I more concerned about the smoke when I first smelled it? What if we’d brought our cat and couldn’t find him when it was time to go? What if I had misplaced my car keys? And worst of all to contemplate, what if I had gone to bed that night?
It has now been eight weeks since the fire. I’m feeling much better and no longer dwell on these kinds of questions. I don’t know why it all played out like it did; whether it was the wind, my hankering for another glass of wine, woman’s intuition or some higher power that kept me up that night. But whatever it was, I’m so grateful that I and the three souls who were with me made it out alive. And that is truly all that matters.