A brief view from the Santa Rosa fire area

When invited to join our son, daughter-in-law and infant grandson on a road trip to Calistoga, in beautiful Napa County, we didn’t hesitate. Truth be told, I jump at any opportunity to be with them, but this particular adventure was extremely pleasing.

Napa Valley, just 30 miles long and a few miles wide, was the first American Viticultural Area (AVA) to be designated in California in 1981. Only 4% of California’s wine grape harvest comes from Napa, but though small in size, is large in reputation.

This region is so plentiful I could–and might–share over several posts. Not only is this a beautiful location, but the diversity of microclimates and geography as well as Napa’s commitment to environmental regulations and stringent land use appeal to me.


The entire wine region is currently carpeted in yellow, orange and gold with mustard growing among the dormant vines.

Legend says a Franciscan missionary first spread this mustard seed, but however it first came to grace this beautiful land, it has been nurtured for the many benefits. The nematode population is suppressed by high biofumigants found in the mustard and by naturally reducing the harmful pests, the vineyards are spared dangerous chemical pesticide removal.

We enjoyed everything about our time together as a family, and also shared in the appreciation of both the beautiful vineyards and the unique aspects of the local wineries, both large and small, and as I look back to the photos I’ve taken I’m certain I will want to share much more over the next several posts.

But I want to provide an alternative view, as well. And this is where I tread lightly and I hope with sensitivity.

For many years I’ve invested a fair amount of research and reading into the history of wildfire in the western United States. The more I’ve delved into environmental science I’ve been educated to understand one thing–wildfire will always be a part of California.

But this fire was different! And that’s where my discomfort has steadily increased.

The Tubbs Fire was the most destructive wildfire in California history, burning parts of Napa, Sonoma, and Lake counties in Northern California during October 2017.

At least 22 people lost their lives. I can’t even be sure I have the most up to date information on loss of homes and structures, but in the estimate of 36,807 acres, the firestorm destroyed more than 5,640 structures, including more than 2,800 homes in the city of Santa Rosa.

We  knew we were going to pass the Santa Rosa off-ramp on our way back to Oakland, and as we saw a sign with the words, “From the Ashes We Will Rise,” we made the decision that we would spend a few minutes to see what the city was experiencing five months later.

I mentioned that this fire, despite my acceptance of wildfire as a part of California’s ecology, created greater discomfort.

The winds were extreme and block after block after block of homes in Santa Rosa went up in minutes. This fire illustrated vulnerability to homes like ours–people living in the “flat lands,” not up in the foothills. We, too, are surrounded by 100 year-old trees with large canopies connecting between properties.

I’ve never felt vulnerable to a wildfire–until I monitored Santa Rosa.

I knew we were in one fire area when I saw the remains of the Fountain Grove Inn Hotel. I had read the story of the evacuation and destruction of this lovely hotel and restaurant. 

I don’t know what I expected to see. I had mentioned to Jay that if people were working on their properties or there was evidence of work being done, then we didn’t want to be insensitive. We would quickly turn the car around. I didn’t want to be intrusive.


I wasn’t prepared. The only sound we heard was birds. One street was lined with empty lots and “For Sale” signs. I truly fought with tears thinking of the lives that have been completely disrupted. People? There were no people, of course!

These few photos represent one small area. We drove through another perched high above a beautiful, untouched and now deserted, golf course. No homes remained.

It was sobering and I won’t soon forget the experience.

I think of the thousands of uprooted people scrambling to recover their lives.

The state of California was in the headlines this week as the focus of the Attorney General’s ire. If he’d like to scold us and bring suit, all I can say is, “Ah! Politics!”

But California is populated with people struggling to live just like people  everywhere. This is a state with a huge housing shortage, and construction and mortgage costs are sky-high.

What do  you do with a lot where most of your equity just went up in smoke? Where do you go and how do you live while you wait the months or even years to get your insurance and financial figures straight.

We love this part of the state, and I will soon share from some of the more spectacular views, like the Coppola Winery in all its finest. But when you hear a story about California, maybe remember the city of Santa Rosa.




49 thoughts on “A brief view from the Santa Rosa fire area

    • I can’t actually say that I was formerly very familiar with Santa Rosa. It does seem to be a very nice little town nestled in between some of my truly favorite places to visit! I think in part what most moved me was the scope of absolute destruction. We didn’t even venture very far and we could see where hundreds of the homes had once stood. It is going to be years before these neighborhoods can really rebuild. Once again we will be witness to the resiliency in people, and that always inspires me! 🙂

  1. Hi Debra. Remember, even though I claim Brooklyn as my birth place and New Orleans as my home, I grew up in California. I was raised in Southern California and went to college at SJSU. Both the north and south were my playgrounds.

    I left California in 1992 with a short return in 1999. While I’ve returned for work and sometimes play, I’ve never thought about living there again.


    Everytime I go to the places that I used to go, they are more and more crowded. My sister, who lives in Aptos, says that that part of the coast is so built out that you can’t build anything new unless you tear something down.

    You know where I’m headed with this. You are right. Wildfires will always be a part of California’s history. But, now there are so many people living on the edges of wildfire country that they will lose their homes if and when a wildfire erupts. Couple that with climate change and heavy rain and drought cycles and you have certain disaster every few years.

    The same thing is happening down here in reverse. No wildfires, but 100 year storms are occurring every 1-3 years. Work those numbers and 500 year storms likely will pass this way every 10-25 years.

    By the way, the trick to photographing in disaster zones as people are rebuilding is to get out and talk to them. Usually, they want to tell their story. I’ve found not only will they let you photograph what is left of their homes, but if you ask they’ll let you photograph them. I did that in the Lower 9th Ward many times. Yeah, I know. It takes a certain mindset. 🙂

    • I really appreciate your comment, Ray. It is absolutely true that high density population in this state is proving to be an even greater challenge and housing subdivisions are popping up in areas that once would have been considered entirely prohibitive. I scratch my head trying to understand how we can continue to absorb more and more people. Our resources beyond land itself are threatened–especially water!

      And I haven’t statistically followed the increase in “100 year storms,” but the global changes in our weather patterns are frightening. Hurricanes and flooding, firestorms, blizzards or rogue winds are clear indicators of climate change, I believe, and I’m at times desperate in my frustration that we’ve somehow yet failed as a nation to acknowledge the science. I feel like I can look out my front door at attest to the validity.

      I really do thank you for sharing your thoughts about approaching someone and letting them tell me their story. It makes sense, yet it never would have occurred to me. I was so afraid of looking at someone like they were a curiosity, which was so far from what I was really thinking. Had I seen someone I would have felt like looking away, and yet I can see how correct you are. It would have been an opportunity to connect with someone in their loss and to have let them tell me how they were doing. You’ve really given me something to think about here. Thank you!

  2. Thanks for sharing this very sobering trip to Santa Rosa. We recently drove through the Thomas fire (largest in CA history) near Ojai. The fear and sadness still hangs in the air.

    Interesting to read Ray Laskowitz’s comment that survivors of tragedies are ready to share their stories with anyone who is willing to listen.

    Congratulations on your new grandson 🙂

    • These fires have been absolutely awful, haven’t they, Rosie? I was driving through Malibu Canyon the other day and thinking about past fires in the area, and simply aware that California’s geography, as much as climate itself, leaves us so vulnerable. Mountains and canyons are just the perfect portal with our dry and windy conditions. The Thomas Fire area hadn’t burned in a long time…but it was inevitable!

      Ray’s comments were very helpful, weren’t they? I wouldn’t have even thought about the positive potential in stopping to speak to someone in their loss and letting them tell their story from their own very personal perspective. I am going to really take that potential to heart!

      Thank you for the “congratulations.” I wish our little guy lived nearby, but I’m glad to have him at least within a day’s drive. 🙂 He’s just now 6 months old and at such a fun age. Aren’t we glad to be grandparents in the age of at least Facetime? 🙂

    • I’m sure you’re right about the scope and number of these fires increasing, Andrew. It’s very sobering. I look forward to sharing more about Napa and the beautiful wine country and show what a beautiful part of the state it is! 🙂

  3. Viewing photos of disaster zones like this is sobering ~ like watching the destruction of floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, etc.

    I wonder, if we could see into a crystal ball, what we would see?

    • I’m glad we don’t see the future too clearly, Nancy. what does seem clear to me is that environmental change is creating greater challenges and we need to steel ourselves! I am at an age when I don’t fear for myself, but I do think of my grandchildren and I wonder what challenges they will be facing. I certainly recognize that there are disasters worldwide, but fortunately I haven’t been in the general vicinity to witness the destruction. This was a very moving experience!

    • Thank you for leaving a comment, Ronnie. The two most recent firestorms have been in areas identified as prime places to live in California. The fires are a reminder that no one is exempt from natural disasters!

  4. Debra thank you for sharing this. It’s something I can’t even pretend to absorb. We hear about the fires and devastation…then it is relegated to the back of the news shuffle and we hear little about the aftermath. What a painful time for California.

    • I realized yesterday that I continue to hear updates on a public radio station that covers Northern California. So I keep hearing the personal stories, which are very effective at continuing to pull at my heart strings. I have some beautiful and very “restful” photos from the area I’m looking forward to sharing. Maybe I can support the area best by encouraging tourism. 🙂

    • Thank you for commenting, Jacqueline. I know that there are natural disasters in every pocket of the world, but this one just happens to be close enough to home that I feel a kinship with those directly affected. Thank you for caring.

    • Thank you, Jo. I have never been through anything remotely close to what these people are experiencing, and I simply can’t imagine. I have a reverberating theme of admiring resilience in people who take the worst of situations and make new lives. I will probably follow the rebuilding of this area and I’m sure I’ll learn something about courage and character, as well! Thank you for stopping by!

  5. I think encouraging tourism is quite valid, Debra, and one doesn’t have to drive far to help — Ventura, Santa Barbara, San Diego, San Bernardino…I appreciate the reminder!

    • I have been listening to a public radio station broadcasting from the Sonoma area and heard a recent interview with a director of local tourism. We did our part–I came home with some lovely wine, too! 🙂 But that is one small part of a state that’s been strained, and I do like to think that my modest blog reminds people of how many places there are to enjoy in California. Thank you!

  6. Sobbing… So sad to see these photos. “…one thing–wildfire will always be a part of California” that is frightening. Thank you for the post, Debra, and thank you for sharing your study.

  7. I recall the fire hitting Santa Rosa. The pictures at that time were devastating, but I can’t imagine seeing it in person – even months later! I also remembering that we didn’t hesitate to donate to a charity to help victims in that area. Although this was tough for you to see, thanks for sharing.

    • Thank you, Frank. The fires were in such a beautiful area, which shouldn’t be the focus as loss anywhere is just terrible, but I guess it makes the scars more challenging to see. I often listen to the radio in the night and my public radio station shared an update on some of the survivors this week. I woke up during the story and it occurred to me that maybe I’ve been subconsciously hearing more from that area than I knew, and that’s why I have felt so tied to the story. I have seen it now and shared, and maybe in a year or so we’ll return and see the progress and be able to make a good report.

    • Thank you for stopping by, Robin. It really is a beautiful area and I’m looking forward to sharing some more from the happier side! The scars from the fires will last a long time, but I hope will heal as quickly as possible!

      • It affects us all deep in our hearts and souls, Debra. Anything on our US soil is part of us, our empathy goes out to those who lost so much, many “all” is lost. . .

  8. Thank you so much for sharing this, Debra. To have taken the time to visit Santa Rosa, then to document it here, helps many, me, further understand the horrific devastation of these fires. I also appreciated reading Ray’s comments and others chiming in for a broader perspective. You honor those who have lost so much from the fires by writing this, Debra, and I hope you will share more.

    Best wishes to you, my CA friend – and glad you got to see your new grandson.

    • Thank you, Penny, for being appreciative of the photos from Santa Rosa. It hit me later that although I was quite emotional at what I observed, five months after the fire the scene was empty, but really clean–sanitized. In a year or so I might enjoy seeing the progress, and if I do, I’ll report! 🙂

  9. Dear Debra, here in the prairie lands of the mid-West, we are not experiencing the fires of the West Coast or the northeaster’s of the East Coast. We do have drought, but no longer do we have a real winter. Kansas City had less than 10 inches of snow. The days are not as cold; nor the nights. The same in Minnesota where I lived 38 years. So it is clear to me that climate change is bringing devastation to the two coasts and droughts (I know California had an awful one a year or two ago) spread across the prairies.

    The exchange between you and Ray was enlightening. And while I thought of all those people who lost everything but their physical lives, I also thought of all the migrants in the Mediterranean area–those fleeing Syria and Africa. People who are on the move because politics or weather, greed or war have devastated their lives.

    I think Ray’s advice to get out of the car and talk to someone who has lived through all this is a piece of wisdom we could all learn. To reach out to create the Oneness that is the only thing that can heal. Peace.

    • What a thoughtful response, Dee, to connect this story to the world refugee crisis! It’s impossible to even imagine the force of numbers of people caught in civil war or starvation, or ??? The list goes on. Your sensitivity is a good reminder not to restrict our compassion to simply local concerns.

      Your comment on lack of experiencing a “real winter” in Kansas City and Minnesota is enlightening to me. I wouldn’t have known that without your statement. I see the Atlantic freezes and extrapolate those conditions to spread more broadly across the midwest, which, of course, is simply my ignorance. It’s a big concern.

      I do find it all worrisome, but I make every attempt to support agencies and efforts dedicated to environmental activism and somewhere along the way I have to shift my focus of I go “down for the count!” As always, Dee, it is simply so good to hear from you. You add so much to every communication!

  10. Very interesting post as always Debra. The nice bit first… Love those images of the Mustard growing between the Vines. Such inter-planting for protection from pests is practised by some gardeners in the UK – Marigolds between rows of Carrots helps prevent attacks by Carrot Fly!

    Sad to see the destruction after the fire. People are resilient. Many of them will find a way to return. At least your disaster is a natural event unlike our Grenfell fire which is a product of personal greed over peoples safety 😦

    Federal Law versus State Law – ouch! Through my interest in trucking I’ve discovered that CA is doing more to combat pollution and global warming than the Fed’s are 🙂 It’s amazing what you learn about state laws on YouTube videos from truckers! I hope CA is able to remain ‘friendly to all’ in the face of pressure from national government (biting my tongue here).

    If you get time you might enjoy a quick watch of a video or two from Vasily – a trucker from San Diego. His videos are definitely the sunny-side up view of the trucking world 🙂 Here’s a link – https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCHIxGwHD4nzxJFpaXIONe6g

    • I will enjoy the trucking videos, Martin. Thank you. My husband lost a nephew a year ago to Cancer. Bob was a long haul trucker who at one time traveled between California and Florida. We loved him and loved his stories from the road!

      I’m so intrigued with the idea that you know as much as you do about California and our “battle” with the Feds. LOL! That you’ve learned so much through trucker videos is such a wonderful reminder to me of how fortunate we are today to have access to each other’s lives as the world gets smaller and smaller. California is environmentally very responsive and is really under threat these days. If we were sharing a pint you wouldn’t have to “bite your tongue” with me. I’ve heard myself say things the last year so I never thought I’d say outloud. LOL!

      And as you reference the Grenfell fire…of boy yes! What a terrible loss of life. I think you’re right about resilience, but I believe it would be easier to accept loss within a natural disaster more than as a result of human negligence. I hope you have a good week, Martin.

      • I’m sorry to hear about your hubby’s nephew – Sympathy from us to you 🙂 I may only truck in a game but a couple of hours on the computer is a tiring shift. For the real truckers it’s a long day’s grind. I hope they all get home safe along with their bus and coach colleagues.

  11. Thanks for a thoughtful post Debra. I was reminded of a glorious visit to Napa many years ago and the Mondavi vineyard. Your pictures of the Santa Rosa fire aftermath are truly shocking. Extreme weather is with us but still we make little effort to change our lifestyles!

    • Sadly, I do agree with you, Philip. There’s a lot of moaning and groaning about climate change, but we don’t want to do much about changing our lifestyles. I often find myself alone with my alarm bell! You know how beautiful this area is. I like your choice of words. Glorious! 🙂

  12. I was just talking with friends about the wildfires in California. They were trying to decide if they wanted to visit this year or wait a year. Your photos showed both the lovely and the sad.

    • I’m glad you shared this comment, Karen. I hope your friends will seriously consider visiting. I don’t think they’d find the fire areas would affect their ability to visit the general vicinities.

  13. Living in such a temperate and mostly damp climate, we in the UK simply don’t see the extremes you do. We see these events on the news and feel pity and a certain relief that it’s not us, and then we forget.

    Thank you for sharing this.

  14. I had no idea of the sad extent of loss your wildfires have brought to areas of California. We in BC of course are emotionally involved every year in the fires that have caused havoc in our north country, horrible enough but nothing to match the horrors you report.
    Santa Rosa will rise again, phoenix like, from her ashes.

  15. Pingback: Visiting Napa Valley wineries…and definitely breathing lighter! – breathelighter

  16. From what I have been able to determine, the vines and wineries are coming back, the suburbs and the homes, not so much. I keep hearing that it is going to cost far more to rebuild than the insurance will cover. Many are deciding to go elsewhere, especially the elderly who don’t have the time nor the stamina to rebuild.

    • I live so far from Santa Rosa, but honestly, I think of these people and their losses frequently! I think it would be very hard to stay and rebuild after going through such horror. Thank you for sharing what you know about the area.

I always enjoy hearing from you!

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