Paradise turned into Hades on Monday.

Sunday night we went to bed hearing acorns peppering our deck from the trees that surround our house. I walked out to see what was up and was met by a fierce, warm wind … something rare in Sonoma County. Still, I slept well, but the next morning as I awoke, my wife said, “There are fires all around us. We may have to evacuate.”

Thus began a surreal day.

An eerie haze and the distant sounds of sirens surrounded us, and we were coughing lightly due to pervasive smoke. The morning news told us that several fires were burning west from the Napa Valley region. Then another fire north of us near the upper, mountainous reaches of Santa Rosa and into the valley beneath. Then we were told that Glen Ellen, due east in the Valley of the Moon, as well as areas of Mayacama Mountains farther east, were aflame, fire carried on that stiff wind by embers, “some as large as briquettes.”

Our daughter, who lives near the heart of Sonoma wine country at Kenwood, called to tell us they were evacuating and would soon arrive at our house. At about that time, 8 a.m. or so, word came from friends living between Santa Rosa and Rohnert Park – a couple of miles north of the village, Penngrove, where we live — that they had been told to evacuate.

These multiple-location fires were like a coordinated attack and beleaguered firefighters seemed to be retreating on all fronts as we kept hearing that they were trying only to save lives, not to defend property, but that air tankers and helicopters would soon be coming in, as would human reinforcements from all over, to try and counterattack.

Our daughter, son-in-law and three grandchildren arrived safely in Penngrove, but there was a problem. They had been unable to corral their cats, so son-in-law Greg headed back toward the fire zone in the hope he could find them. Authorities turned him away.

Before lunch, flames in the Glen Ellen area had somehow jumped west and were wreaking havoc on Hidden Acres and Bennett Ridge, two beautiful, wooded and hilly regions where many of my Sonoma State University colleagues live. We called friends and invited them to hunker down at our house, but at the same time we began loading supplies into our van in case evacuation orders reached us.

Throughout this hectic period, a sense of unreality loomed. Bad news kept accumulating: this hotel destroyed, that historic structure gutted, one ... no, two … no, three wineries destroyed, as were Hidden Valley School, Redwood Adventist Academy, much of Cardinal Newman High School, and hundreds of homes. Meanwhile, a few miles south of the devastation, we ate lunch as usual, watered our property, and entertained our grandchildren, aware that just north people were likely dying in the fire.

At dawn on Tuesday, Greg and Alex left their children with us and drove away to see if their house had survived. It had, but it had no water or electrical services; they found their cats unharmed, though. Other friends in southeast Santa Rosa had been less fortunate.

Just as relief settles on much of the area, several Sonoma State colleagues have emailed to say that the fire, which is by no means contained, is worse today in bucolic Bennett Valley southeast of Santa Rosa and that at least one family is evacuating. Moreover, the families of several other colleagues are unaccounted for.

Our own family, meanwhile, is counting its blessings and loading our van with supplies to donate to fire victims. At the same time we’re keeping an eye on the nearby Sonoma Mountains for tell-tale plumes of smoke as winds shift, knowing, as helicopters fly above, that we are by no means immune to misfortune and that this disaster is ongoing.

Novelist and historian Gerald W. Haslam, a Garces Memorial High School graduate born in Bakersfield in 1937, is the recipient of a multitude of writing awards including the 2016 Eric Hoffer Award for Legacy Fiction for "Grace Period," the 2001 Western States Arts Federation's Fiction Award for "Straight White Male"; and the 2000 Ralph J. Gleason Award from Rolling Stone, BMI and New York University for "Workin' Man Blues." The views expressed here are his own.

(1) comment


So glad to hear from Gerry Haslam; Hoping the predicted return of Diablos/Santa Ana's doesn't materialize. Take care.
Carol Cunningham, Prof. of English Emeria, Bakersfield College

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