In the early morning hours of Sunday, August 16 through Monday, August 17, 2020 a series of highly unusual thunderstorms rolled through most of northern California. With these thunderstorms came a reported 10,849 lightning strikes that, within a 72-hour period, sparked more than 350 fires across northern California. I remember being woken real early on Sunday morning, well before sunrise, by the sound of rain and thunder; which anyone who has lived in Northern California will tell you is very unusual for August! So, I got up out of bed and staggered outside to see what all the commotion was about. As I stepped outside I witnessed a thunderstorm like never before, and I grew up in the midwest where thunderstorms seemed like a daily occurrence in the summer. It wasn’t the rain so much as the lightning, which was all over the sky and appeared lower in the sky than usual. You could actually hear the bolts of lightening strike the surrounding ground and trees often and for a prolonged period of time.
By daylight, Sunday morning, we could tell that several small brush fires had started as a result of the lightning, however they all seemed to be very distant to our ranch and didn’t appear to pose any immanent threat. The location of our ranch is in a very remote area several miles west of Healdsburg, CA and about twenty miles east of the Pacific ocean, as the crow flies. In this area there is a mix of dense forests of oaks, redwoods, and madrone trees, as well as a lot of south-facing hills covered with tall grass and scrub bush. Since many of the fires that were now burning were in this remote area including deep canyons that hadn’t burned for decades and were not easily accessible or jeopardizing densely populated areas, local fire departments and Cal Fire let the fires burn. At the time of the initial lightning strikes and fires I remember not being too concerned, as none of these fires were very large or in anyway an immanent threat; additionally the weather and wind had seemed seemed to stabilize and calm. Unfortunately, by the afternoon of Tuesday, August 18th, the winds picked up and the fires grew in size and several spot fires had now merged into one larger fire that what was called the LNU complex fire. Evacuation orders were promptly given to everyone in our area and, after seeing and hearing what had happened to so many other people in similar remote areas in California over the last few fire seasons, we didn’t hesitate to evacuate, but still thought our ranch was and would be safe, in particular our cabin. We had spent considerable amount of time over several years, clearing trees, leaf litter, and other debris from around the cabin, in addition maintained a very large setback between the cabin and forested land.
By Wednesday, August 19th (My Mother’s birthday), by all reports the fire was massive and was being pulled up through the steep canyons surrounding our property by its own updraft, scorching anything and everything in its path. Although our cabin was setback from the direct flames there was undoubtedly a significant ember cast which blew burning debris onto our wood decks, and likely some redwood duff next the cabin. This is all it took, and since we had chosen to evacuate, which I’m glad we did, there was nothing to be done, the cabin was reduced to ash and much of the amazing forest around the cabin and our vineyard was badly burned.
There were a few threads of goodness that came out of this event, one, a couple of our neighbors who were better equipped to protect their homes than us, with luck on their side, were able to save their homes. There’s a good account of the fire from one of them that can be found here … https://abc7news.com/humidity-helps-extinguish-flames-but-walbridge-fire-rages-on-/6388461/. Additionally, our shop was spared, giving us a good base to rebuild from. Lastly, I’m hoping that much of the invasive scotch broom and blackberry thickets on the property and surrounding area were scorched enough that we might have an upper hand on eradicating them in the coming years. More on the rebuild to come in future posts.