A Sobering Morning in Healdsburg


We drove up to Healdsburg yesterday to see our house for the first time since the fire. The closest we'd seen to this point was a newscast video of a burning fire that was broadcast..... from our driveway. That wasn't a great night's sleep. We've basically been hitting refresh on the browser every few minutes to learn of any news for the last three weeks.

The evacuation status changed on Friday afternoon from "mandatory" to "warning" so we were able to get past the blockade yesterday morning. It was an emotionally charged day as we checked out the house and walked the property.

This house means a lot to us. We've had many wonderful times there together, with friends, and with family and seeing just how close to ruin it came was difficult. 

We are deeply indebted to the fire crews and are working to find out the best ways to support them. What they did to save our place is amazing. They had to be surrounded by fire as they dug the trench that saved our house.

Driving in was surreal. If you didn't know there was a global pandemic underway and massive wildfires burning, through the car window you might have thought it was just another fall day in Healdsburg. Cyclists were out and about. Town square was blocked off for outdoor eating. I had to remind myself that the streets are shut down because people can't eat indoors due to COVID and that cycling was probably hard because smoke fills the air.

The TL;DR:
  • Our house survived. It's clear the fire crews saved it. The fire came within six feet of the house where we can see a trench was dug to protect the structure.
  • Our water system is completely decimated from top to bottom. We lost all five storage tanks (18k gallons) and the pressurizer. We don't know about the underground piping.
  • The land is scorched everywhere around the house. Many trees are damaged but we don't know how badly or the long term implications. The fire stayed mostly on the ground, taking out all the brush and scorching tree trunks, but never getting to the canopies, which we are told is what saved us.
  • We'll need to get an environmental review to know if any toxic ash got in to the house.
The ride up our driveway is about 3/10 of a mile. It's a long, steep, curvy ride that I always enjoy because it's like I'm entering a secret park. The drive felt pretty normal, except that I had this weird sense that something was off. I couldn't put my finger on it. There were some clear signs of charred trees but something about the landscape was catching my eye.

It was the "snow." Or what my reptilian brain was processing as snow but is, in reality, ash. The ground is covered with ash everywhere and it looks like snow. It took a little bit to process that it is September and it never snows in Healdsburg anyway.  

Climbing the last part of the drive was relieving because we could see the house standing and also disturbing as we got our first view of just how completely the fire surrounded the house.

If you look from the right angle, you would think everything is completely fine and normal.

But looking from a slightly different angel shows just how close we came. The fire completely surrounded the house on all sides. Here you can see where the trenches created by the fire crews stopped the fire from taking the house.

The county and FEMA advise everyone visiting their homes to wear N95 masks and wear protective gear, which we did. We started by walking through the house indoors. It looked fine on the surface, but we didn't spend much time there and will need to investigate more thoroughly. We are told we'll still need to have an enviro review done to make sure smoke and toxic ash aren't present.

Some trees looked fine, or mostly fine.

And some are going to need a closer look to see if they will survive.

We then set out to look at the water system. Our water comes from naturally occurring springs on the hills above the house. The water is collected in two, 5,000 gallon tanks near the springs, and then fed to three large tanks near the house, and then pressurized and treated beyond what gravity provides so I can have a nice strong shower :). In total, the water system probably spans about 4/10s of a mile from the house to the highest springs. ...And pretty much every part of it is gone or critically damaged. 

The walk up to the springs was eye opening. Years ago we cleared three acres of trees around the house to create "defensible space." The rest of our property is densely wooded and hilly. There are old logging roads from 50+ years ago that we use for hiking, and accessing the springs. The fire tore through this entire forest. 

The first stop was what we call the "secret garden." It's a little landing just above the house where we usually have some chairs and an outdoor sofa. It's completely secluded and if you look in just the right direction, everything seems almost normal, though a little unkempt.

And then you turn around and see the remains of the water equipment shed, the water pressurizer, and the bases of three, 2,500 gallon water tanks that used to be there.

You can't really see it from this angle, but the water pressure tank must have boiled because it exploded open.

From here we set out to hike up to the larger storage tanks and springs. Everywhere we looked we saw "snow" (ash) and burned out tree roots.

When we got to the larger water tanks, at first we thought they might be intact, but then got a closer look. The tanks are shot and  all the water is gone.

Heading up to the springs, the "snow" is everywhere.

 And the springs themselves are melted and covered in potentially toxic ash.

But there were silver linings everywhere. Mona's favorite log, on which she perches herself for hours to survey and hunt, is charred but intact.

...and miraculously the "picnic table in nowhere" made it unscathed as well.

We have a long and difficult rebuild ahead to get water back, electricity turned on, toxicity and other hazards cleared. BUT - no one was hurt at our house, the fire is contained, and we've had tremendous support from friends, family, and the local community. 

We'll be doing our best to provide support to the local fire teams as well as the people near us who didn't fare as well.