During this season of gratitude, toasts around the county include thanks for what was saved from the Kincade Fire.

Words of praise are being offered to first responders, who with brilliant strategy, intelligence and raw bravery prevented these firestorms from having a far more devastating outcome. With 77,758 acres burned, 374 structures destroyed and 190,000 people evacuated, the enormity of what we experienced in these past months of fire, evacuation and now in returning home to re-engage in normal lives is stunning.

Marie Gewirtz

Marie Gewirtz

Wednesday night when the fires began, I was with friends on a Healdsburg ridge facing the Alexander Valley. At 9:30 p.m., from their deck on a clear, star-filled autumn evening a small red glow was barely noticeable. By 10:15 p.m., we panicked and began calling to awaken friends, winegrowers and vintners. 

What we painfully learned from the 2017 fires is that it can’t be assumed that people are aware of an oncoming firestorm. This time we were ready and took action.

But the winds were raging and the flashing lights of fire trucks in the distance grew in number. We knew our friends at Robert Young Vineyards were in the line of fire. This family whose ancestors settled on this Alexander Valley land in 1858 became partners with the fire fighters. Their collective efforts preserved their vineyards and winery. In the coming days, Alexander Valley wineries of Soda Rock, Skipstone and Fieldstone were not as fortunate. 

As winds changed and fires raged on, most of Sonoma County—with the exceptions of our gateway cities of Petaluma and Cloverdale—were evacuated. An evacuation this inclusive and expedient is unprecedented. The eight-hour evacuation for Healdsburg has become a new national model, replacing the 72-hour norm for hurricanes and other natural disasters throughout the country. 

Reading news at all hours of the day and night accurately reported by political leaders and our dedicated journalists, we were able to stay informed in these times of peril while evacuated. Our sense of helplessness was countered by learning crucial details. This greatly helped to dampen fear while being far away, as our beloved Sonoma County was in flames. 

In a November wrap up meeting, organized by the Fitch Mountain Association, first responders applauded our community for helping them by so efficiently evacuating. This praise was met with one-after-another standing ovations to honor them. 

To think that not one life was lost in the Kincade firestorm, and entire cities were saved. The collaborative efforts and depth of strategy necessary to accomplish this major feat are rare. It brings new meaning to “Sonoma Strong,” securing a bond deeper than we’ve ever experienced as a community. 

I finally ventured to Calistoga via Highway 128. This drive through wine country after the Kincade fires was a struggle, navigating the windy road though a stream of tears. This section of Sonoma County wine country is now thousands upon thousands of acres unrecognizably charred. 

Today, as kindergarten through sixth grade students of the Alexander Valley School performed their ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Holiday’ show, tears returned. This time they came from a happy place. These same children, merely eight weeks prior, were faced with the very real possibility of losing their school. Used as a staging area by valiant fire fighters, the school was saved. Many of the assembled parents, grandparents and friends lost their homes and returned to scorched land. Together we sat enjoying our children and precious moments of creativity in which we were all thoroughly engaged and grateful. 

Despite tragedy and extreme loss from the Kincade fires, an old fashioned sense of respect, appreciation and humility prevails. These qualities define a small farming community. It is a rare gift we share in Sonoma County.

As we bid adieu to 2019 and welcome a new decade, let’s raise a glass to all that was saved and all that was gained by working together. Also, in appreciation of the silent first responders: the 64,000 acres of Sonoma County vineyards that served as natural firebreaks. These vineyards provided control lines, which slowed the path of raging fire.

Wishing you a Happy New Year. In 2020 let’s give more of ourselves to our wonderful communities, as we count our many blessings. Choose a local non-profit that speaks to your talents and get or stay involved.


Marie Gewirtz represents wine and food clients with marketing and communications in Sonoma County and throughout the world. She can be reached at winewords@sonomawest.com.

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