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What One Family Lost in the Fires

And what they didn't.

A Buddha statue remains in the burned-out backyard of the author’s Kenwood home.


This is one of many stories about the North Bay fires published in the December issue of San Francisco. To read the rest, click here.

On summer nights, under a lacy canopy of leaves, I would often lean back in the cool Sonoma air and look up at the stars popping against the ebony sky. With the warm water of the hot tub lapping around me, I always felt small and alive. Acorns would drop onto the deck and the bushes would rustle with unidentifiable sounds of the country. Buddha would sit as always, on the edge of the garden, emanating peace and grace.

I would dry myself off, naked for all the woodland creatures to see, and tiptoe, shivering, across the deck to the house. Everyone would be asleep, and after pulling on my PJs, I would fl op onto my reading chair in the great room. In the corner sat my grandmother’s baby grand piano, a recent inheritance. I wished my parents could have seen their granddaughter’s hands flying up and down the keys to “Flight of the Bumblebee”; they would have been proud.

Sleep came easily in Kenwood, where my husband and I spent our weekends for more than two decades. I’d slide under the downy comforter next to Jerry, gently snoring, and hike up the window for a blast of cold air. Jerry bought the two-and-a-half-acre property in 1994 after coming west for a biotech job. The Kenwood house was a declaration of sorts, a putting down of West Coast roots to create something all his own. It might have been his first true love.

The red pepper sculpture, in happier days.

Shortly after he took ownership, a black cat with a white smudge on his nose showed up on the back deck. He’d belonged to the previous tenants, who’d rescued him from the Oakland Hills fire. His name was Smokey. After two failed attempts at returning him, Smokey was once again a rightful resident of Schultz Road.

The house soon became central to our lives. Jerry, ever the scientist, experimented with vegetable gardens and hydrangea plants and fiddled with the irrigation. We celebrated our wedding at the nearby Atwood Ranch and had everyone over for breakfast under our oak trees the morning after. We let our babies crawl around the big carpeted room and pat at puddles outside in the December rain. We shared laughs and secrets with family and friends over bottles of cabernet on the back deck, and grilled hot dogs for kids squirming at the picnic table.

Most summers, we had a Fourth of July party. We’d drive over the hill through old Val Rossi’s vineyard into the little town of Kenwood for the annual parade. Then we’d head back to the house for an afternoon of eating and drinking, catching frogs in the creek, and throwing horseshoes in the front yard. A bright-red, 12-foot-long metal pepper sat on our hillside, a sculpture Jerry created in a welding class, impervious to climbing toddlers or wayward baseballs. One year when we were feeling flush, we hired the Billy Boys, a honky-tonk bluegrass quartet, who set up in our long driveway and played “Take It Easy” on their fiddles.

During the week, we lived in San Francisco. It was there that I first smelled the smoke. I pushed it aside, told myself it was a neighbor having a barbecue on a beautiful holiday weekend. Jerry had left Kenwood the day before to take his friends to the airport, and we had stayed put in the city. But the smoke lingered, and I finally dialed the fire department. They told me it was a fire in Napa, not to worry. I pictured a brush fi re on a hillside, manageable. I turned out the light and went to sleep. As I slept, innocently, the fire, now rampaging far and wide, snaked up another hillside, this one in Kenwood, gobbling trees, barns, cars, and houses in its ravenous path.

Buzz. 2:36 a.m.

I groped for my phone, adjusting my eyes. It was a text from MH, my friend since the eighth grade. “Suz, intense smoke woke us up an hour ago. Looks like fire raging in Calistoga, Napa, and Santa Rosa. Evacuated Silverado. Hoping Kenwood safe. XO.” The message registered faintly in my fog, and I returned to sleep.

Buzz. 3:14 a.m. Suzann. “Suze—you’re not in Kenwood, are you? Thinking about you guys.”

Buzz. 4:38 a.m. Jenny. “Hey, Suz, Woke up to news of terrible fires in CA. Hope all is ok.” Buzz. 6:50 a.m. Steve. “Hi Susie…hope Kenwood is still okay. Fires look awful.” I rooted around for clothes and turned on the TV, simultaneously scrolling on my phone for updates.

For two days, I watched in shock as entire neighborhoods were destroyed, lives lost, possessions incinerated. A pit settled in the bottom of my stomach. I texted and emailed friends and walked in circles. Suzann finally called with the news. “It’s gone. I’m so sorry.” She sent a photo taken by some friends who knew about the house with the pepper. My reaction was visceral and swift, like I’d taken a sucker punch to the gut. There was a faint outline of the chimney, but otherwise it was empty where the house had been. The shed, the garage, and my husband’s beloved 1974 Chevy truck were gone. The black mailbox had melted, its wooden post bent horizontally, as if trying with all its might to fight back and stay erect. Everything else was ash.

We know, of course, that others have it much worse than us. We have a roof over our heads, an insurance policy, jobs, and, most important, each other. It doesn’t make looking at that photo any easier.

The last time I was in Kenwood, a few weeks ago, I unpacked the rest of my parents’ boxes. I displayed my mother’s antique boot pull and folded her Christmas linens. I leafed through her drawing pad, marveling at her talent with charcoal. I flipped through the album I had made for Jerry’s surprise 50th birthday party, held in a bowling alley. There were hula hoops and ’50s costumes and beehive hairdos. I’m grateful I had that time with those treasures, those memories.

Above the wood-burning stove was a painting of Jack London, the writer and adventurer who built a ranch in nearby Glen Ellen. He is astride his chestnut mare looking out over the Valley of the Moon. At the bottom it reads:

I ride out over my beautiful ranch. Between my legs is a beautiful horse. The air is wine. The grapes on a score of rolling hills are red with autumn flame. Across Sonoma Mountain wisps of sea fog are stealing. The afternoon sun smoulders in the drowsy sky. I have everything to make me glad I am alive. —Jack London, 1913

I used to love all that this painting symbolized. One day soon, I hope, I will again.

 

Originally published in the December issue of San Francisco 

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