By Lisa Grotts
It was one of the worst natural disasters in California’s history, leaving at least 42 people dead and thousands homeless. On October 8, what began as a balmy autumn Sunday ended with a firestorm engulfing neighborhoods, businesses and wineries without aim. At this writing, there were thousands of people whose homes burned down, some stationed in shelters and others living on the streets until FEMA caught up. The tragedy was an ending for many, but thanks to the bravery of the firefighters and the generosity of the community, it was also a new beginning for those who suffered from it. Meet the Cal Fire heroes and good Samaritans who banded together to contain the wine country fires and help neighbors who lost everything. The stories of bravery, kindness and compassion are endless; they could fill an entire issue of the Gazette. Here are some of them.
Valette restaurant, on Center Street in Healdsburg, is a family affair. Dustin Valette is the chef, his brother
Aaron works the front of the house, and their father, Bob, “works the crowd” nightly. The senior Valette is also a pilot, who for over 40 years has been flying Air Tanker 86 for Cal Fire. “We fought the fire from the air for 12 hours a day for eight days straight,” recalled Bob, who coordinated with Cal Fire colleagues on where to drop fire retardant. “We flew over the big holocaust and tackled the Geysers, Cloverdale, Mount St. Helena and Ukiah.” During the fires, chef Dustin prepared 400 meals a day for 10 days for exhausted firefighters, and his father helped deliver many of them.
Denise Lurton Moullé and her husband, former Chez Panisse executive chef Jean-Pierre Moullé, hosted a pop-up fundraising dinner for the Community Foundation of Sonoma in the loft of Healdsburg Sotheby’s Realtor Alain Martin-Pierret in mid-November. The cost of the dinner was $1,000 per person, and it sold out in three days. The couple own a ranch in the Chalk Hill area, where they could see and hear the flames across the ridge from their house. Wine for the benefit was donated by Vérité, the ultra-premium trophy winery of Jackson Family Wines.
Cal Fire to the Rescue
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection helps protect more than 31 million acres of California’s wild lands. In addition, they provide emergency services in 36 of the state’s 58 counties. In Napa and Sonoma Counties, firefighters and aircraft respond to more than 5,000 fires and answer more than 350,000 emergency calls every year. They were on the front lines of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.
The business of fire is strategic. Just ask Cal Fire’s Jesse Ryan, leader of Strike Team Engine No. 9341C for the Tubbs Fire. An 18-year veteran, Ryan started battling blazes in Paso Robles. In a strike team, mobilization typically involves a unit of five engines with a team leader. Strike leader Ryan and assistant Derek McTiernan were not expecting the ferocity of the Tubbs Fire. “After the 2003 fire siege in San Bernardino, I never thought I’d see a rate of fire spread like that again. When we hit 101 North and saw the devastation and the complexity of the burn, it felt like guerrilla warfare,” said Ryan, who worked 36 hours straight and was grateful for the help of the neighbors and vineyard workers. “We predict relative humidity and wind to determine how we will tackle a fire,” he told me. This is where knowledge and experience come into play. “The backfires are how we put this one out. As the leader, you need to make split decisions.” Fortunately, this seasoned veteran was the one making those decisions during this fire.
Brittany Rogers-Hanson, founder of Runawaywithme.com, a wedding- and event-planning company, is now running a different kind of event: glamping in Santa Rosa. After she and her family had 40 minutes to evacuate their home, which was destroyed in the fire, social media quickly caught up with her after she was tagged in a post. A colleague in Las Vegas offered the sleeping pods he rents out at Burning Man every September. They quickly figured out a way to ship the pods from a warehouse in Reno to Santa Rosa. At Burning Man, the pods evoke a haute-bohemian celebrity lifestyle; in Santa Rosa, they were a necessity. “Seventy-five beds doesn’t solve the entire problem,” said Rogers-Hanson, “but at least some people are off the streets with their families in a homelike setting, with new bedding and fresh towels.” Amazingly, she managed to help others following the blaze despite losing her own home and continuing to run her own business. Meanwhile, the Rogers-Hansons had set up camp in Healdsburg at the home of a family who live in Hong Kong. “If I help people less fortunate than me,” said Rogers-Hanson, “I know my own situation will work out.”
At the time, Gina Parmeter of Gina’s Boutique in Healdsburg—a mother of five who already had a lot on her plate—was partnering with a customer, Janet Verlander, on a free pop-up clothing shop for women affected by the fire. The space at 425 Healdsburg Ave. attracted displaced residents from the Coffey Park and Fountain Grove areas of Santa Rosa. “Many women need to tell their story, and our store is an intimate place for them to come,” Parmeter said. She started with her client database, soliciting “gently used” clothing to help these women get back on their feet. “One client sent 175 pounds of clothing all the way from Australia,” she marveled. Chiming in, Verlander added: “We mourn the things we lost; they were part of our rich history, but we will go forward.”
H2Hotel in Healdsburg did its part for overworked firefighters. Aziz Zhari, general manager of both H2Hotel and Hotel Healdsburg, reported: “For three weeks, they were guests at a steep discount ($90 vs. $500), and chefs from both Dry Creek Kitchen and Spoonbar cooked for them nightly as well as sending food to the fire stations.” The hotel also donated rooms to homeless families during the fires.
The Love in the Air Is Thicker Than the Smoke
Robert Vennes, a homeowner on Chalk Hill and the owner of Swan Pools, and his neighbor Eric Braun, a captain with United Airlines, were just two of the unsung heroes who assisted Cal Fire. With their knowledge of local roads and access areas, neighbors like Vennes and Braun were critical in helping the strike team find the best locations to set up fire breaks and backfires in the vast area from 128 North to Chalk Hill to Mayacamas Ridge. They drove to their neighbors’ properties multiple times a day to assess those that were closest to the Tubbs Fire as it was burning over the ridge from Calistoga. They also helped direct Cal Fire in their effort to save adjacent properties.
It began with the firefighters, but the aftermath of the disaster has taken on a life of its own. Before the fires, it was business as usual, preparing for crush and harvest celebrations. After them, there is a different feeling in the North Bay: more gratitude for what we have, more compassion for those who have suffered loss, and more appreciation for those guardians who keep watch over us every day.
Nixle, a public-safety application that keeps communities up to date with relevant emergency information, was the link between Janice Laskoski and her friend Rose Latham, both from Santa Rosa. Latham and her daughter were in Paris when they received the Nixle text about the fires, and she immediately thought of Laskoski, who lived in the Fountain Grove neighborhood. When she phoned her at 1 a.m., Laskoski said she had no electricity and wasn’t able to evacuate because she couldn’t open her garage manually. As Latham tried to calm her friend, her daughter called the Santa Rosa fire department and gave them Laskoski’s address. At the time, a fire had not been called in at Fountain Grove, which would prove to be one of the hardest-hit areas. Laskoski, who suffered burns, was rescued by Rancho Adobe Firefighters Engine No. 9161. She was taken to Sutter Santa Rosa Hospital, but it would be 24 hours before Latham and her daughter learned that Laskoski was safe. After that, they were on the first flight home.