Facing the Fires of Northern California

David Horobin
Contributor, MDI

EDITOR’S NOTE: The October 2017 Northern California wildfires were a series of deadly wildfires that started October 8, killing 44 people, burning 245,000 acres and destroying 8,900 structures. Many more lives were impacted, including the lives of men in the Western Region. 

As my teammate Doug Ernst and I were driving home from Santa Rosa after a very solemn Sunday evening Candlelight Vigil dedicated to our last hopes that Randy Listman would make it out of his coma, we were shocked by the erratic winds as we plundered through the darkness. “Mid-October and we have winds like this?” we commented. “Thank God there are no brush fires at this time of year! Can you imagine what they might do?”

That was around 9 p.m.

By 10 in Napa, the winds were howling erratically as I closed the garage door behind me. Leaves were already piled high in a corner of the garage during the few minutes it took me to drive in and close the door. As the door came to a close, another sudden gust threw even more leaves that just made it under the door. The garage was a sight to behold. Leaves everywhere!

The warmth and security of my bed beckoned, and I forgot about the wind and the leaves as my goodnight call from my girlfriend in Aptos calmed me until she said it was a windy hell down there by Santa Cruz as well. I fell into slumbers until my bedroom door burst open around midnight, and my housemate shouted at me to get out of bed and see what was going on around us. We live in a small valley in South Napa and as we looked out, we could see bright red skies all around the West and South sides of us. The electricity crashed, so there went the news and communication with the outside world.  Thankfully are cell phones were charged.

“OK, John, let’s take my car and see what the hell’s going on out there!” We took off towards Sonoma and as we crested the valley where the house is located, we were shocked at what we saw. The red sky. Hillside after hillside in flames as far as we could see. Wineries and other homes and buildings were already being engulfed in front of our eyes. We tried going further but the sheriffs were way ahead of us closing off roads. As we returned to the house discussing evacuation and possible loss of the house, the ruddy glow in the rear-view mirror got more and more intense. We slept little as we packed the essentials: pictures, computers and important papers not already in a deposit box in town.

This is where Facebook became an irreplaceable form of communication. The value of it changed for me that night. Instead of informing me of the mundane things about other people’s lives, it came alive as a literal life-saver. As news and fires spread rapidly, we began to get a perspective on the utter magnitude of what we were facing. We were hearing of fires starting all over Napa County. We heard of the Calistoga fire racing at 100 yards every 10 seconds. We heard already of dead and missing people. We heard of dozens of multi-million country club mansions in ashes. It seemed that we were surrounded by infernos and had no control over our lives. A sinking and scary feeling. We were facing the worst inferno Northern California has ever known with over 50 lives lost, dozens still missing and over 8,700 structures burned to the ground!

Our job was to bring sanity to the room, to calm the nerves in that their community design professionals were there to be of assurance and assistance.

It worked.

A day is a lifetime when you are without electricity with a business that relies on the Internet and e-mail. Susan offered me a place at her home for me to set up the office and mitigate the damage and losses. By Tuesday night I was ensconced at her place enjoying air without smoke and an office. My lungs tried recovering from the exertions of racing up and down three stories to pack the car with everything I could. That beautiful fresh sea air was a godsend!

Then reality really hit me as we turned on the late night news: subdivisions in ashes in Santa Rosa, hillsides of houses in an interminable inferno, entire office buildings and hotels razed to the ground right next to the freeway, dozens of apartment complexes with nothing left but rows of cars in the ground-floor parking and no sign of any structure that housed hundreds of people. I had no idea it had all been going on the Sonoma side of the hill until then. Hell, it’s an hour away! How did all this start at once? Dozens of separate fires, all being fueled by schizophrenic winds not seeming to know what direction they wanted to go in but causing as much destruction on the way to nowhere.

And what devastation! No pictures do the devastation its true justice. Videos get some of it but there’s nothing like seeing it for yourself. The smell, the air, the winds moving ashes like ghosts in front of your eyes. The tears, the hugs, the love, the compassion all shrouded by the ruthlessness of nature. You can smell it all.

Once I returned to Napa a few days later, I was contacted by my CPA whose house was lost in Silverado Country Club. He said, “That house you designed and built in Napa from concrete – would you come to my HOA where we lost around 65 multi-million dollar mansions and talk about how to rebuild with some common sense?”

My thoughts of being an architectural ambulance-chaser went out of the door. My community spirit kicked in. My partner and I assembled a team of different engineers, other architects and some city building officials, and we faced the biggest meeting their HOA had ever had. There was a sense of fear in the room. Panic had set in with many of them having seen their dreams and the results of lifetimes of work go up in smoke. Our job was to bring sanity to the room, to calm the nerves in that their community design professionals were there to be of assurance and assistance.

It worked.

We did not go there to get work, even though that would be nice in the future. We all held a bigger context of helping the victims get their lives back. We saw smiles reappear on some faces and a little less consternation on others. We did our part and it was appreciated.

I would never have known to, or had the courage to, step up to a role like that had it not been for knowing and learning from my men of MDI. I have learned true compassion for my fellow man, regardless of my UK upbringing to fend for myself first.

That night I slept well, knowing that we, as a team, had started the process of community recovery, yet knowing this is a long row to hoe! It will take years to fully recover, but the sense of community has engulfed us all with nature having been our common enemy and tamed for the time-being.

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